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Adaptation, Transcription, and Translation in ‘The End of the Tour’

Adaptation, Transcription, and Translation in 'The End of the Tour'

There’s a small moment near the beginning of “The End of the Tour” when Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) are driving from a convenience store back to Wallace’s house with a ton of candy in tow. Wallace briefly discusses how eating candy is very pleasurable but has none of the nourishment of real food. Lipsky equates it to consuming “seductive commercial entertainment,” and when Wallace counters that most commercial entertainment isn’t that good, Lipsky responds that there’s good entertainment like “‘Die Hard.'” Wallace enthusiastically agrees with Lipsky: “Great film! The best! So good.”

In Lipsky’s awkwardly titled book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” the source material for “The End of the Tour” that mostly consists of Lipsky’s transcripts during his time spent with Wallace, the brief candy/”Die Hard” discussion plays out differently:

Wallace: There’s somethin’ real vital about food that candy’s missing, although to make up for what it’s missing, the pleasure of masticating and swallowing goes way up. There seems to me to be some analogy to what — I’m talking about very seductive commercial entertainment. There’s nothing sinister, the thing that’s sinister about it is that the pleasure that it gives you to make up for what it’s missing is a kind of… addictive, self-consuming pleasure. And what saves us is that most entertainment isn’t very good. (Laughs)

Lipsky: Addictive how? Like “Die Hard” — the best action, probably.

Wallace: The first “Die Hard”? I think it’s a great film.

Lipsky: Brilliant, right? Smart script, smarter than most art movies.

Wallace: But also very formulaic, and rather cynically reusing a lot of formulas.

Lipsky: Terrence Rafferty’s line: “a formulaic action picture, but the extra-strength formula….” The film is about as good as an action film can get… consequences keep mounting up as they don’t usually in that sort of movie.

Wallace: Uh-huh.

The difference between the way that scene played out in real life and the way that scene plays out in the film neatly captures my mixed feelings towards “The End of the Tour,” a film built upon a decidedly icky foundation featuring a writer whose work I feel very strongly towards that I still (somehow) reasonably enjoyed.

By all accounts, “The End of the Tour” is a film that shouldn’t exist. The Wallace estate has roundly opposed on the basis of Wallace’s wishes, per their official statement:

“This motion picture is loosely based on transcripts from an interview David consented to eighteen years ago for a magazine article about the publication of his novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’ That article was never published and David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie.”

But with the bare minimum of fairness towards the people behind “The End of the Tour,” the same thing can be said about Lipsky’s book. “Although of Course…” was published a little over eighteen months after Wallace’s suicide, and while it does provide an invaluable glance at Wallace’s own unedited words and ideas at a crucial moment in his life, the book never shakes off the sliminess of its existence. The facts are that Rolling Stone never published Lipsky’s article, and neither his book nor “The End of the Tour” would exist if Wallace hadn’t committed suicide.

It’s difficult for me to ignore this. As Wallace explicitly says on Lipsky’s tape recorder, “I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that’s coming across.” It’s overwhelmingly ironic (and vaguely unsettling) that screenwriter Donald Margulies repurposed that line for the film.

Margulies’ script is an interesting exercise in adaptation. The majority of the dialogue spoken between Wallace and Lipsky is ripped straight from Lipsky’s transcripts, and though there’s some editing here and there, Margulies’ authorship mainly lies in assigning different tones to their various exchanges. Conversations that feel very casual on the page come across as very loaded on screen based on the demands of the film’s narrative. Of course changes like this are to be expected anytime someone adapts a book into a film, but it’s the nature of Margulies’ adaptation that’s responsible for both the strengths and flaws of “The End of the Tour.”

Since “Although of Course…” contains unedited transcripts between Lipsky and Wallace, it’s naturally a loose, shaggy book. The two of them dip in and out of conversations about Wallace’s personal and professional history, the allure and danger of fame, lit theory, pop culture, etc. The scenes when “The End of the Tour” captures this looseness are its best, like when Wallace and Lipsky return to Wallace’s house after their pit stop at the convenience store. After Wallace puts on R.E.M.’s “Murmur” (with “Perfect Circle” and “Catapult” playing consecutively as they do on the album, a real-life situation very rarely included in film), he and Lipsky move deftly between talking about relationships, the prospect of marriage and children, the inherent loneliness of writing, and eventually Wallace’s interest in Alanis Morissette. Though Margulies condenses their literal exchanges, and alters the location of them as well, it does nicely capture the feeling of two writers feeling each other out and exchanging bon mots.

But the best part of Margulies’ adaptation is that he picks up on the (possibly unintended) subtext of “Although of Course…” The worst parts of Lipsky’s book are when he interrupts the transcripts with his own bracketed projections and amateur psychologizing of Wallace. He’ll comment on Wallace’s supposed “approach” towards him and make bold assertions about his internal machinations like:

“Again: Trying to show how much he doesn’t like publicity. Except if he isn’t a genius, there’s no good reason to read the novel…He’s grabbed the wrong lesson: The people who seem to adore the press the way, say, Pooh loves a honey jar, look foolish; but the people who seem to hate it also risk foolishness too, because the reader knows how good press must feel, like having the prettiest girl in school drop you a smile.”

