I am constantly blocking off time in my schedule to visit bookstores, apt to blow a paycheck away on fattening up my already-bursting bookshelf. When I do leave such a place (most likely when the announcement sounds that they are closing in 5 minutes), I’m sure to have one of the widest grins found on the Eastern seaboard.
Given my personal tastes, however, that elative feeling is bound to be short-lived. I’m realizing that each novel I classify as being truly good, and would love to see adapted to the silver screen, is ultimately unfilmable. The attempts to translate William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” both fall in this category- great books of which I can bestow great praise upon, but the resultant films are poor, watered-down photocopies of the author’s original text. More recently there has been a shift in a more positive direction with big-screen versions of “Movern Cellar,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Gangs of New York,” and the “Lord of the Rings” franchise. All have bucked the trend of what I’ve dubbed as the “good book, terrible film” genre. Of course, these were all made great through the sheer fortitude and passion of those involved with the projects. Some of these also prove that the best books are not always the ones being published or filmed at the moment of their birth.
Even though I found “A Confederacy of Dunces” to be one of the best screenplays I’ve read in ages, I’m convinced, sadly, that it will fall into the latter category. More than 20 years in the making to become a motion picture, it’s destined of “good book, terrible film.” Yes, there is more than one moment that will remind you of “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead,” but the central character is the star here.
Based on the novel of the same name by John Kennedy Toole, “Dunces” follows the wayward adventures of the morbidly-overweight intellectual Ignatius J. Reilly in 1960’s New Orleans; despite the protagonist already being in his thirties, it is a story of maturing and finding one’s place in the world. Written before Toole’s death in 1969, it was only released on bookshelves eleven years later. The unwieldy title is taken from a quote by Jonathan Swift, which opens the novel, but found nowhere in the screenplay: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
In his forward to the book, philosophical novelist Walker Percy (he also helped to get the novel published) wrote of the feelings when he first read the manuscript: “I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther…In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, and shake my head in wonderment.”
The start to Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer’s treatment of the film is sure to cause the same reaction. “What in the world does the title of this ludicrous movie meanr,” cries Ignatius off-screen as he, and we, see the credits of “Dunces” unspooling at a children’s matinee. Continuing the very “Mystery Science Theater 3000” moment, Ignatius then calls the director a hack extraordinaire, blows a raspberry at those involved with the writing and, when the producer credits are unveiled, yells out, “That’s not a good sign; the more producers, the more feeble-minded the production!” It’s a great start to the screenplay, one which aptly sets up what is to come and will invariably draw the audience in.
Once the credits have run their course, with some “fruity farts” from Ignatius resulting in children’s screams and crude imitations, the viewers are introduced to New Orleans’ French Quarter, circa 1963. He is met by his mother in their Plymouth, who he treats abominably. In a later point in the screenplay, he calls her an overt masochist, believing that kind treatment would confuse and destroy her. Case in point: After she attempts to re-start the engine of the already-running vehicle, Ignatius casually remarks that he has “no idea how you managed to procure a license to operate this conveyance. The department of vehicular administration must be manned by corrupt half-wits.” This is the character of Ignatius- He has a love-hate relationship with the life he leads, spending his days writing flowery denunciations against modern culture. Seeing an enfant in a stroller, he is apt to mumble that the toddler is “another little consumer to push us closer to the impending apocalypse.”
After visiting a music store to buy a lute string, Ignatius is almost being charged with loitering by an odd patrolman named Angelo Mancuso. As an older gentlemen is hauled away to jail for calling Mancuso a communist, Ignatius and his mother hide out at the corner bar Nights of Joy. After his mother gets into another accident, she is told she will be fined. This puts Mrs. Reilly in the unenviable position of convincing her indolent son to get a job to help pay it off- she paid for his 8 years of education (he earns a degree in medieval history) through her grandmother’s insurance money and, with it now gone, is scrapping for every penny now.
Ignatius, protesting the entire time, does find work of sorts; first as a file clerk at Levy Pants Factory, a disreputable garment factory where he mobilizes the workforce to strike, then as a hot-dog vendor in the French Quarter, where he paints a cast with the slogan “12 Inches of Paradise.” All the while, he is stalked by the patrolman, who adopts an odd sense of wardrobe.
All this while, Ignatius also keeps in touch with Myrna Minkoff, a social activist from the Bronx he met at Tulane University. She is his salvation; she just believes he needs to find a girlfriend for some love. As Myrna tells him, “Since I last left you, you have done nothing but lie around rotting in your room. You must do something, Ignatius; a very bad crack-up is on the way. Get out of that womb-house… Realize that life is surging all around you. The valve closes because it thinking it is living in a dead organism. Open your heart, Ignatius, and you will open your valve.”
It is when Myrna returns that he has found destiny’s next path for him, to leave New Orleans for another destination with her. This decision is most likely hastened by his mother threatening to commit him.
There have been some aspects dropped from Toole’s novel-most notably, the talk of his education. There are references thrown in haphazardly about his schooling, but nothing telling us how he came to be living in his mother’s house, never straying from his messy bedroom. Other than that, the script is pitch-perfect. This is an extremely light, fast read. What really propels the screenplay, though, is the screenwriter’s vivid characterizations of Toole’s New Orleans denizens.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the leading candidate to take on the role of Reilly in the film, set to begin filming next spring in New Orleans. Others who have been considered include Jack Black and Horatio Sanz; notably, every other comic actor who has been associated with the role- from John Belushi to Chris Farley- has passed away after being linked to the project. As much as I am a fan of Hoffman, I’m not sure he is tonally correct for the role. There is a lot of prose in the film that requires a certain delivery and I’m not convinced Hoffman has it, plus I would never want to hear him attempt a “fruity fart” several times on screen. I think a far better fit would be Brendan Gleeson, who is coming off acclaim for his tragic turn as Monk McGinn in “Gangs of News York,” and whose 2003 roles include “28 Days Later,” “Dark Blue” and “Cold Mountain.” Although he is listed as 45, I think he could pull the role off well.
Drew Barrymore, one of the film’s producers, will play the role of aspiring exotic dancer Darlene, who also works at the Nights of Joy bar. Beyond that, casting has yet to be announced. Set to direct is David Gordon Green, who blasted onto the scene with his critically-lauded, award-winning 2000 film “George Washington” and whose “All the Real Girls” is Sundance-bound.
But the drawback comes in how to market the picture, as it has an extremely odd appeal – but this is where the partnership with Miramax comes in handy. Above any other distributor out there, they should be able to answer the question of “Who exactly would be the market for thisr,” as well as get this notice for Academy consideration.
Early on, Ignatius growls that the picture he is seeing is “an abomination. Hollywood, I fear, is our contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah and we best avert our gaze.” Most pictures I have seen move forward recently would fit within Ignatius’ parameters above- but this picture is better written than most of today’s dreck permeating theaters. The resulting picture could be wonderful or disastrous. Only time will tell.
Adaptation by Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer, based on John Kennedy Toole’s 1980 Novel
Screenplay Dated: October 17th, 2002 (revisions from September 24th draft)