Kill Your Darlings has at least one advantage over other movies about the Beat Generation: Rather than take its story from a notoriously meandering and voice-driven novel, or from a decidedly non-narrative poem, it’s based on a real-life murder mystery. Lucien Carr is the man who introduced Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and both of them to William S. Burroughs, a friend of his from St. Louis. They all met when Carr, Ginsberg, and Kerouac were students at Columbia. (“Lou was the glue,” Ginsberg, ever the poet, later said.) But another older man from St. Louis, an English teacher named David Kammerer, had followed Carr to New York, and one night, Carr stabbed him to death.
What happened? Carr said Kammerer was stalking him and that he finally struck back. Some contemporary Beat scholars have questioned that account. The first trailer for the cinematic version doesn’t give much away, but it at least floats the idea that Carr was not quite a perfectly blameless victim. (The events also inspired And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a novel by Kerouac and Burroughs that was finally published in 2008.)*
Festival reviews of Kill Your Darlings have been very positive, so I’m going to hold out hope that this surprisingly slack preview is a case of marketers not knowing how to sell what they’ve got. They mostly sell the cast, particularly Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg (he even introduces himself by name), as well as Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs, Michael C. Hall as Kammerer, Dane DeHaan as Carr, and a host of other worthies. And while there is jazz, of course, on the score, and a rather heavy-handed discussion of rhyme and meter in a classroom, the trailer largely eschews the standard symbols of Beat Generation wildness in favor of a somber mood befitting the matter at hand.
That story is not told nearly as often as some Beat tales, so, if nothing else, Kill Your Darlings will bring new attention to a fascinating and perplexing historical footnote. It will open in U.S. theaters in October.
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* Correction, Sept. 9, 2013: This post originally referenced a New York Times article that misstated that And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks was a source for the screenplay of Kill Your Darlings. The New York Times has since published a correction clarifying that the movie has nothing to do with the novel.