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Adaptation Examination: High Fidelity (2000) and (2020)
How do the screen versions stand up to the novel?
Welcome to Movie Star March Madness, our month-long watch-a-long and countdown to Season 2 of The Vince Vaughn-a-thon. Every day in March, we’re celebrating a different actor, movie star, or famous family - one of which will be our focus for Season 2. Play along with us and leave your daily reviews in the comments. For the full schedule and info, read here.
The Book (1995)
High Fidelity is a 1995 novel by British author Nick Hornby. Before reading this book, my only exposure to Hornby was through the film adaptation of his novel About A Boy starring Hugh Grant, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, and a young Nicholas Hoult. This movie is one of my favorites (granted, it's overdue for a rewatch...) and I always knew about High Fidelity but never quite got around to it.
The story follows Rob, an obsessive music enthusiast, as he struggles to cope with his recent breakup from his longtime girlfriend, Laura, and his failing record shop. The breakup forces Rob to evaluate how exactly he got to this point in his life, and through this, we relive moments from his past, live painstakingly in his uncomfortable present, and envision his future.
Throughout our lives, we learn to become palatable. We learn how to people-please, we know what's polite and impolite, and we adjust our behavior accordingly. Growing up as an only child, I was frequently told by teachers, "I would have never guessed you were an only child," and it was the highest compliment I could receive in my eyes. Only children get a terrible reputation - selfish, needy, annoying, the list goes on. As someone who has become a painfully passionate people-pleaser, I never wanted to come across as any of those things. I suppose I did that job well.
But we all want to be selfish sometimes, don't we? Don't we all have a part of us, whether it's buried deep down with no plans to see the light of day or right at the surface, that's a bit egotistical?
At the tremendous risk of sounding completely narcissistic, I'm going to share those deep-down parts of me that I have a feeling you might connect with. It's the way on my daily commute on the train, I convince myself that everyone around me is in love with me and will run off the train when I get off to ask me out. The way I once sat on a plane next to a guy my age who sparked up a flight-length conversation about life and I subsequently saw our entire future flash before my eyes and pictured a life where I got to work our meet-cute story into every conversation I ever had from there on out, making me, of course, better than everybody. The way I evangelize my favorite films as if I wrote and directed them myself because I'm so wholly and completely sure of their brilliance. The way I can't fathom when someone wants to skip a song on my perfect playlists. In fact, it's the way that, while reading High Fidelity, I wondered what Rob would think about the fact that I was in the 0.05% of Beatles listeners on Spotify, (He'd probably hate Spotify as a whole, but that's beside the point) or if I'd be the kind of girl he'd develop an instant crush on if I went into Championship Vinyl and bought a Solomon Burke record on his recommendation.
The thing that puts Rob apart from me and most others is that Rob is unabashedly selfish, in a way that's almost (though not quite) endearing because I commend his ability to not care what others will think. Rob is plagued with Main Character Syndrome. He believes that people's lives begin and end when they engage with him. If you're thinking to yourself, "I don't have that. I'm always perceptive of people's unique lives!" then I ask, did you ever feel shocked when you saw your 7th-grade biology teacher buying groceries on a Saturday afternoon? Then congrats, you're just like Rob, too!
He is flawed, and this piece and my personal sentiments aren't an attempt to absolve him of that or justify the truly awful things he's done and the way he treats people, but there is an undeniable honesty to it. He is the personification of the hidden parts of each of us, even if sometimes you're forced to physically cringe when Rob speaks out loud the things he's thinking. I was constantly inclined to root for him even when I had no clue what I was rooting for because Rob had no earthly idea what he wanted. The pleaser in me wanted Rob to have this tremendous arc where he becomes less afraid of love and commitment and has the kids and the traditional "happy ending," and then the selfish part of me convinced myself that his perfect person WOULD walk into Championship Vinyl one day, just as he fantasized about, and he should be open and ready for that experience. But that won't happen. Because Rob's problem is uncompromisingly Rob.
On the surface, this story is a lot of Rob being an asshole (he is one), Rob being aimless (he is), and Rob being confused (he is) - but it's also so much more than that. It's a story of self-discovery and reflection, even the messy parts. The desire to reinvent yourself isn't all haircuts and new clothes and cutting back on bad habits. It's a lot of inner turmoil, second-guessing of life choices, and working through regret, and that can make anybody "cross" - as Rob is all the time, with everyone around him.
