Inherent Vice: From Page To Screen
"SHE CAME ALONG THE ALLEY and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower–print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T–shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.” Whether your first experience with “Inherent Vice” is Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling, hazy novel or Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling, hazy film, this opening passage should be familiar. It appears in both more-or-less verbatim, as does the dialogue that follows between “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a pot-smoking P.I. and his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepsworth (Katherine Waterston), who informs him of a kidnapping plot that sets the story in motion. Judging by the first scene or chapter alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Anderson’s film was a direct transcription of the book and that’s actually how the acclaimed writer-director began his adaptation.
Unlike his previous reworking of Upton Sinclair‘s “Oil!” which he used as merely as a jumping off point for “There Will Be Blood,” for his second adaptation Anderson aimed to stay much closer to the source material. “I basically just transcribed it so I could look at it like it was a script,” he said. “It looked like a doorstop. But I can understand this format. As big as it was, it was easier for me to cut down.” Wrestling the 384-page book into a 148-minute film was no easy task. The story involves dozens of characters: hippies, Nazis, black power militants, former heroin addict saxophone players, wealthy land developers, coke-addled dentists, teenage runaways, and a shadowy organization called the Golden Fang.
Anderson is the first filmmaker to tackle the supposedly unfilmable author and the response so far has been mixed, with some left scratching their heads and others happily willing to take the ride.
If you’ve just come back from the film and your head is still spinning, don’t worry. You’re supposed to feel that way. Here, we’ll break down the biggest differences between the novel and the film and hopefully untangle a few mysteries for those of you who haven’t read the book. Obviously there will be Major Spoilers ahead for both, so if you want to go into either one fresh, we highly recommend you bookmark this and save it for later.
1. Sortilège As Narrator
“Inherent Vice” marks the first official adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s work, but this isn’t the first time Anderson has tried adapting Pynchon. Over the years the filmmaker had attempted to turn both 1990’s “Vineland” and 1997’s “Mason & Dixon” into potential films, but eventually gave up on both. However, when “Inherent Vice” was published in 2009, he was once again drawn to the material and found himself adapting it during the writing of “The Master,” at first just as a writing exercise. Anderson is one of the few major filmmakers never to have shared a screenplay credit and he relished the collaboration, even if it was primarily with the source material and not with the author himself.
“You don’t want to fuck with [Pynchon’s] shit if you don’t have to,” Anderson said of his adaptation. “But I found myself numerous times in that bad place of being reverential, thinking ‘I’ve got to protect it’. To best respect it is to sometimes dismantle it and tear it apart to make it a movie. We’ve seen books turned into movies that try so hard to be literary. And they’ve failed because [the mediums] are different. Being respectful, but also having to wrestle with it and not be nice with it, was a delicate thing, for sure.” Anderson achieved this high-wire act by keeping the novel’s DNA intact while carefully streamlining its sprawling narrative and unwieldy number of characters.
While maybe 70% of the dialogue in the film is taken from the book, Anderson initially wrote a draft without narration before realizing he missed Pynchon’s voice as overseer of the proceedings. His solution: making minor character Joanna Newsom’s spiritual gal pal Sortilège the all-seeing narrator to guide us through the film with omniscient voiceover cribbed directly from Pynchon’s prose. In the film, Sortilège becomes a kind of “surfer-girl Jiminy Cricket” for Doc, acting as voice in his head and unreliable narrator. Blurring the lines further, in two scenes throughout the film she appears beside Doc in the car but vanishes after a cutaway. Newsom agreed that the film leaves it intentionally vague. “She’s just sort of Doc’s magical, not necessarily real friend. I do agree that the way that Paul put it together, he leaves room for that interpretation.”
2. The Ending
While Anderson’s film stays pretty close to the source material, he deviates from the book in a few notable ways, most important of which might be the ending, which has been reshaped in both large ways and small. Some smaller alterations involve Doc first heading to the airport to try to get rid of the stolen heroin and receiving a phone call from Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) about Coy’s (Owen Wilson) return instead of personally delivering him to her doorstep. But the most significant changes involve the final scenes between Doc and the two most important people in his life: LAPD detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) and his ex-old lady Shasta Fay Hepsworth, both of which were invented for the film.
In the penultimate scene in the film, Bigfoot comes bursting into Doc’s apartment, kicking down the door and screaming at him. The two frenemies face off in one of the film’s most unforgettable moments as Bigfoot both misses Doc and misses berating him. Hilarious and strangely moving, the sequence climaxes with Bigfoot eating Doc’s entire stash of weed while Doc looks on confused, his eyes welling up with tears. With similar framing and Jonny Greenwood‘s melancholy score the scene plays almost like a fun-house mirror reprisal of the final showdown in “The Master” between Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Phoenix’s character once again tearing up at his friend’s inability to express his true emotions and admit that he’s actually envious of the others freedom.
