Book Vs. Film: Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Book Vs. Film: Fast Times At Ridgemont High

 

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

 

Book: Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Cameron Crowe, 1981

Film: Fast Times At Ridgemont High, adapted by Cameron Crowe, directed by Amy Heckerling, 1982

When I first set out to write my Better Late Than Never column about Amy Heckerling's Fast Times At Ridgemont High, I was vaguely aware of the background: Cameron Crowe started his career at 15, playing an adult role in society by writing for Playboy, Creem, Rolling Stone, and other high-profile publications. Seven years later, as a nominal adult, he reversed the formula by playing a much younger role. At age 22, he returned to high school and spent a year pretending to be a senior, so he could observe the wild American teenager in its native habitat and document what he learned. Fast Times At Ridgemont High was the book that came out of that experience, essentially a year in the life of a California high school. A year later, Crowe's screenplay version of the book was a hit teen sex comedy that still maintains a positive reputation today.

So what happened to the book, which is now out of print and fairly rare? (Worn paperback copies go for $40 and up online, according to a couple of reputable book search engines.) Why didn't Crowe's book go on to similar glory and a similarly warm place in the hearts of pop-culture addicts everywhere? After all, the two versions are very similar–virtually all the action in the film is right there in the original version.

The simple, direct, obvious answer is that the film had hit music, high levels of charisma from newbie actors who went on to be stars, and nubile naked breasts. That breast thing in particular likely made a big difference with the film's intended teen audience: The book just had boring old words on paper. But even accepting the book's boobless handicappitude, I think there's a little more going on, and frankly, I blame the way Crowe chose to frame the book. I strongly suspect that if he'd written it as more of a personal essay, more of a tell-all, more of a sociological "Here's what's going on with the kids of today, and here's what grown-ups think is going on, and here's why they're wrong" analysis rooted in the moment, that people would still be reading it today with fascination. Instead, what he gave us is framed as fiction, and it comes across as a fairly dull, plodding, unfocused novel.

Here's an excerpt, starting from page 2 of the book:

 

Stacy was a sweet-looking girl with long, blond hair and only the last traces of adolescent baby fat. An interesting thing had happened over the summer. She had caught the flu and had lost weight, and slimmed down to what her mother constantly reminded her was a "voluptuous figure." Stacy was not quite used to it yet. She had noted increased attention from boys, but as Linda Barrett pointed out, boys didn't count. The idea was to interest men.

Stacy had been working the cash register on the August night that The Vet first walked into Swenson's. He looked to be in his early 20s. He sat down at table C-9, clasped his bandless fingers in front of him, and ordered a French dip sandwich. Stacy watched as the main-floor waitresses all vanished into the back kitchen. He was kind of cute, she decided, in a blow-dry sort of way.

He kept staring at her. It wasn't Stacy's imagination. Even the other girls noticed. The man finished his sandwich, bypassed any ice-cream order, and walked directly over to Stacy with his check.

"So," he said, with a ready smile. "Are you working hard, or hardly working?"

Stacy smiled back–they were supposed to enjoy all customer jokes, unless obscene–and punched up the amount.

"Working hard," she said, with studied indifference. She took his ten-dollar bill. "Out of ten."

"Listen," the man said. "My name is Ron Johnson."

She counted back his change. "I'm Stacy."

"You really look like someone I'd like to know. I never really do this, but…" He pulled a business card from his wallet and wrote his home number on the back. "Why don't you give me a call sometime? I'd love to take you out for dinner. What do you say?"

Caught by surprise, Stacy reverted to the tone and phrasing she usually reserved for customers asking for substitutions on to-go orders. "I'll see what I can do."

"I look forward to hearing from you."

"Okay. Thank you, and have a nice evening."

As soon as he walked out of Swenson's, three waitresses beelined for Stacy.

"What's his name? What's his name?"

"What a total fox!"

"Does he work in the mall?"

 

Note the choppy, repetitively declarative sentences, the flat dialogue, the tell-don't-show style, the physical-appearance-as-characterization summary. If this was a straight-up fictional novel, I can't imagine it would have gone too far as a pop-culture artifact. It's pretty clumsy stuff. (Better than my writing when I was 22, sure, but none of that is in print either.)

