Monday, May 30, 2011


When WONDER BOYS came out in February 2000, I drove an hour to see it in the theater on opening night. I hadn’t read Michael Chabon’s novel, but I had read an advance review of the film that convinced me I needed to see it. At the time I was a junior in college, and only just beginning to gain some confidence as a writer. I was taking my first creative writing course, and seriously interacting with other aspiring writers for the first time.

My creative writing professor – a young “post-feminist” author who was working on her first novel – was perceptive, but not easy to engage. (At the end of the semester, she wrote to me: “I know you’re looking for in-depth analysis, but that’s not what I can give you right now.” To which I wanted to reply: Then why are you teaching this course?) I think she may have seen some promise in my work, but I know she also saw problems. She pointedly told me that the biggest problem with my writing was my “hyper-self aware, hyper-masculine” voice. If only I’d had Grady Tripp (whose own wife dismissed his work as “too male”) as my writing professor…

The truth is that I had already been privately mentored by too many other writers: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun, Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Herman Hesse, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Charles Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Raymond Carver, Russell Banks, Bret Easton Ellis, Rick Moody, etc. My fiction was a fusion of all these different voices, which I was trying to turn into something new. I didn’t consciously choose to emulate a bunch of hyper-masculine alcoholics. I was naturally drawn to them because I knew too little about women and too much about alcohol.

I didn’t know anyone else who was “training” to be a writer the same way that I was. Everyone in my creative writing class was reinventing the wheel, without realizing it. They all believed that their work was unique… which reminds me of a great line in a Charles McGrath poem: “No two snowflakes are exactly alike, but every fucking snowflake is pretty much the same.” Most of my them were – and I don’t think I’m being unfairly judgmental – boring writers. I don’t envy anyone the job of being a creative writing professor… It can’t be easy to have to constantly find something constructive to say about boring writing. Stephen King once said that you can’t teach someone how to write. The only thing you can do is to tell good writers to keep at it… and tell bad writers the same thing.

Thankfully, there were a two naturally talented fiction-writers in my class. During my junior year, I convinced them to meet me once a week at a local bar to talk fiction. Those casual meetings were something I desperately needed in order to convince myself that I might have a future as a published writer. I needed to know that I wasn’t the only one for whom fiction writing was a vocation. I even started my own Beat Generation-style novel to reinforce the idea that we writers were “alone together.” It was, I think, the first time in my life that I didn’t feel like a complete loner, and that had a profound effect on me.

Getting to the point: I identified pretty closely with James Leer, the aspiring novelist played by Tobey McGuire in WONDER BOYS. I understood that he was looking for a new identity and a new “home.” He was trying to reinvent himself as someone he could live with, and that’s how he fell in with a tribe of eccentric liars, led by his writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas). I loved the movie because I couldn’t help but envy James Leer’s access to a caring (if rather unfocused) mentor. I also envied Grady Tripp, who had his own caring and unfocused mentor in editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr). I envied all of them their proximity to ingĂ©nue Hannah Green (played by Katie Holmes)…. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

All of the main characters in WONDER BOYS are bonded by the fact that they suffer from the same affliction. In Chabon’s novel, Tripp calls it “the midnight disease,” and describes it as follows:

“The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim – even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon – feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep.”

Later in the book, Tripp explains that the disease “started with a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to ‘fit in’ by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing on a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your own hostile gaze.”

This is exactly what has happened to both Grady Tripp and James Leer… and, I realized, to me. In an epiphany moment, Tripp says:

“I looked up at that dark window and thought of how it was said that acute insomniacs often experienced a kind of queasy blurring of the lines between dreams and wakefulness, their waking lives taking on some of the surprising tedium of a nightmare. Maybe the midnight disease was like that, too. After a while you lost the ability to distinguish between your fictional and actual worlds; you confused yourself with your characters, and the random happenings of your life with the machinations of a plot.”

In the movie, Tripp’s problem (as diagnosed by Hannah Green) is that he “hasn’t made any decisions… at all.” He’s having the same problem with his current novel: a sprawling epic with no end in sight. In Michael Chabon’s novel, Tripp’s problem is that he’s lived his whole life in fictional worlds instead of the real world, and he’s unable to make the leap into reality. I could relate. By sharing my fiction with other people, I was searching for the confidence to take a leap beyond fiction. I wanted to have the kind of confidence in life that I had in my writing, so I tried to merge the two worlds as much as possible. I constantly put real-life events and dialogue into my fiction, and I used pre-tested ideas and lines of dialogue from my fiction in real-life situations – just as James Leer does.

I also did something else that Leer does in WONDER BOYS – I used studio-era Hollywood film titles in a story that had nothing to with studio-era Hollywood. Leer names his a novel “The Love Parade” (after a 1929 Ernst Lubitsch film) and carves Frank Capra’s name into his hand. I wrote a short story about a dysfunctional relationship between a man and his wife. Act I was called “It Happened One Night.” Act II was “Holiday.” Act III: “The Awful Truth.” (The title of the short story was even more random: I called it “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” after a funky jazz tune by Joe Zawinul.) My creative writing teacher asked me what I was trying to accomplish with the movie references. I didn’t know how to answer. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. I was just experimenting.

I made references to old movies because old movies were my friends. I too was a sufferer of “the midnight disease,” and I gravitated toward AMC and TCM in the early morning hours when I couldn’t sleep. There was something profoundly reassuring about the simple black and white photography, and the slightly hollow sound of old voice recordings, and rapid-fire dialogue between two people who pretend to hate each other but secretly love each other, and the way that every actor and actress always stuck to the same reliable persona in every film. When I wrote “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” I imagined Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as a young couple in my college. Why? Because I liked the way they communicated… and, of course, because I wanted to be Bogart. Who doesn’t?

