Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With both Gone Girl and Left Behind opening in theaters, we look back on other adaptations of books that went to No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list.
Before arriving at the sheer unlikelihood of someone attempting to film Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast Of Champions, it bears pointing out an equally unlikely reason that a studio might have been game to try: Breakfast Of Champions hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Arguably more experimental than Slaughterhouse-5 (which was turned into a film in 1972, the year before Champions was released in print), Vonnegut’s hilarious, freewheeling, illustration-assisted, fourth-wall-breaking book looks delightfully out of place on the list of books to hold that coveted spot. It was finally turned into a little-seen film in 1999, and it must be said that the movie version is less hilarious, less freewheeling, and contains no illustrations. But Vonnegut fans and adventurous cinephiles may find it worth watching for the sheer audacity of writer-director Alan Rudolph’s undertaking.
Bruce Willis plays Dwayne Hoover, an unraveling car salesman who first appears on-screen in a manic TV ad and second appears with a pistol in his mouth. Though plenty of Willis’ roles make use of his cocky smirk, the actors also knows his way around sweaty desperation, and taps into it for some of his best performances: 12 Monkeys, Death Becomes Her, even the first Die Hard. Champions isn’t in that league, but Willis’ portrait of an unhinged product of the American dream gloriously subverts his more common tough-guy image. The frantic action at Hoover’s consumerist nightmare of a car dealership is often shot at tilted angles, with supporting characters zigzagging in and out of frame. Hoover spends the movie struggling through this hallucinatory world, haunted by TV ads (Vonnegut himself cameos as a commercial director) and weird visions (trippy visuals, kinda-sorta standing in for Vonnegut’s simple line drawings). Eventually, the hero stumbles across the path of cranky Vonnegut surrogate Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney).
The Hoover path, cranked up as it is, fares better than Rudolph’s treatment of Trout. In an awkward transition from page to screen, early Vonnegut-narrated scenes of Trout making gloomy small-talk with his pet bird (in parallel to Hoover making chipper small-talk with his pet dog) become scenes of Trout spouting exposition to his pet bird—and later, to no one at all. This is how some of the material plays without Vonnegut’s deft narrative voice; the author’s strangeness has a matter-of-fact lyricism, while Rudolph’s version strains and wriggles to sustain itself. But in a way, that very strain keeps the movie true to the book’s wild spirit—or at least to Hoover’s madness. Breakfast Of Champions is something of a folly; that anyone thought it could be anything else is worth celebrating.
Availability: The DVD of Breakfast Of Champions is out of print, though the disc is available through Netflix. Fittingly, it also appears bootlegged on YouTube in its entirety. Reluctant though we are to advocate watching a pan-and-scanned illegal stream of a movie, there’s a warped kind of sense in experiencing a misshapen, abandoned, and mostly forgotten adaptation of a wonderfully strange bestseller through such means.