And the shame of it is that Crowe's introduction, where he tells the story of how his experiment came about, is much more dynamic and involving. Over a few short pages, he talks about pitching his idea to a principal who was dubious until Crowe mentioned meeting Kris Kristofferson, at which point the principal was apparently so dazzled by this brush with fame that he let the whole project ride. Then he apparently forgot about it: Crowe mentions seeing him again at the end of the year, at which point "a fleeting look of panic crossed his face. Nine months later, it was as if he couldn't quite recall my name or where he knew me from." Crowe also talks about his first meeting with the girl he calls Linda Barrett (the Phoebe Cates character from the film), and about how people from that year of high school probably largely remember him as "the guy with the bad bladder," because he was always requesting bathroom trips so he could run outside and write down some telling piece of conversation he'd just overheard.

And finally, he talks in a few bare sentences about how his friends and family reacted to his experiment–their horror at how into "cars and the prom" he became during his second adolescence, and at how little he was writing professionally: "Magazine journalists, like P.O.W.'s and Turkish drug prisoners, are presumed dead if not heard from over two major holidays." Coming out of Crowe's intro to the book, I wanted much more of that kind of personal touch–his lively sense of humor, his reflections on the experiment, and above all, descriptions of what it was like sneaking into a high school and pretending to be a teenager again, especially given that he apparently wasn't much of a typical teenager back when he was a teenager.

As a sideline, compare all this to one of my favorite Harlan Ellison essays, "The Gang," from Memos From Purgatory. Ellison famously infiltrated a Brooklyn street gang when he was 23, as research for a novel. He hung out with them and went through a standard initiation, fucking a girl and fighting the gang to prove his commitment. Then he hung with them and fought alongside them for weeks before bailing. The essay is an observation of how those kids lived, what they did for fun, how they interacted, and what they thought and believed, but it's also an observation of Ellison's personal experiences, including his terror that they'd find him out as a phony, and the mental gymnastics he went through to stay in the game. It's far more interesting than the debut novel, Web Of The City, that came out of the experience.

And I think Fast Times the book needed that frank personal insight. Crowe did something authentically brave and interesting and unique, and he had a chance to file a detailed report on an extraordinary experience that virtually no one else is likely to have. Instead, he gave us a clunky, choppy novel billed as "a true story," though it contains any number of things that are hard to take as fact.

Without the intro, there'd be no reason to believe that Fast Times is based on real life instead of being pure clumsy fiction. About the only time Crowe as author interferes in the narrative is in a very brief–and yet tellingly entertaining–rapturous comment about the teen buzzword that was apparently all the rage when he went back to school: "wussy," an amalgam of "wimp" and "pussy" that wasn't as mild as the former or as dirty as the latter, but summed up the contempt of both.

All that is the downside. The upside, naturally, is that Crowe's book Fast Times At Ridgemont High is full of ground-level observations of teenagers on their own turf, and as such, it's reasonably involving. Most of the film was taken directly from the book, and just condensed or streamlined. Here's the scene from the film that came out of the scene from the book excerpted above:

Maybe it's just Jennifer Jason Leigh's shy charm as Stacy Hamilton, and maybe it's that Crowe cut a lot of the book's unnecessary dialogue for this scene, and the description is all right there on her face. Either way, the scene is fleeter and sweeter on film. But you can see where the dialogue and scenario came straight from the book.

Most of the film comes directly from the book in similar fashion, given that Crowe wrote both based on the same experiences. But he tweaked the story considerably for the film, tightening it up and focusing on just a few characters, seemingly to give it more of a story arc, and in some cases, possibly to make it more palatable for audiences of the day. One of the more notable plot changes is that in the film, Ron ("The Vet") takes Stacy out to The Point on their first date and deflowers her; she's shy, but more than willing, even eager, to get this rite of passage out of the way. In the book, they go on several dates, he refuses to make a move, and she gets impatient and consults Linda, who tells her "Most guys are just pussies… So I started making the first move, and you know what else? Most guys are just too insecure and too chicken to do it themselves." So Stacy meaningfully suggests that Ron take her to the Point, and she's the one who kisses him on the mouth, suggesting he go further, and he seems… well, shy, but more than willing. (Maybe Crowe and director Amy Heckerling thought that an America that was barely ready for teen girls who wanted sex wasn't yet ready for teen girls who practically had to mug guys to get it.) In the film, he sends her flowers afterward but never calls again, in a "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am" sort of move; in the book, he continues to call her and angle for more dates, but she's done with him, because she's sick of hiding him from her mom and lying about her age. After a round of speculative note-passing between her and Linda, she writes him a disingenuous letter revealing that she's only 15. Only then does he stop bugging her. Later, during her abortion crisis, she calls him seeking solace, but he nervously gives her the quickest brush-off possible, before even hearing why she's calling.

