I swear I’m not a snob, but with the exception of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I always like the book more than the movie. Knowing this is a good thing—because when they announce that a famous book is becoming a movie, it forces me to read something I’ve always meant to read. I procrastinate though, so I’m usually rushing out and buying the book the week before the movie comes out. By then, it’s too late. The trailers have ruined it for me, intruding on my in-brained movie camera with Hollywood stunt casting. By the time I finished The Iliad, there was still a month to go before Troy, but Achilles was already Brad Pitt in my head. When I finally committed to In Cold Blood, Philip Seymour Hoffman was visiting prisons in Kansas. I’ve waited so long on No Country for Old Men, I’m pretty sure that Javier Bardem’s bad haircut is going to get a starring role in my imagination.
Last night, I went to the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio for a cast reading of the script to Jennifer Vogel’s memoir. Jennifer’s book, Flim Flam Man, was about growing up with John Vogel, a notorious counterfeiting con-artist who was busted by U.S. Marshals in 1995. Flim Flam Man came out in 2004, and it got great reviews both nationally and locally. As if that wasn’t enough to motivate me, Jen edited a couple of my stories at City Pages back in the day, and she was really great to work with. She’s a talented editor—funny, and thoughtful, and just generally more generous than what I expected from an editor for a freelance assignment. I remember she made me read David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and let me expense it to the paper. I consider her a friend.
Anyway, I never read her book.
But I had to go to this reading. It’s part of the Guthrie’s new ScriptNight Reading Series put on by the Screenwriters Workshop. The Workshop hired twelve local actors to read a Dreamworks SKG–commissioned screenplay adaptation of Flim Flam Man, entitled Flag Day, written by a British screenwriter, Jez Butterworth. Jen was there, with her husband, Mike, another former City Pages writer, and the Hollywood producer who’s still shopping the script around, Bill Horberg. The twelve actors were all sitting on folding chairs with black folio stands in front of them.
The main reason that I like books better than movies is, of course, because I have the time. A book can go into more detail because it demands more of your time. Film only has a couple hours to reach you, so it has to cheat: films rely on exploitive visual symbols loaded with all sorts of cultural associations in order to advance the story quickly. A book can have a whole chapter of mythology on the fall of man; a film has a shot of an apple, then cuts to the shot of a woman, then cuts to the shot of a snake.
One of the problems with attending a reading of a screenplay, then, is that the visuals aren’t there. Sure, they’re described, but they’re described in a kind of technical film-school shorthand that can be powerful if brought to the screen by the right hands, but can sound cliché when you’re sitting in a theater watching a bunch of actors read off their folio stands and sip bottled water.
That said, the screenplay was cast perfectly. They might eventually get somebody like Kevin Costner to play John Vogel, but Stephen Pelinski was perfect as the dashing conman who drives a Cadillac and keeps a nickel-plated .38 in his waistband but doesn’t like to hear his children cuss. The rest of the cast looked and sounded right too: Linda Kelsey as Jennifer’s mom, both Raven Maizy Bellefluer and Tracey Maloney as young Jen and older Jen, respectively. So the cast looked right and sounded right, and there were even some sound effects that helped give the evening a kind of radio-play feel, but a lot of the imagery just whipped by faster than my ears could digest it, and there were a couple hackneyed Lifetime Network scenes that frankly didn’t much sound like Jennifer Vogel.
So I came home and ripped through the first 100 pages of Flim Flam Man. And then I finished it this morning. And yup, I liked the book better. In the book, Stephen Pelinski was starring as John Vogel, but the female characters, Jen’s mom, and especially Jen herself, are much more three-dimensional. Jen’s writing is so clear-eyed and humble and painfully honest in the book that I ended up liking Jen Vogel the character much more than I liked the movie version of Jen Vogel. Maybe it’s because John Vogel as written by Jez Butterworth and read by Stephen Pelinski was so likeable, it was difficult to understand why Jen was so bitter and angry towards him by the third act. The book, with time for a full accounting of both John and Jen’s faults, doesn’t have that problem.