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Pop Culture Happy Hour #235: Nick Hornby's <em>Funny Girl</em> and Movies Adapted From Books

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Pop Culture Happy Hour #235: Nick Hornby's Funny Girl and Movies Adapted From Books

Chris Klimek

Patti Smith, Nick Hornby, and Elvis Costello.

Patti Smith, Nick Hornby, and Elvis Costello.

I was glad as always to join Linda Holmes, Glen Weldon, and – for the first time – Barrie Hardymon on this week's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Here are my notes and ephemera from this exciting episode. Some of it is stuff I jotted down to say but forgot or didn't get the chance, and some of it is stuff I wish in hindsight that I'd been sharp enough to say on the fly. I keep pounding so-called smart drinks hoping that I shall one day develop the ability to think at the speed of conversation, but it hasn't happened yet.

Anyway! I wanted to read this brief passage from Nick Hornby's new novel Funny Girl, our primary topic of discussion, because I think it encapsulates the spirit of the book succinctly. It's the first meeting between the book's heroine, Barbara (who adopts the stage name Sophie Straw), and her agent, Brian:

"I want to be a comedienne," said Barbara. "I want to be Lucille Ball."
The desire to act was the bane of Brian's life. All these beautiful, shapely girls, and half of them didn't want to appear in calendars, or turn up for openings. They wanted three lines in a BBC play about unwed mothers down coal mines. He didn't understand the impulse, but he cultivated contacts with producers and casting agents, and sent the girls out for auditions anyway. They were much more malleable once they'd been repeatedly turned down.

Moving on to our discussion of recent-ish films adapted from books more generally, I thought for sure we would need a clip from Stephen Frears' 2000 film of Hornby's debut novel, High Fidelity. While I was tempted to play Bruce Springsteen's wonderful 50-second cameo in the film – a clever transliteration of a passage wherein Rob, our narrator, allows the Springsteen song "Bobby Jean" to influence a decision that drives the main thrust of the story – I chose instead a deleted scene, one of the few substantial bits of the novel that doesn't show up in the movie as released.

It has Rob (played by co-screenwriter John Cusack, as you must surely know) answering the call of a jilted wife who wants to unload her philandering husband's treasure trove of rare vinyl singles for a song, as it were. The woman scorned is played wonderfully by Beverly D'Angelo, which offers the added benefit of allowing you to imagine it's Clark Griswold's priceless "God Save the Queen" 7-inch that she gives away to Rob for free. I even asked ace PCHH producer Jessica Reedy to make a few cuts to the scene to bring it down to playable length, which she graciously did, and then I didn't use it. Sorry, Jessica! 

One of the things I meant to say about Jonathan Glazer's 2013 film Under the Skin is that it removes almost all of the satirical element of Michel Faber's 2000 novel. But it replaces it with a flood of imagery and sound so sensuous it's nearly overwhelming. Mica Levi's eerie score is a huge contributor to the effect. (I apologize to Mr. Faber for calling him Michael Faber on the show. Hey, people have been saying my name wrong for years – it's like "Shriss." I'm lying. Sorry, Mr. Faber. I'd hate to get myself in Dutch with you or your fans! Ha. Ha. Ha.)

When Glen mentions Stanley Kubrick's faithless-but-great adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining, I wish I'd thought to point out that almost all of Kubrick's films are based on novels, including 2001: A Space Odyssey (though Arthur C. Clarke was writing the book at the same time as he was collaborating with Kubrick on the screenplay, so that's its own beast) and A Clockwork Orange.

But the one I thought of first is Lolita, maybe because we hear James Mason's Humbert Humbert reading some of Vladimir Nabokov's prose in voice-over. Like High Fidelity, Lolita is a first-person novel so it's easy to get away with that. But then Malcolm McDowell does that, famously, in A Clockwork Orange, too. Probably the reason I think of Lolita as Kubrick's sole adaptation is that it might be the only novel Kubrick adapted wherein the novel remains more famous than his movie.

Toward the end of the discussion, Linda brings up the old literary/genre fiction divide. When I think of 21st century movies I love that were based on novels (or in one case, a memoir) they're pretty evenly divided between genre stuff and fancy books: War of the Worlds, The Prestige, Casino Royale, Children of Men, No Country for Old Men, Drive, 12 Years a Slave, Gone Girl, Wild, Inherent Vice.

I'm not gonna spend any more time on this list. I'm not Rob from High Fidelity no matter how frightening the resemblance.

RESIDENT ALIEN

When praising the atmospheric virtues of the survival/horror videogame Alien Isolation, I should've mentioned the name of Ron Cobb, who designed the interiors of the Nostromo in Alien. Cobb handled all the human environments in the movie, which are less iconic than H.R. Giger's alien catacombs and creature, but to me, almost as scary.

Alien Isolation is almost scarier when the xenomorph is not right behind you than when it is.

Alien Isolation is almost scarier when the xenomorph is not right behind you than when it is.

The game designers have expertly recreated Alien's distinctly 1979 view of what the 22nd century freight industry will look and feel like. There are long stretches of the game where you just have to wander the crumbling space station Sebatopol looking for clues and bits of gear that will help you survive. There are creepy sounds all around you; the churn of the station's strained life support system, desperate electronic blips and gurgles (including sound cues taken directly from the movie), the thump of something big and hostile scurrying around in the air ducts.

These passages where you're left to explore a space station clearly built by the same outfit that built the Nostromo, are what make the game fascinating and terrifying to me. It's a rich and detailed world, and the fact that you're not being directly threatened by a xenomorph or a renegade android or a panicky human with an itchy trigger finger every second really allows the tension and the dread to mount. Playing this game right before bedtime is a terrible idea. I'm starting to see those claustrophobic hexagonal corridors in my dreams.

REMBERING JOHN KEVIN BOGGS

I encouraged listeners to go find the beloved Washington, DC storyteller Kevin Boggs‘ performances on YouTube. There are a bunch on Vimeo, too. On both sites you’ll find multiple takes of the same story in some cases, but all are worth your time. Kevin learned very recently that he had liver cancer; he passed away one week ago this afternoon. He was only 51 years old. We weren’t best pals, but I knew him well enough to know he was as kind as he was talented.

Here’s one of his stories that I always appreciated as an unrepentant U2 fan. Kevin says at the beginning it takes place Labor Day weekend 1996; he meant Memorial Day weekend 1997. I remember because the U2 show he mentions was my first, and also because my best gal Rachel Manteuffel found theWashington Post Style section item he cites in the story, dated May 27, 1997. That’s not important. The life and humor and suspense with which Kevin tells the story is the thing. Again, please take a moment to watch this story or one of the others and note the passing of a generous, funny, wildly gifted artist.

FURTHER READING: My 2009 interview with Nick Hornby, part one and part two.