Another major book-vs.-film difference: In the film, surfer-dude Spicoli (Sean Penn) is a clownish but sympathetic figure, the affable, relateable stoner in us all, whereas in the book, he's more obviously being mocked every time Crowe observes him. Crowe never comes out and says "Look how dumb this guy is," but the slant of the stories about Spicoli all point in that direction. For instance, in the scene where a student named Louis Crowley loses his father and sister when their car is smashed over the side of a bridge by a reckless driver. Everything is somber until Spicoli charges into Louis' journalism class, obliviously lofting a newspaper featuring photos of the accident: "'Look at these bitchin' photos of the crash,' boomed Jeff Spicoli. 'You can see the people inside and everything.' Everyone froze. No one spoke. Louis Crowley hung his head and began to sob. It would be another month before anyone spoke to Jeff Spicoli again."

Losing scenes like that may help make Spicoli more palatable in the film, but Penn's bantery cheerfulness and infectious grin are also a large part of the change. I also wonder if he improv-ed some of his scenes; the dialogue in the Spicoli scenes is further from the dialogue in the book than most of the rest of the film, with some of his most notable lines (telling a wave "Hey, bud, let's party!"; telling a friend "That was my freakin' skull! I'm so wasted!") not appearing in the book at all.

The last really major difference between the book and the film involves Charles Jefferson, Forest Whitaker's character. In the film, Charles shows up as a high-school football star, with little more characterization than "scary big black dude"; the book, by contrast, gets into his family life, his desire to not "be anyone's 'black friend,'" the racist taunts that drove him away from high-school football, his coach's successful bid to get a huge cash influx for the school's losing football team by re-recruiting Charles Jefferson, and Jefferson's general attitude of "fuck this, I'm headed for the majors" defiance throughout his senior year. There's also a fairly amazing story where he hijacks a city bus and makes it take him directly home because his car is in the shop and he's in a bad mood. (This is before Spicoli wrecks his car; at this point, it's apparently just having maintenance done.) The cops come to question Jefferson about the incident, but he denies it; he's banned from city busses thereafter, but he's fine with that. Eventually, he's arrested for involvement in a robbery with two dudes who break into a Radio Shack after a party. He loses his scholarship and effectively ceases to exist as far as the school is concerned.

The whole dealing with Charles Jefferson is one of the many places where Crowe's authorial voice would have been immensely welcome, to clear up exactly how much of Fast Times is conjecture, amalgamation, or outright fiction. How would he know any of these things about a solitary, angry kid who doesn't speak to people? Are all the stories Crowe tells about him just passed-on rumors? Given how overblown the gossipy retellings of Spicoli's "You dick!" encounter with Mr. Hand become, how could Crowe trust any stories about such an overblown, widely feared kid? Given that this is all presented in a fictionalized setting anyway, how much of it is real, and how much of it does Crowe actually meant to be taken as real?

At any rate, the film is a relatively faithful adaptation of maybe half of the book. While a few characters were condensed into each other–in the book, the school scalper and Mike Damone are two different people, for instance–and a lot of scenes were left out, the ones that made it into the film are generally kept close to the source. For instance, here's the book's version of the famous scene where Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) masturbates to a mental image of Linda Barrett, and she walks in on him:

 

A short film unreeled in his mind. This film featured Linda Barrett, just as she stood on the diving board a moment ago. She was gorgeous. Her breasts seemed even bigger than usual. Her nipples were hard, poking through the filmy maroon string bikini. Water rolled slowly down her cheeks into the corners of her mouth. Her lips were parted slightly. Her eyes were filled with desire.

"Hi, Brad," she said in the daydream, "you know how cute I always thought you were. I think you're so sexy. Will you come to me?"

In the daydream, Brad was wearing a nice shirt. His hair was combed back and looking great. He walked to Linda. She reached out and grabbed him for a kiss, pulling him close. Then she pushed him away so he could watch as she carefully unstrapped the top of her bathing suit. The incredible Linda Barrett breasts fell loose. She took Brad's hands and placed them on her as she began unbuttoning his shirt. They were just about to fall into passionate teenage love making when Brad heard…

"Hey Brad? Got any Q-ti…"

There was a swift knock at the bathroom door and then–Jesus–it just opened. The words I'm in here stalled in Brad's mouth.

There stood the real-life Linda Barrett, her top very much still on. She was standing in the doorway, paralyzed by the sight before her. Poor Brad was kneeling on the bathroom floor, a sizable erection shriveling in his hand.

