by Linda Holmes
If you're following the reviews of movies coming out this weekend, you know that critics have been not only unkind but positively brutal to I Love You, Beth Cooper, a comedy about a nerd who proclaims his love for a popular beauty during his valedictory address.
I went in really rooting for the movie, because the book on which it's based is delightful and charming, and its author, Larry Doyle, wrote the screenplay. It didn't seem like a looming disaster, though if I'd remembered it was to be directed by Chris Columbus (who came up in these pages a week ago), I'd have been more skeptical.
But now, looking back, I understand that it's an unadaptable book.
What makes a book unadaptable, after the jump...
That doesn't mean they didn't also do it wrong. Paul Rust, playing Denis the nerd, is not odd enough to be the Denis of the book. He's a complete cliché, he's every nerd, in every movie, ever. Hayden Panettiere does her best with Beth Cooper herself, but what makes the book work is how interesting and unexpected Beth is, and again, it's just not happening. In the movie, she comes off as a pretty cheerleader with flashes of personality that are grafted on.
Where the book walks a fascinating line between warmth and outrageous farce -- rarely being entirely one or the other, constantly undercutting its nonsense with genuine character development and undercutting its sentiment with absurdity -- the movie lurches back and forth between one and the other.
And somehow, it never really hits either one. Only when Beth's giant military boyfriend, who looks like a video game villain, brings his goons to chase Denis and his friend Rich around does the movie feel anything like the book's cartoonish farce, and nothing in the movie makes Denis as human as he is in the book.
At the same time, they were fighting a losing battle. The charm of the book lies in the disconnect between Denis' preposterously detailed inner monologues and the actual physical world he inhabits. He's a nerd-philosopher-genius-romantic trapped in the body and the life and the skin of an unpopular teenager. The book delights in the moment-to-moment dissection of every thought, drop of perspiration, physical sensation, and emotional beat of Denis' life.
In a lot of ways, Beth Cooper (the book) is the anti-Beth Cooper (the movie). It's there to demonstrate just how much complex and tortured thought lies behind the kinds of teenage experiences that show up in pop-culture clichés about high school. It's like reading a long, wildly detailed description of every complex thought Cameron experiences during Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
There's no way to show these lengthy mental meanderings in a movie. The book is all context; the movie (somewhat unavoidably) has no context. The movie is a failure, but it's hard to imagine one that would have been a success. Even without Chris Columbus' hammy paws, it would still pull back from inside Denis' head to outside his body.
So now, I put a few questions to you: Are some books unadaptable? Do you have a favorite example? Has an adaptation ever totally broken your heart?