In both his actual words to Wallace and his commentary, it’s clear that Lipsky doesn’t understand why or can’t believe that Wallace isn’t enjoying his recent celebrity. At the risk of psychologizing Lipsky myself (although both the book lends itself to this reading and “The End of the Tour” all but makes it text), his disbelief is rooted in his own personal desire for Wallace’s level of acclaim, but I tend to gravitate towards their contrasting regional mentalities: Lipsky is an “East Coast writer,” desperate to be seen and respected by his peers and the public, while Wallace, despite his liberal arts and Ivy League education, is very much a “Midwestern writer,” astonishingly unpretentious even when he’s being pretentious, and unconcerned with the egoism necessary to exist in the New York literati hive mind.

But Margulies’ adaptation falls flat in two crucial ways. The first is whenever he superimposes obviously contrived tension between Lipsky and Wallace over their exchanges, culminating in Lipsky’s “confrontation” about Wallace’s substance use near the end of the film. The discussions about Wallace’s drinking and the rumor of his heroin addiction are certainly charged on the page, but Margulies, as well as Segel and Eisenberg, play the situation at such a high pitch that it mostly comes across as a desperate need to infuse “conflict” between the two into the script. Similarly, Wallace’s bedroom confession, though containing beautiful ideas about the emptiness that comes with placing all your stock in achievement, doesn’t feel natural for a second, but instead like a shortcut to inject “meaning” and “thematic weight” into the film’s conclusion. “The End of the Tour” flirts with the inherent shagginess of conversation, à la “My Dinner With Andre,” but then ultimately conforms to dramatic formula.

The second way that Margulies’ adaptation fails is arguably more devastating, but it’s also unfortunately unavoidable: He flattens Wallace’s entire personality into its neatest, most accessible form. For my money, the most brilliant aspect of Wallace’s prose is its ability to articulate ideas in a highly intelligent and knowledgeable yet user-friendly way; Wallace had the unique ability to talk above you while never talking down to you, and it was partially because he tapped into the popular language of American culture (especially his use of hyphened adjectives that communicate large concepts, i.e. “television stimulates your what-am-I-gonna-look-like gland”) and the unidentifiable voice in the back of your head that has these ideas and wants to express them but doesn’t have the resources to do so. I inarticulately described this concept to a fellow liberal arts graduate as, “He’s like one of us, but he’s also not like one of us, you know?”

Obviously this is impossible to depict on the screen, but Margulies’ choice to play up the more “everyman” qualities of Wallace at the expense of his more esoteric ones, most crucially his unparalleled intelligence, feels… lacking, to say the least. “The End of the Tour” assumes that the only thing its audience knows about Wallace is that he’s a genius who committed suicide, which makes sense given that it’s a film designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, but it also takes Wallace’s genius for granted. In Lipsky’s book, the stuff about Alanis Morissette and Wallace’s desire to get laid on tour and him writing other students’ papers in college comes in between heady discussions about Nabokov and Barth, the unique magic of avant-garde fiction, and specific details about “Infinite Jest.” He’s like one of us, but he’s also not like one of us. But in the movie, he’s only just like one of us.

Of course, it’s absurd to expect any filmic portrayal of a real person to capture all aspects of their humanity, and to Margulies and director James Ponsoldt’s credit, “The End of the Tour” is decidedly not a biopic of Wallace, but I can’t help but feel that the fact any portrayal of him would inevitably fall short is obviously why Wallace’s estate didn’t support the film. All of Wallace — his academic background, his pedagogic tendencies, his dry sense of humor, and his cultivated empathy — comes alive on the page, but on screen, it exists in brief flashes that don’t always cohere into a singular characterization.

On the whole, Jason Segel plays Margulies’ version of Wallace reasonably well, especially excelling at communicating his sarcasm and wit, like when Lipsky remarks that he has a nice view in his house and Wallace responds, “Thanks, I can’t take credit for it,” or when he heads into an NPR interview and an employee says that they record digitally and Wallace quips, “So only yes and no answers?” He expresses an essential warmth and decency often in remarkable ways, and there are stretches of the film where he completely falls into the character. But it’s interesting to note that the one very brief scene when Wallace is in an intellectual setting, his creative writing class, Segel is cringingly bad, parroting Lipsky’s notes from his visit with a forced affectation. Though Segel has many good qualities as an actor, he’s entirely unconvincing playing a professor, even for a minute.

And yet for reasons that are still unclear to me, I still mostly liked “The End of the Tour” in spite of its foundational flaws. In its best moments, it has a nice ambling quality, and I do think it effectively portrays the ugly cocktail of passive-aggression, bitterness, competition, and envy that comes with being a (male) writer. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t immersed in the film for most of its second act, if for no other shallow reason than hearing (and seeing) Wallace’s erudite ideas about technology, masturbation, and image on the big screen.

But I keep returning to that short “Die Hard” anecdote and how it plays so differently on the screen vs. the page. On the page, Wallace is the one talking about “seductive commercial entertainment,” and while he says he thinks “Die Hard” is a great film, he also pushes back against Lipsky’s unbridled praise by saying that it’s “very formulaic.” When Lipsky tries to agree with Wallace through a Terence Rafferty line but still hold firm on his opinion of “Die Hard’s” greatness, Wallace responds with an “Uh-huh” and they leave it at that. He’s forthright and articulate, but also critical and indifferent. On screen, all Wallace does is effusively concur with Lipsky. That makes all the difference in the world.

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