I absolutely loved the book The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp when it came out in 2008. Although it was recognized as a National Book Award finalist in that year, I could never really sell the book to teens. I blame the original cover, which was just lame. Now the much anticipated movie, already winner of a Special Jury Award for Acting at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, is out in theaters.
We all know the mixed feelings of anticipation and dread that precede watching a movie based on a favored book. Will the movie be true to the spirit of the book? Or will it stain the book’s legacy, now forever linked to a botched effort?
One important element is the casting. The narrator of The Spectacular Now is Sutter Keely, a genuine live-in-the-moment kind of guy. For Sutter, life is beautiful in the now, so one should drink it up while it’s here. He says:
“Life is spectacular. Forget the dark things. Take a drink and let time wash them away to wherever time washes things away to.”
Before seeing a movie adaptation, I like to form mental images of the characters. In the book, Sutter offers a self-description: “I have no style either — just a pair of reasonably old jeans, beat-up sneakers, and a green long-sleeve T-shirt that says Ole! on the front. My hair’s too short to need much combing, and I have a little gap between my two front teeth, which gives me a friendly, good-hearted look, or so I’m told.”
In the movie, Sutter is portrayed by Miles Teller, who only looks a little bit like John Cusack. It’s a resemblance that fades quickly, however, as Teller so convincingly becomes Sutter Keely. He embodies Sutter’s friendly, laid-back nature, as well as his vulnerabilities.
Jumping ahead, the emotional nexus of the story lies in Sutter’s relationship with timid, nerdy Aimee. Sutter describes her in the book as: “You know the look — glasses that ride down on the nose, pale skin from staying inside too much, mouth hanging slightly open in that classic nerd mouth-breather style. But she has full lips and sweet, little blond eyebrows and a nice, slender neck.”
Gorgeous Shailene Woodley plays Aimee in the movie, and does it so well that any image conjured by the book vanishes. The film scenes between Sutter and Amy are charged with intense feeling, including mutual pleasure, frustration, and shared regret. Here is their first kiss:
Movies differ from their books in potentially complementary ways. For example, the book delivers Sutter’s stream of conscious narration, which is often hilarious and sometimes delusional. The movie shows the exhilarated Sutter absorbing himself in the now, moment by moment. The audience also catches flashes of his underlying dread of the future, simply by a look that flits across his face. A book, on the other hand, allows more time for exploring the inner feelings of the characters. The reader learns what Sutter thinks about when he is alone and unguarded. In contrast, a movie can capture visceral images that would take pages to describe in words.
Overall, I was happy with the book characters’ cinematic counterparts. BUT — there is Cassidy, Sutter’s ex-girlfriend. In the book, Sutter raves over Cassidy’s body: “But what really sets Cassidy apart is that she’s so damn beautifully fat. And believe me, I don’t use the word fat in a negative way. The fashion magazine girls are dried-up skeletons next to her. She has immaculate proportions. It’s like if you took Marilyn Monroe and pumped her curves three sizes with an air hose.”
Disappointingly, slender Brie Larson plays Cassidy in the movie. It would have been excellent to see full-figured beauty celebrated on the big screen.
One further issue: the movie is rated R. There is a lot of cursing and a couple of scenes with nudity. It also grows increasingly disturbing as Sutter spirals into full-blown alcoholism. And yet, all of these characters are teenagers. It’s a bit disingenuous to suggest that the movie is for older audiences. Nevertheless, teens can still get a good Sutter-fix from the young adult section of the local library.
— Diane Colson, currently reading All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry (advanced reading copy) and listening to This is W.A.R. by Lisa and Laura Roecker, narrated by Amanda Dolan