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  • February 2011
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Paranoid Park: Book vs. Movie

People take to movie adaptations of books in different ways.  My mom, for instance, can’t re-read the Harry Potter books before she sees their movie counterparts lest she be overcome with angst about what was left out.  There are so many adaptations these days that I feel it’s a waste of energy to get mad about what had to get left out of the screenplay (unless it’s particularly egregious — like not having Klaus wear glasses in the Lemony Snicket movie).  Sometimes it’s much more rewarding to ruminate on why a film makes its adaptive choices–what is it going for?

For example, I picked up Paranoid Park from our DVD shelves a couple weeks ago–I hadn’t read the Blake Nelson book from which it was adapted, but I am a fan of his writing from way back and I think Gus Van Sant, the director, does interesting stuff. (Elephant, Good Will Hunting, Milk).  I vaguely knew that the plot involved a skateboard and a death.

What I experienced was a movie that flipped back and forth in time, not to solve the mystery of who-hit-the-train-security-guard-with-a-skateboard-and-accidentally-caused-his-death, but more to solve the mystery of how Alex, the main character, is dealing with it, and if he will “confess”.  There are lots of slow patches of slo-mo skateboarding, some great Elliott Smith songs, what seemed like improvised dialogue, and lots of voiceover.  And not acted voiceover, but voiceover that sounds like the actor (Gabe Nevins, who got the role through MySpace) was just reading the script for the first time.  I don’t know if I liked the movie, but I thought it was an interesting way to show how numb Alex felt and maybe how he had a little PTSD about the whole thing.

The trailer makes it look much more like a thriller than it is:


After watching the movie I knew I had to read the book. For one thing, I’ve always found Blake Nelson’s characters to be funnier and more… present? than the Alex in the film. And I wanted to find out if the ending was the same.

The book was much better. Alex was funnier. It was told linearly (unlike the movie), in the form of letters (like the movie).  The ending was the same, but I could sympathize with Alex more because I understood more of what he was thinking.  And the violent incident at the heart of the book was much more sickening on the page even though the movie goes all out with special effects to show you what happens.

So, if this were a competition I’d dodge the responsibility of naming a winner and just say that the movie worked as a mood piece while the book is much better at putting you in Alex’s situation.  That’s sort of the opposite of what you might expect.

Oh yeah, Taylor Momsen is in the movie too.

Want to read other opinions?

Interview with Blake Nelson about the adaptation.

– Someone who really loved the film explains why.

– Someone who didn’t like it at all explains why.

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