Another round, anyone? Johnny Depp brings the work of the beloved, iconographic and subversive American author Hunter S. Thompson to the big screen once more. This most recent cinematographic adaptation, The Rum Diary, was produced by Depp’s own Infinitum Nihil production company (financed by GK Films), underscoring that no one has Thompson’s legacy at heart quite like his former close friend and, appropriately enough, old drinking buddy. In fact, the national bestseller never would have been published—let alone made into a movie —had it not been for Depp who found the manuscript tucked away in trunk while living with Thompson in preparation for their first and only outright collaboration, 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And the truth is that while the film differs from the book, it succeeds both stylistically and in spirit despite having a few flaws.
The novel of the same name originally came about when Thompson took off to live in Puerto Rico in 1960 in order to “escape the crushing conventions of the Eisenhower era”. When he got there, he found himself insatiably thirsty for both rum (what Thompson may have referred to as “fuel”) and answers. Thompson’s indulgence is abundantly clear throughout the novel but so is his self-discipline. And that’s what the film ultimately succeeds in capturing. We get a glimpse of the man becoming the artist and finding his ‘voice’. Despite the fact that the protagonist Paul Kemp is only semi-autobiographical, Depp and director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I, The Killing Fields) accurately profile the then-twenty-two-year-old author and his budding ‘rage’—which would manifest itself more overtly in later works such as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. But The Rum Diary is more than just an homage. It’s a rum-soaked account of love and letters, corruption and morality.
The story begins, simply enough, with a hangover—for which Thompson was known to prescribe “12 Amyl Nitires (one box) in conjunction with as many beers as necessary”. Late for his first day on the job at a faltering newspaper known as the San Juan Star, Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), makes his way through downtown Old San Juan only to be greeted by picketing employees outside, and a highly dysfunctional office inside. An uncertain beginning. He is immediately befriended by the somewhat trustworthy Sala (Michael Rispoli) while waiting on the paper’s Editor in Chief, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), who is just as incompetent as the ragtag crew he detestingly tries to manage. We are then presented with two very different characters only loosely associate with the paper but that come from opposite ends of the same sleazy spectrum. There is the elusive, slithering Hitlerite that is Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi)—who was intended to look so filthy that “the audience should be able to smell him,” according to Ribisi—and then there is the handsome, well-to-do, overly ambitious businessman, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). And it is through the later of the two that serves to provide the film with its conflict.
Blinded by his own ambitions and therefore unaware of their inherent differences, Sanderman doesn’t take long to see some potential value in Kemp’s writing and presents him with a lucrative opportunity. And while Kemp’s daily drunkenness is offset by the sobriety of his conscience, rarely do principles go unchallenged. Sanderman asks Kemp to help him and his associates put together a brochure to attract investors for a mega-hotel that they plan to put up illegally on the adjacent island of Vieques (Sanderson describes the paradisiacal beauty of the islands, which he looks to gain control of and then sell, as “God’s idea of money”). Despite initial hesitation, the allure of Sanderman’s fiancee Chenault (Amber Heard) combined with owing Sanderman a few favors ultimately leads Kemp to agree. As alluded to in the film’s official trailer: “And if the drinking doesn’t get you into trouble, the women definitely will.”
The trip to Vieques turns out to be disastrous for all parties involved. Kemp mistakenly breaches the confidentiality of the proposed deal by bringing along Sala, which is too much for Sanderson to forgive and Kemp is fired. And when everyone is reunited by coincidence while in St. Thomas for carnival, it all takes a turn for the worse. Chenault goes missing after a late night of binging. Knots come undone. The relationship between Kemp and Chenault is left temporarily unresolved.
After the fiasco in Vieques and St. Thomas, Kemp and Sala head back to Puerto Rico only to find that the newspaper has been closed. They concoct a plan. Financed by the winnings from cockfighting, the duo plans to break into the Star and print what would amount to an exposé on Sanderson and the intentions of him and his corrupt cohorts. Sitting down at his Royal typewriter accompanied by only a desk lamp, a smoke, and a bottle of rum, Kemp declares: “I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don’t know if I can fulfill tomorrow or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader—that is a promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage”. Frustratingly, though, their plan fails.
Despite a clear effort, The Rum Diary doesn’t quite deliver in terms of a storyline. The Hemingway-influenced thread of the novel is lost through too many changes—the entire absence of the character Yeamon, a free-spirit who in the book was Chenault’s boyfriend is particularly curious, for instance; and the ending is different. But there are plenty moments of authenticity and humorous poignancy that are part of why the film is worth watching. One in particular occurs when Kemp and Sala take an unidentifiable hallucinogen, then wonder through downtown San Juan making their way to the docks when Kemp, upon coming across a lobster tank, bends down, makes eye contact with one of the crustaceans and mumbles: “Human beings are the only creatures on earth that claim a god and the only living thing that behaves like it hasn’t got one”.
In the end the movie probably could have benefited from Thompson’s guidance if he were still here today, but it’s also probably going to go and become a cult classic. There are many reasons to watch The Rum Diary, but if you’re looking for a direct adaptation like we were given with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you won’t get it. In other words, if you want a good story that’s fun to read then get the book; and if you want a fun movie, then see the film. Either way, have a glass of rum. Thompson took his straight and always made sure to have more than just one.
Hunter S. Thompson talk about the novel on the Charlie Rose show.