While I'm not encouraging anyone to go out and become a selfish, pompous, word-vomiting "arse," I do find myself leaving this novel with a revived interest in honoring my fantasies and desires a little more. I'm also reminded that I'm grateful to be in a place where I'm not as terrified of love, commitment, and the future as Rob is (Granted, I'm 25. So ask me again in 10 years.) Rob is certainly not the blueprint for how people should be - that's abundantly clear. But is he a cautionary tale? I don't think so. Perhaps that's the empath in me, but I'm inclined to believe there are abundant truths in this story - truths I plan to save for some rainy days ahead.
High Fidelity (2000)
High Fidelity, as I mentioned previously, is a British book by a British author with distinctly British characters, mannerisms, lingo, and habits. Needless to say, I was skeptical about it being set in Chicago.
I’m not an expert on British culture, unless, of course, if you consider the fact it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something, as I’ve undoubtedly consumed twice that in British media, tv, and films. Still, I have no business presuming what Londoners are like… except I’m going to do that very thing for just a second. British humor is very unlike American humor. It’s harsher and more self-deprecating. Rob is all of those things to an extreme, but there’s something justified in that when he’s British. When you set him in Chicago, he’s just an asshole.
John Cusack (to be honest, I don’t know if I’d ever seen a movie of his before this) doesn’t cut Rob any slack and plays him with a lot of honesty (though that’s something Rob is not). He’s charming, handsome without being too handsome, charismatic except when he’s very much not, fiery and riddled with angst. He’s all around a great fit for Rob.
But still… something is missing. And it’s not in the performances, which are really funny, honest, and compelling all around. It’s what we miss in a two-hour movie.
I am the first to say that I love a speedy movie, but I feel myself going back on that every time I watch a film adaptation of a book.
What about that moment I loved! Where did that character go! Why did this attribute change! These are the things I ask myself when dealing with a great source text turned movie.
Something that works about Rob being such an anti-hero on paper is how much (occasionally grueling) time we spend inside his head. While he doesn’t… justify his thoughts and actions, per se - we at least get a sense of how he arrives at Point B from Point A.
That said, I was impressed at the things that were kept original. The movie is essentially a line-for-line recreation of the book, just a very condensed version. This works to its benefit because the book is extremely well-written, even when dealing with such complex and difficult characters.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie and I think it honored the book in a fresh way. Would I have preferred it to be longer for the sake of getting a more fleshed-out Rob? Yes. Would I prefer to ditch the idea that Rob becomes a record producer? Yes. But the merit is there. The music is great, the characters are ideally cast with fun performances all around, and the major beats come through.
It’s a movie I definitely want to revisit after the book isn’t so fresh in my mind because I think that will allow me to have a clearer sense of its ability to truly stand alone well.
High Fidelity (2020)
When this show first aired on Hulu, I saw the images of Zoë Kravitz everywhere. I have to hand it to their marketing team when I say they had me so hooked that I went several years with the desire to watch this show always in the back of my mind. I didn’t even know there was a book at that point, I only vaguely knew about the movie.
I am a huge Zoë Kravitz fan and have a deep, passionate, gut-wrenching crush on her. When I read the book and saw the movie, however, I didn’t know what to think about how this adaptation would play out. I assumed that it just took the name, but the content was largely going to be new.
I was wrong in the best way.
The show is largely (though not always) gender-bent with Kravitz front and center as Robyn, or as we know her, Rob.
The show keeps all of the best moments, lines, and even performances from High Fidelity and brings them seamlessly into the 21st century. I had concerns that trying to blend the now (iPhones, social media, influencers) and the then (record shops, being unplugged, chain-smoking) would feel disjointed, but Kravitz and her crew of talented supporting actors make it look effortless.
Something complicated about the book and the movie is that, as I’ve said a dozen times before, Rob isn’t very likable! He’s not a very good guy!
What this show managed to do is convey Rob’s angst, passion, self-indulgence, and occasional narcissism, and make it infinitely more relatable and justified. Robyn is not a shitty person. She’s just someone who loses herself totally in love, something I, a woman close in age to this adaptation’s character, can relate to.
I know, I know. Men have feelings too. Maybe it’s cheap for me to say this whole thing suddenly makes sense now that it’s a woman. But since it’s Women’s History Month I feel entitled to this opinion and I won’t be taking any further questions on the matter.
This show is brilliant. Every aspect of it works, from the writing to the soundtrack to the performances, and I can’t believe how they’ve managed to make some lines word-for-word (and played the exact same as the movie!) infinitely more compelling.
If you take nothing from this review, I just ask that you watch the show. Give it an episode or two at least. They’re short, digestible, funny, and something you won’t regret spending twenty minutes of your time on.
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