When people talk about the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero — and it's rare that they still do — they tend to focus on Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of the heroin-addicted Julian, whose onscreen troubles mirrored (and, according to Downey himself, enabled) the actor's own. Just about everything else is not only forgettable in and of itself but simply a bad adaptation: Ellis' lyrically detached musings and ennui-laden environs are replaced with a shoehorned anti-drug message apropos of the Reagan '80s, with significant details changed in a way that fails to make them more cinematic.
Moviegoers' complaints about the constant deluge of remakes are certainly warranted, but the truth is that they can serve an important purpose: giving good source material another crack at the big screen. In light of the Aero's screening of Less Than Zero on Oct. 21 (not to mention our new, online, NCAA-style tournament to determine the best L.A. novel of all time, which you can find at bit.ly/LA-Novel), it seemed pertinent to speculate as to why neither Ellis' debut novel nor two of its author's main influences, Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and John Fante's Ask the Dust, translated especially well to screen — and to float some possible ways for remaking them.
Of the three, Fante's says the most about what this sort of adaptation tends to get wrong. Written in 1939 and set at an unspecified point earlier in the decade, its well-worn patina was its adaptation's biggest problem: In bringing it to the big screen just six years ago, Chinatown scribe Robert Towne missed the forest for the trees by focusing an inordinate amount of attention on re-creating '30s L.A. rather than the overall vibe of the book. (It didn't help that Colin Farrell, for whom I'll usually go to bat, was woefully miscast as the hilarious Arturo Bandini.) Ask the Dust is as funny as it is heartbreaking, but Towne's vision of it was mired in all the wrong details.
This problem is something of a throughline with bad adaptations of good books set here: They're too concerned with showing us landmarks we've already seen in new, gritty ways, rather than with accurately reflecting how actual Angelenos live on a daily basis. Most of this city is neither as glamorous nor as grungy as Hollywood would have us believe, a simple fact too many filmmakers either miss or ignore. To elevate the failures of ordinary people into something more grandiose — and to not even do it in a way that aligns with the source material's intent — is clearly a losing strategy.
The main appeal of Didion's 1970 book is the language itself. Her prose is wispy, minimalist and so affecting, word for word, as to almost be otherworldly. Look at the way it's laid out — with each chapter getting its own page, some only a few lines long. There's an abundance of space to fill in Play It As It Lays, which focuses on unsuccessful model-actress Maria Wyeth and her turbulent personal life in late-'60s L.A., and it's up to the reader to assign meaning where Didion has (purposefully) given us none.
Frank Perry's 1972 adaptation (from a script penned by Didion and her husband/writing partner, John Gregory Dunne) isn't bad, but it is outdated. It captures fairly well Didion's evocation of the snakelike Los Angeles freeways slithering through downtown and the Valley — images that are no less emblematic today — but not the interiority of the book as a whole.
This is also a major problem with Less Than Zero, and perhaps the main concern with novel adaptations generally: So much of the story takes place within its protagonist's troubled headspace. Stanley Kubrick was right when he said, “If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed,” but not every problem posed by such hugely interior novels as these can be solved by voiceover.
The tone and visuals need to mirror 18-year-old Clay's inner world as he returns home from his first term at a small liberal arts college in New England, which is why Richard Linklater would be such a good fit. Linklater's best films, especially Before Sunset and Dazed & Confused, are driven less by incident than by feelings slowly rising to the surface as 20-somethings shoot the breeze. (It also would provide him an opportunity to traverse darker territory than he's used to.) Another possibility is Xavier Dolan (Heartbeats), whose characters are essentially the French-Candian equivalent of Ellis's.
It's best not to do a remake of Ask the Dust so soon after Towne's version. But Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay — known for such visually arresting films as Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin — could direct the hell out of Play It As It Lays. Like Didion's, her work is airily engaging even as it descends into troubling blends of sex and violence. Cary Fukanaga, whose Jane Eyre is among the best literary adaptations in years and who's currently at work bringing Stephen King's It to screen, would be more than qualified as well. As for Maria (pronounced Mar-eye-ah, she's quick to remind us), her inner hurt needs to be of a piece with her outer beauty. I'll go out on a limb here in what's likely to be a minority position, but hey — maybe Kristen Stewart?