While Bigfoot’s other most memorable moments are pulled directly from the novel (his fetish for frozen bananas, “Moto panacaku!”), this scene is an invention of the screenplay. “It was like Tom and Jerry stopping to apologize to each other about their behavior,” Anderson said of his addendum. “What I really like about that scene, and what ended up happening when we got there, is that for as emotional as Doc is throughout the movie, you never see him break down and cry. But in truth, the most emotional he gets is bawling his eyes out while watching Bigfoot have this meltdown in front of him. Doc says that beautiful line, which is from the book: ‘Are you okay brother?’ Bigfoot rejects it: ‘I’m not your brother.’ Doc says: ‘But you sure could use a keeper.’ Doc has become unglued along with Bigfoot. It’s just stuff in the book that I shuffled around and made into one scene.”
In the script Bigfoot was only supposed to eat the joint but while filming the scene Brolin felt he should push the scene further and picked up the entire tray of weed to eat. Brolin says the set felt like a place where anything could happen and told us about some of the unusual filming methods he experienced on set (including dancing the scene instead of saying the written dialogue). The filmmaker no doubt spent some time in the editing room trying to strike just the right balance between the low-brow humor and undercurrent of sadness from the novel, which may have left some of the more gonzo material on the cutting room floor.
The other most significant change Anderson made to the ending of the film is in the final scene, which, like it does in the novel, features Doc in his car off to places unknown, but with one crucial difference: in the book, Doc is alone but in the film, Shasta is by his side. This may seem like a relatively minor change, but it re-frames the story quite dramatically. Anderson is a born romantic, which may come as a surprise to those who only know the filmmaker from his recent black-as-pitch character studies “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” but those who look back a little further will remember the him for his unabashedly romantic moments like Jim and Claudia at the end of “Magnolia” or Barry and Lena in “Punch-Drunk Love.”
Anderson said that the Doc-Shasta relationship was one of the qualities he latched onto in the book, perhaps even moreso than the end-of-an-era 60s. “That’s something that everybody can get with—the girl I shouldn’t be with but I need to know who’s she fucking, where did she go, what did I do?,” he said. “That was really heart-breaking in the book, how much you can miss someone.” In Anderson’s film, Doc is a bit less of a loner and despite a “The Graduate”-style uncertainty on Doc and Shasta’s faces as he sends them off to face the unknown, he sends them off to face it together. Re-watching the film it becomes even more clear that the filmmaker always saw it as a love story and the detective stuff is window dressing.
3. One-Scene Characters Have Expanded Roles; Others Are Absent Entirely
One of the most fun aspects of the film is just going on this journey with Doc and being introduced to all the colorful characters he meets along the way, many of whom only pop in for a scene or two. Anderson said, “Chandler or Hammett or one of those guys who said the point of a plot in a detective movie is to get your hero to the next girl to flirt with,” so his approach became less about plot and more, “When’s the next girl or funny bit going to happen?” With the film juggling around 20 characters, there’s really only time to meet most of them in a single scene. In the novel however, a few of these supporting players have a bit more to do. Here are a few highlights.
While Doc is in Vegas (we’ll get to that in a minute), Clancy Charlock (Belladonna) and Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) end up meeting at Doc’s office by chance and and eventually fucking there. On the trip back, Doc stops by Mickey Wolfmann’s (Eric Roberts) compound to find Sloane Wolfmann’s (Serena Scott Thomas) boytoy Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson) living there, clad in a sombrero and brandishing a .44 Magnum. He’s mostly just stewing about Mickey being back with Sloane again, and it could have been a fun scene. Aryan Brotherhood member and major heavy Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine), along with his sidekick Einar (cut from the film), take center stage on Doc’s aforementioned trip to Vegas.
Other notable characters from the book that were dropped entirely include Trilliam Fortnight, a girl who pays Doc to track down Puck, Doc’s parents Elmina and Leo who swing by Doc’s place and offer support over the phone, Sortilege’s (Joanna Newsom) pal and guru Vehi Fairfield, Doc’s sometimes partner Fritz Drybeam, and at least a dozen others. Like “The Master,” a few alternate takes/deleted scenes have already been glimpsed in the trailers and several actors were reportedly cast but don’t appear in the final cut (notably “Workaholics” star Anders Holm is credited as a cop but never appears in the film) so it’s possible some of these little characters and moments could still turn up someplace.
4. The Trip To Vegas
“The hardest thing is just trying to find how to take 400 great pages and turn it into ideally 110, maybe 120 script pages,” Anderson said back in 2012 when he was still putting the finishing touches on his screenplay. “There’s no shortage of great things in every paragraph on every page. It’s like somebody dumped bags of gold in front of me and I can only take so much. What do I do?” One can imagine that one of the first elements to be jettisoned during Anderson’s adaptation was the elimination of a trip to Vegas. The out-of-state detour begins when Trilliam Fortnight shows up at Doc’s office asking Doc to help locate her beau Puck Beaverton. Doc accompanies Trilliam to Vegas where they track down Puck and his sidekick Einar, and Trilliam and Puck end up getting hitched.