"Sorry," she said, "I didn't know anybody was in here." Linda Barrett pulled the door shut as if she wanted to forget what she saw as quickly as possible. They would never again discuss the incident.

Brad stared down into the toilet bowl, still not believing what had happened. It was funny how everything could just turn around on you in a matter of seconds. Brad slammed the toilet bowl cover down. "Doesn't anyone fuckin' knock any more?" he said.

 

(As a side note here, I once again wound up wondering where this story came from. Who spilled the beans about this encounter, exactly? Did the real-life "Brad" actually fess up about what was going through his head? As with so many scenes in Fast Times the book, it's all but impossible to believe that everything really happened as Crowe captured it; the difficulty of verifying stories like this is likely why he wrote from a fictional standpoint. That, and to protect these poor, embarrassed bastards.)

Still, the book contains a ton of material that was left out, likely for clarity and for run time, with entire storylines and characters omitted completely. Here are a whole bunch of details that didn't make it to the final cut of the film:

• Mr. Hand (the brusque, hilarious teacher played by Ray Walston) is revealed as being obsessed with Steve Garrett, the chief detective from Hawaii 5-0. He imitates Garrett's mannerisms and speech patterns to the point where students apparently ask him every year why he acts so much like that guy. He always responds "I don't know what you're talking about."

• Linda and Stacy go to the free clinic together to get Stacy on birth control once she's sexually active. Linda, an old pro at this business, tells Stacy exactly what to say and do in order to make sure she gets on the pill and doesn't just get a diaphragm, apparently the birth control of choice for less sexually active girls.

• Linda is in a complicated relationship with a 20-year-old; they're engaged and she shows off her engagement as a mark of her maturity over mere high-school boys, but at the same time, she and her fiancé see very little of each other. She treats him like a weapon against people she doesn't want to date or sleep with, while not letting him get in the way of people she does. There's also a fairly harrowing story about how Linda and Stacy became friends: Linda was a bad kid who sold and did copious amounts of drugs, until she ODed and her drug buddies panicked and dumped her outside at a closed mall. Afterward, "Linda set about courting the straightest girl she knew," basically making Stacy into a friend by force of will, and remodeling her life after Stacy's more clean-cut one.

• Stacy's semi-love interests Mike Damone and Mark "The Rat" Ratner (Robert Romanus and Brian Backer in the film) are actually a little undercharacterized in the book, but more details about their pasts are forthcoming, particularly how they met, when they both worked at Marine World and Damone faked epileptic fits to freak people out. There's also an ongoing plotline where The Rat attempts to chat up Stacy, who works at the student information desk, by asking her for information he doesn't actually want or need. Sometimes he just hovers by the information desk, trying to work out when to approach so he gets to talk to her instead of the other person working the desk.

• Brad doesn't get fired from his plum fast-food job at Carl's Jr. for threatening to kick a customer's ass; a bitchy female customer goes out of her way to get him in trouble, and his manager purposefully frames him as a thief in order to get rid of him. Meanwhile, all the friends he brought on to work with him refuse to stand up for him, to his disgust and fury. He gets fired from his second job (at Jack-In-The-Box) for threatening to kick a customer's ass.

• The "we want to be called Spirit Bunnies" scene in the book is much more protracted, and comes from established characters, rather than being a joke line from nowhere. The book includes a lot of descriptions and little scenelets featuring key players at Ridgemont, most of whom become background texture in the film, or are omitted entirely.

• There's a whole section on Spirit Week (or "TOLO Week," which somehow stands for "totally outrageous"), when everyone dresses up in costumes. Crowe offers up some suspiciously committed handicapping on the big homecoming king and queen race, with all the contenders explored as if by someone who really cares about who wins. Incidentally, the football coach's big rallying cry, revealed during the homecoming section, is "HQA! Hellfire! Quickness! Agility!" Which, you know, just rolls comfortably off athletes' tongues and gets them all fired up to play.

• While Spicoli and his brother do wreck Charles Jefferson's car, and they do set it up to look like a rival school did it, the comedic sequence from the film where Charles Jefferson takes out his fury on that school is much less pronounced in the book, and just amounts to a mild note that he makes one fairly determined touchdown, possibly because of his anger over his car.

• One prominent character from the book, Steve Shasta, is left entirely out of the movie, possibly because the movie winds up being a coming-of-age sex comedy largely about Stacy, so there's no room for observations about a guy who's getting a great deal of sex himself. Shasta is a self-aggrandizing blowhard who spends a lot of time in the local media, talking about his sports successes in highly printable, colorful soundbites. He also tells everyone in school that he's celibate, because he's saving all his strength for soccer. This makes him seem inaccessible and mysterious, and gets him a lot of blowjobs from a lot of girls, including Linda Barrett herself. The book includes a number of colorful Steve Shasta stories; he's about as big a character as Linda or Spicoli or The Rat.

