Brow Beat

If You Liked Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Will You Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s?

Shasta (Katherine Waterston) and Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) in Inherent Vice.

Photo by Wilson Webb - © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

To read Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is to trip through a convoluted, psychedelic detective mystery, where one minute things seem clear and the next the facts have vanished in a foggy, pot-infused haze. The 2009 novel, set in fictional Gordita Beach, Calif., follows stoner P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello as he becomes entangled in the bizarre case of a missing billionaire. As with Raymond Chandler’s pulp classic The Big Sleep, Inherent Vice isn’t always easy to follow—it’s more concerned with characterization and mood than it is with plot.

Fans of the book will almost certainly enjoy Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Doc, which opened in five theaters last weekend and is set to expand nationwide over the next couple of months. It, too, emphasizes character and mood and works carefully to bring those aspects of the novel—the first by Pynchon to become a movie—to the screen. There are some crucial differences, to be sure: Some characters, like Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams), are downsized or, in the case of Doc’s parents and his former colleague Fritz Drybeam, completely erased. Detailed sequences, such as Doc’s acid trip, are left out. But on the whole Anderson’s work is a fairly remarkable bit of adaptation, capturing everything from the goofy humor of the novel to its paranoia-ridden, end-of-an-era atmosphere, through a variety of cinematic techniques.

Anderson accomplishes this first of all by sticking close—very close—to Pynchon’s prose. The opening scene of the film matches the book’s first chapter almost word-for-word, thanks to the use of voiceover narration, provided by Joanna Newsom as Doc’s friend Sortilège, in addition to the dialogue between Doc and his “ex-old lady” Shasta (Katherine Waterston). And this is true of later scenes as well: Anderson’s screenplay rarely strays far from the original text. Pynchon’s particular hippie vernacular, which takes some time getting used to, remains intact—and is even enhanced by its translation on screen; Doc’s habit of dazed upspeak, for instance, is perfectly rendered by Phoenix.

Sortilège is a minor character in the novel, but Anderson’s decision to make her the narrator is inspired: a fluttery voice like Newson’s telling Doc’s story and transmitting his constant befuddlement adds another little layer to the far-out ambience. In several scenes, the viewer is left to wonder whether Sortilège actually exists in the “real” space of the film, or if she’s an ethereal voice channeling Doc’s memories after a hallucinatory trip. (When Doc thinks back on an evening with Shasta, for instance, Sortilège is seen in the room with them—yet neither Doc nor Shasta acknowledges her presence when she directs a couple of lines their way.) Anderson seems to be picking up on Pynchon’s description of her: “She was in touch with invisible forces and could diagnose and solve all manner of problems, emotional and physical.”

The film also turns Pynchon’s themes into memorable images. Take this passage from the novel, in which Doc laments the increasing veneration of law enforcement in American culture:

“Once there was all these great old PIs—Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade … always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solvin’ the crime while the cops are followin’ wrong leads and gettin’ in the way … Nowadays it’s all you see anymore is cops, the tube is saturated with fuckin’ cop shows, just being regular guys, only tryin’ to do their job, folks, no more threat to nobody’s freedom than some dad in a sitcom. Right. Get the viewer population so cop-happy they’re beggin’ to be run in.” 

Rather than reproduce this dialogue, Anderson conveys its ideas visually. At one point Doc spots a cop show on TV that features “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), himself a cop, in a supporting role. More abstractly, Anderson illustrates the idea with a slo-mo scene in which Doc is hunkered down on the ground outside police headquarters as a line of officers step around and over him. This is a callback to an earlier scene, in which Doc is shoved by a passing cop on his way into the headquarters. In just a few seconds of screen time we get a feel for Doc’s opposition to the conformity embodied by the police, and recognize that his way of thinking is being overwhelmed by more powerful forces.

Even those who have read the book may feel puzzled about how things unfold plot-wise in the movie. The novel’s narration sometimes seems overly descriptive and rambling, but it also occasionally offers key story details that Anderson is less explicit about. As a result, dialogue in which off-screen characters and stories are mentioned become more confusing and harder to follow, even for viewers familiar with the source material. But you won’t be bored in your befuddlement. In his New York magazine review of Pynchon’s novel, Sam Anderson wrote, “It’s hard to stay invested in a plot in which everything is so casually interconnected.” But the key, I think, with both the book and the movie, is to invest yourself in things other than plot. With Inherent Vice, what matters are the tone, the themes, the jokes, and the characters. Anderson clearly understood this, and, whether you enjoy the film or not, it’s hard to think of how anyone could have captured the spirit of the novel more faithfully.