This is not a topic I normally write about, but having read the book and now seen the movie I feel compelled to make a post. Its only fair that there should be at least one review out there about the actual film rather than peoples' impressions of what they thought it was going to be, comparisons to Fear and Loathing, or assumptions based on who people think Johnny Depp is.
I heard the movie didn't do very well at the box office over its opening weekend, with hordes of journalists promptly declaring it a "flop", and a disaster for Johnny Depp. Tuesday night I dawdled idly to the evening showing, to find it SOLD OUT. Only one other movie at that cineplex was also sold out for that time, so I'm not sure how these preliminary assessments of the movie "tanking" are justified.
(and don't ask me how I got in to the sold out showing! I bought a ticket for another movie fully intending to see that instead, but as I had like 15 minutes before I needed to take my seat I thought I'd just poke my head in to The Rum Diary to see if there was a single seat with reasonably good sightlines available. There was, so I quickly took it! I wasn't the only one filtering in late with that idea, by the way.)
I don't understand how the movie got an R rating, there's no boobs or anything, most of the sexuality is confined to steamy looks and comments made as an aside. The most graphic sex scene is viewed from a great distance through a telescope, and the important bits are under water. Salt water at that, which -- as a woman -- I can tell you doesn't work. But whatever, artistic license. Its a lovely shot, that's for sure. This film is way less raunchy than your average teen summer movie.
The Rum Diary movie departs from the book quite a bit, that is a fact. In the book, some of the less savoury characters are actually more disgusting and objectionable than they are in the movie. Certain elements of the book are played down, or not addressed at all, while other plot mechanisms mysteriously appear out of nowhere.
The logic behind the latter becomes clear further into the movie. Hunter S. Thompson was not writing about himself in the book. The story was loosely autobiographical, based on his experiences in Puerto Rico, but he created an alter-ego, Paul Kemp, and invented dramatic twists. In the movie, Depp specifically inserts characteristics and dialogue of his friend to make the character more Thompson-ish, if you will.
In effect the movie is both an extension of the book, and a brief summation of Thompson himself. Taken for what it is, without bringing preconceptions into an analysis, the movie actually works quite well.
A Work in its Own Right
As for the elements of the book that are left out of the film, well, that always happens, doesn't it? To some degree. In this case the most important ideas remain. The drifting, rootless girl, the finances of the newspaper, the culture of the times, and the impact of the American presence on the island.
This last bit is actually very tenderly addressed more than once. The disparity between the amenities available to the visiting tourists and the lifestyles of the locals are presented several times to quite striking effect. Depp emanates Thompson with expert skill, making references to how Puerto Ricans can't even use their own beaches, and against Nixon. In these instances Depp becomes more Thompson than Kemp.
The effect is to both demonstrate Thompson's personal struggles and difficulties with the island, and to provide a foreshadowing of the Thompson we came know through his writing. In a way the movie opens us to an early Thompson we might not have previously known, and closes the Thompson who later came to Gonzo fame.
The final clip of the movie, a still photo of the tanned and lean writer taking a stiff drink with a typewriter on his lap on the beach, is a very poignant conclusion. One gets the impression that Depp needed to make the movie almost more for himself, after the violent end to Thompson's life, than out of loyalty to his friend's memory.
I always read a book before going to see a movie, if only to be able to fill in obligatory gaps in the story. In this case I would suggest seeing the movie first, letting it stand on its own for what it is, then read the book later. They really are two separate, if connected, experiences.