July 2004

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Hornby in the Summertime

Right now, I'm watching Colin Firth give a truly impassioned monologue about desire and obsession; about craving something your entire life
only to see it ripped away. It's not over-the-top or scenery-gnawing; it's a man's simple admittance of his childhood dreams. It's really quite impressive.

If it were based on any other writer's work, this monologue might be about curing cancer, or creating great art, or discovering new lands.
Instead, this is Fever Pitch, the first of three Nick Hornby adaptations, and Colin Firth is shouting about the football team Arsenal.

Nick Hornby excels at minutia.

I really like Nick Hornby's novels, but what I'm utterly fascinated by are the films based on his work, as High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, and About a Boy are all surprisingly well-made romantic comedies that defy the expectations and stereotypes of their genre. Given how rare it is to see a good adaptation of anything, I might not be surprised by the quality of these three films if they were all produced by the same exceptional team of filmmakers. But each film is produced in a very different climate, with very different writers and directors, and anchored by stars that have little in color but hair color (Hornby heroes are always reliably brunet). And yet... such quality.

It's a beautiful thing.

I saw High Fidelity opening weekend; I loved Grosse Pointe Blank and looked forward to seeing what the same screenwriters would bring to a more traditional romantic comedy. But I was surprised by how nontraditional Fidelity actually was -- more character study than love story, with the big romantic conclusion coming not with a first kiss scored by Sheryl Crow, but a reunited couple's slow grooth to Marvin Gaye.

A few years later I saw About a Boy, and when I saw Nick Hornby's name flash up on the screen I prepared myself for a unique take on the romantic comedy genre. Thus I wasn't totally surprised, especially given that the characters and story were presented in the original British; it was the drama, then, that caught me off-guard, especially the tragedy of Toni Colette's character. Chris and Paul Weitz's screenplay and directing made me cry (more than once!) and I came out of that theater utterly puzzled. Clearly, more united these stories than their original author. Yet what was he doing so right?

That was when I started to read Hornby's books.

On the days that I feel especially stupid, when I'm slogging through some indefatigable "modern novel" so cluttered by words that I'm
brushing them off like gnats, I'll turn to the copy of High Fidelity that I stole from my dad a few years ago (sorry, Dad) and have a flip-through. Hornby's prose echoes in my head like good conversation; with just a few lines I'm immersed fully in the details of some character's obsession. And then I remember, once again, why I love reading.

What unites these stories, on the surface, is the same theme of a man-child being forced to grow up in order to embrace the joys adulthood, especially Twoo Luvvv, can offer him. Fever Pitch is perhaps the most blatant about this; Colin Firth's football-obsessed schoolteacher is only able to let his pregnant lover into his heart when he witnesses his beloved Arsenal become champions. Freed of his desperate desire to see them succeed, he's able to let go of that particular obsession and focus on his girlfriend and the child they've created. It's an arc repeated by the other Hornby adaptations, with only a few variations; Paul comes rather easily by his realization, in comparison to John Cusack's search for the girls that got away and Hugh Grant's utter humiliation in front of an audience of middle-schoolers.

This is possibly why Fever Pitch is the least engrossing of the three adaptations, and ironically it's ol' Nick's fault, as he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his nonfiction reflection on football obsession. Sadly, Hornby's skill doesn't translate well to the format -- Hornby as a screenwriter does a beautiful job of capturing the same small moments he mastered in prose, but the climaxes that hold together the structure of a script aren't quite there. Taking his life story and making it a workable romantic comedy is quite the accomplishment, but there's not enough tension in the adapted story to keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. The characters' relationship is all that's at stake, and that's not enough to sustain a hundred-minute movie.

It's a very different story from the book, in that Hornby never really triumphs over his obsession the way Paul does, rather simply accepting
the place it has in his life, and understanding how it affects him. Perhaps that's why I like the book better in the end -- Colin Firth is far more attractive than Nick Hornby, to be sure, but the peace that Hornby eventually finds in his love for a football team resounds much more honestly.

And that's what Hornby truly excels at -- honesty. For, in truth, the three adaptations of his books are about three men coming clean about
what really drives them, and what they've been running away from all their lives. Film isn't usually a medium that triumphs honest reflection and self-realization, but Hornby movies, I'm reminded every summer, aren't exactly like the other flicks.

For it's summer, now, and I'm hours away from a midnight screening of Spider-man 2, during which I plan to eat a great deal of popcorn. This is what I do during the summer -- it's that first blast of air conditioning, not humid heat, which makes me feel like the seasons have changed.

But it's summer, which also means long late sunsets, ice cream from the 7-11 down the street, and loitering at the library. It takes me longer to do things in the summer. I get distracted. I spend more time in the sweaty silence of my apartment, thinking about love and family and books and music and all the little things in life that end up powering me forward.

It's summer, and I still haven't read Songbook.

Summer is a good time to spend with Nick Hornby.