Though entertaining in the book, it would definitely mean problems for the film as it both introduces yet another female character asking Doc to help her track down someone and takes the story out of its distinctly Los Angeles-setting. For these reasons you can imagine this section was one of the first to go, however, losing it meant having to reshuffle one major plot point…
5. Mickey Wolfmann’s Disappearance & Return
In the novel, not only does Doc not track down Mickey Wolfman, he never even speaks to Mickey. Instead, while in Vegas, Doc serendipitously runs into FBI agents Flatweed (Sam Jaeger) and Borderline (Timothy Simons) who are seen escorting the Mickey out of a casino.
When Doc goes to visit Chryskylodon he finds Coy but it’s an orderly he spots wearing Mickey’s missing Shasta tie, not Puck. This leads Doc to the conclusion that Mickey had been there but had split. Most of Mickey’s dialogue in the film about giving all his money away is handled by Bigfoot later on in the novel. “Yes, well Mickey just stumbled into something he shouldn’t have seen, and the boys in the John Wayne outfits panicked and hustled him away for a while. Then the feds found out—here’s an acidhead billionaire about to give all his money away, and of course they had their own ideas on how to spend it. Being tight with this Golden Fang of yours by the way of scag-related activities in the Far East, they got Mickey programmed into Ojai for a little brain work.”
In Anderson’s film, he makes Puck the orderly with Shasta’s tie and let’s our hero be the one to discover Mickey at Chryskylodon to help move the story along. Those wondering how Pynchon might feel about the deviations from his novel should rest assured, though Anderson has remained coy about any connection to the reclusive author, his actors have confirmed he was involved in the adaptation process. “I know that they talked a lot,” Phoenix told the New York Times.
“It was pretty amazing, because it seemed like he was very active in the process through Paul. It seemed like they talked often and he would make suggestions or talk about how to condense three scenes into one.”
6. The Music
Anyone who’s read Pynchon knows the author’s penchant for soaking every page in references to music, TV shows, films, and various other pop culture ephemera. These references can fly so fast and furious that there’s actually an entire wiki devoted to breaking them down page by page. There are over 100+ songs mentioned in the book, everything from the surf rock of Dick Dale and The Beach Boys to crooners like Frank Sinatra and Roy Orbison to the psychedelics of Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane to Miles Davis and Iron Butterfly, and everything in between. Surprisingly enough, from this treasure trove of carefully selected 60s tunes, only one song made it into the film: “Here Come the Ho-Dads” by The Marketts. The song can be heard both in the trailer and in the film when Doc and Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn) go to the Topanga Canyon mansion.
Anderson initially planned to use more tunes from the book but for whatever reason, said they didn’t end up fitting in. (You can find a full soundtrack listing for all the songs he did include in the film here.) In addition to the aforementioned oldies, Pynchon also writes some songs of his own. Throughout the book Pynchon writes out the lyrics to songs Doc might happen upon flipping around on the radio by a fictional groups like Coy Harlingen’s band The Boards. Pynchon writes out lyrics for the songs but no notes, forcing the reader to imagine just how they might sound, indicating only where bits like a rhythm guitar fill or background vocal would go. The novel describes The Boards as “pioneers of electric surf music and more recently working in a subgenre they liked to call ‘surfadelic’,” and their music plays a sizable role in the book. It’s possible that they were at one time intended to make an appearance in the film.
Last year it was reported that psychedelic-surf-pop-folk-rock bands The Blank Tapes and Mystic Braves filmed cameos and one can reasonably assume they were cast to play The Boards and Spotted Dick, the visiting British band crashing with them at their Topanga Canyon mansion. Both bands can still be glimpsed briefly during the last supper sequence, but it would be interesting to discover if Anderson cast real musicians to play music as well, instead of just appearing as glorified extras. Pictures of Owen Wilson playing the sax are also included in the film’s promotional materials so it’s possible scenes featuring the bands could still show up someday on the Blu-ray.
Some have found the film’s twisty plot difficult to follow, which actually makes it pretty faithful to the novel and the many old-fashioned noirs from which it draws its inspiration. Like most of Anderson’s films, it can take a couple of viewings to fully wrap your head around “Inherent Vice,” but that’s just the way he likes it. “I don’t aim for that, but I like hearing it,” Anderson said.
“Because I think the implication is that it feels good, that you want to see it again, so that’s high praise. But it’s weird… It’s thrilling that people have expectations but there’s no way it can be what you thought it was. How many albums have you bought when you go, ‘This is fucking terrible.’ Then you listen to it three or four times and it’s great.”