(On a side note, I recently re-watched John Duigan’s superb coming-of-age move THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE on Netflix. Noah Taylor’s Bogart impersonation says everything that needs to be said on this topic…)

In WONDER BOYS, Tripp is writing a novel about three brothers in a haunted Pennsylvania town, because he wants to replace his own lonely childhood with something better. He doesn’t just want the story – he wants the reality. And, in a sense, he gets it. Terry Crabtree and James Leer are his “brothers” in arms, similarly afflicted: the three “wonder boys.” The Crabtree character is a bit more complicated in the book. Robert Downey Jr. can do no wrong, but there’s something about his performance in WONDER BOYS that – while very amusing – makes the character more anecdotal than he deserves to be. In the book, there’s a lot more dramatic tension between Tripp and Crabtree, and a lot more sexual tension between Crabtree and Leer. Filmmaker Curtis Hanson obviously opted to keep the film lighter and less sexually confused.

That decision is partly responsible for an increased emphasis on the character of Hannah Green. As played by Katie Holmes, Hannah is God’s gift to hyper-masculine writers. She’s beautiful. She’s innocent. She’s brilliant. She lives for fiction, without living in fiction the way the dysfunctional “wonder boys” do. In short, she is the perfect Muse. The character is presented as such in Michael Chabon’s novel, but the casting of Katie Holmes made the role even more memorable… because the character was a natural evolution of the actress’s onscreen persona. (I’m going to wander a bit here, so bear with me…)

Katie Holmes started her acting career with a small part in Ang Lee’s THE ICE STORM, a brilliant adaptation of a brilliant novel by Rick Moody. She plays the precious object of Tobey McGuire’s awkward affections – a vulnerable prep school girl, emotionally abandoned by her rich parents. In DAWSON’S CREEK, she played another perceptive but self-doubting orphan. By the time she made Doug Liman’s GO, she had gained enough self-confidence to take life as it comes. (There’s a great scene where she sums up her newly-won outlook on life with wide-eyed glee: “Wow, bang, surprise!”) In WONDER BOYS, she’s 100% confident and 100% present… though maybe not 100% real. Hannah Green doesn’t exhibit any of the nuances or complexity of the male characters, so I’d have to say that she exists mostly as a moon-eyed writer’s ideal.

The real flesh-and-blood woman who keeps these “wonder boys” grounded is Sara Gaskell, played by the always-amazing Frances McDormand. She’s the one who keeps Tripp from completely disappearing into a world of illusion, simply by maintaining faith in him as a person… maybe moreso than he deserves. In the book, it’s a pretty thankless role. She’s the domesticator. Tripp finally chooses her, as much as he can. The book features a great scene in the maternity ward of a Pittsburgh hospital, where Tripp contemplates his future as a responsible family man: “Did one really feel the need for a child – as a craving in the nerves, a spiritual yearning, the haunting prickle of a lost limb?” Obviously, Tripp doesn’t. In the movie, things are simpler. As soon as the middle-aged, drug-addled writer decides to settle down with Sara, he’s miraculously cured of all the inconvenient aspects of the “midnight disease.” In fact, he’s pretty much cured of all his misgivings about life in general.

Basically, the movie is a bit too idealized for me. It’s as if the filmmakers is saying: “Hasn’t this been an amusing way to spend a couple of hours? Now back to reality…” The thing is: That’s not the feeling I want to be left with after vicariously experiencing the serious trials and triumphs of someone else’s “midnight disease.” From a movie about how complicated a writer’s life can be, I expect a complicated ending… not a “cure.”

On the DVD commentary for GO, director Doug Liman brilliantly sums up his film as a story about that time in a person’s life when you can get away with anything. His teenage characters put their lives at risk several times over the course of a single night, and yet they come out of every crazy situation unscathed, smiling and laughing about the experience. That’s age appropriate. The middle-aged writer’s life in WONDER BOYS is just as much of a whirlwind, and novelist Michael Chabon’s conclusion to the story feels much more authentic than filmmaker Curtis Hanson’s… because it shows the damage. Tripp has to grow up, accept responsibility for his new family and join the real world… but that’s not a simple process. The only way he can do it is by giving up the life he leads through fiction.

In the end, Tripp’s choice isn’t between being a family man and being an irresponsible writer. His choice is between living in reality and living in the world of imagination. For those who mostly live in reality, this is a no-brainer: Why would anyone want to live a lie? For those who mostly live in fiction, it’s also a no-brainer: Why would anyone ever choose to surrender complete freedom? At the end of WONDER BOYS, Tripp has decided to reinvent himself. Filmmaker Curtis Hanson shows us that he has a lot to gain, but writer Michael Chabon – a longtime carrier of the midnight disease – reminds us that he also has a lot to lose.

PS – music by Christopher Young


  1. Excellent post, Joe! While this is film I've not seen (I'll rectify that, too), it took nothing away from the personal point you were making about writing and film. Bravo.

  2. Thanks, Michael. I didn't know I had so much to say about this movie until I started writing...

  3. Some very good writing here.

  4. Anonymous4/10/2013

    I feel the same way about this movie as I did "Dead Poets' Society." The technical term, from the Yiddish I believe, is "schlock." The only authentic moment I recall was when the department chair, played by Richard Thomas, hogged the microphone and introduced young Leer's prize-worthy novel under the wrong title. That's the way things really are. Just like the film biz--everyone on the hustle trying to steal someone else's action and living by Louis B. Mayer's maxim: "Sincerity--if you can fake that, you've got it made."