Whew. Yes, I'm aware that at this point, this column rivals the length of the book, but given how hard it is to lay hands on the book, that doesn't seem as embarrassing as it might be. Besides, I haven't used the word "penis" nearly enough yet in this column. To that end… The book also includes many, many, many little scattered vignettes, amounting to a page or two apiece. Among the most interesting:

• some business about School Picture Day, where Damone persuades Rat to moon the camera during the all-class shot. The two of them later wind up consigned to the school gym, glumly erasing Rat's ass-crack from every copy of the school yearbook;

• a sequence where Spicoli, called upon to give a speech in class, tells an obviously improvised story about how Mick Jagger personally gave him the necklace he's wearing, after they did coke together. The class, assigned to collectively grade him, gives him a D. (A version of this scene was reportedly filmed);

• a bunch of random plot threads following Ridgemont High's "dean of discipline," a hardcore adult bully who wears cop suits and acts like a cop, except when trying to make friends with Charles Jefferson, who tells him to go fuck himself. Eventually, he pulls a gun on Spicoli, claiming he mistook Spicoli's bong for a shotgun. He's subsequently sued and fired;

• a sequence where a tremendously charismatic paraplegic class-ring salesman comes through and successfully sells rings to most of the school, even people who had no interest in them before hearing his nostalgic, manipulative, "I remember the good old high school days before I crippled myself in a car crash…" sales pitch;

• a sequence where some eerily glib, robotic Frisbee champs come in to do a school presentation on behalf of Frisbee, unaware that they aren't appearing at a college. This doesn't keep them from hitting on the older girls;

• various funny late-night phone conversations between Linda and Stacy, about boys, dating, and what exactly constitutes "a total orgasm";

• an unusually long and detailed but detached sequence chronicling the high-school talent show, where various people show off obnoxiously, and Spicoli is "merciless" about playing a loudly beeping handheld football game during acts that bore him;

• Damone notices a pimple near his penis and obsesses about possibly having VD. Eventually, he exposes himself to the assistant P.E. coach, asking for his input, and enduring a joke about the possibility that Damone caught something from the coach's wife;

• meanwhile, The Rat measures his own penis, worrying about average sizes, whether he's underendowed, and how to measure honestly. He later mail-orders a penile extender called the "Exer-Gro Plus," unsure what form it will take. It turns out to be "a rubber dickhead" designed to be worn on the end of his cock to "lengthen" it visually. He tries it. It falls off and slides down his pant leg while he's shopping in Safeway;

• the suicide of a little-known and little-loved student causes a popular teacher to lecture every one of her classes about their self-absorption and selfishness, and they're all cowed and considerate, "for about two weeks";

• an April Fool's day prank draws 30 Hendrix impersonators of varying talent to the school to audition for a supposed Off-Broadway tribute to the guitarist. Once they learn it's just a prank, they decide Jimi would have wanted them to jam, so they take over the cafeteria and play for an hour and a half before someone cuts off the electricity;

• a long graduation-night sequence follows various characters' attempts to procure booze and sex during a nighttime trip to Disneyland;

• Brad writes himself a fairly touching letter about graduation and his hopes for the future, designed to be delivered 10 years later.

Finally, there's the matter of Stacy's abortion. In the film, this sequence is refreshing in a number of ways: It's frank (surprisingly so, for a sex comedy), it's brief rather than being a wallow in miserablism or humiliation, and it's up-front both about the fact that abortion can be depressing, scary, and off-puttingly clinical, but that it doesn't necessarily serve as a life-changing moral experience that makes people stop wanting sex. In other words, it's fairly realistic about the emotional impact and the experience itself.

Crowe's original version is about the same–but with a lot more detail, both about the lead-up and the procedure. In the film, Damone (who got Stacy pregnant) agrees to help pay for the abortion and to drive Stacy to the clinic, but he never shows up to drive her, seemingly embarrassed about the whole thing and uncomfortable with the cost. In the book, they fight about the pregnancy. ("You made me do it!" he whines about the sex. "You wanted it more than me!") He stands her up. She reschedules. Damone stands her up again, paralyzed with panic and immaturity. ("All he wanted to do was go away, forget about this problem. Why wouldn't it just go away? Why did it fall on him? She'd had just as much fun as he; it was her responsibility, too. