Just as the V2 rocket silently hurtles toward the L.A. movie theater in the concluding pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, so Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice hurtles toward movie theaters this fall. This will be the first Pynchon novel adapted for the screen and anticipation is high. To add even more sleepless nights of expectation the director of this adaptation is none other than the swoon inducing, master of tension, cryptic-auteur P.T. Anderson. For Pynchon nerds and cinephiles alike this is an event beyond reckoning.
But an event that inspires a certain amount of trepidation amongst fans, wondering: will the movie be faithful to the book? A common enough question that precedes any well loved novel’s adaptation to the screen, but one making it sound as if the book and movie were in a monogamous relationship, only the movie might want to sleep around a bit. Still this brand of ‘fidelity criticism’ (as it is referred too in ‘adaptation theory’) is largely inevitable to those who have read and love the book: It is impossible not to compare the two. Will Anderson’s Inherent Vice remain true to Pynchon’s? According to the preview it does look rather Pynchony.
The problem with that inquiry as any post-structural film theorist will let you know, is that trueness, in the sense of square, parallel, and dead center, is a particularly tricky claim to make these days. Is there a true and essential reading of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice? And can that reading be reproduced in an audiovisual manner without diminishing it? These are questions that have been hotly debated and contested. Whole books have been written in the attempt to debunk fidelity criticism. But suffice it to say for today’s purposes, that Inherent Vice the movie, because it has been adapted from a book that I have read and love, will be hard to see objectively.
The recent Hobbit movies make a fine example of this dilemma. I count the book The Hobbit as one of my favorite books. What a pity then that there exists this series of movies called The Hobbit, having many of the same characters and some of the same story but lacking all imagination, narrative economy, whimsy, humor, pathos, and brevity. Allow me to be blunt: the Hobbit movies are anathema, a perverse transgression against the sanctity of the book. And Peter Jackson is the antichrist.
Well. It is exactly this kind of criticism that is invalid. Invalid because A) the book The Hobbit is best at being itself and so judged by the standards of fidelity any reproduction must necessarily fall short of the mark. If anything, a movie that one accepts as being “true” to its source is one that tricks you into thinking so, slyly replacing your mental depiction of the novel with its own far more immediate and bewitching audiovisual images.
And B) evaluating The Hobbit trilogy based on its relationship to one source text alone “impoverishes the film’s intertextuality,” as Chris Orr has it. (Orr, Christopher. “The Discourse on Adaptation.” Wide Angle 6.2 (1984): 72-6.) What this means is that there is a vast network of allusions and source material (texts) that embodies and inhabits Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. It does not spring fully formed from the book The Hobbit, but from a great variety of texts such as The Lord of The Rings movie trilogy, the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, Zelda,The Seven Samurai, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, The Thirteenth Warrior, The World of Warcraft, Crash Bandicoot and so forth and so on; the list of precursors is essentially endless. To focus on just one of them, a book called The Hobbit, (itself a network of allusions and references) is to occlude much of the significance of the movies.
Indeed, the basic intertextuality of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is one that provokes the claim that the book in itself is a loose adaptation of the film A Long Goodbye by Robert Altman, (an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name). The Big Lewbowski is also hanging around not too far away looking suspicious.
To quote from Pynchon himself in Gravity’s Rainbow, “This is not disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into.” So P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice cannot be systematically disentangled from Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, but nor should it be judged in comparison to it. One should evaluate Inherent Vice the movie, on its own merits as a film, while hopefully not getting too distracted by all the love affairs it’s having.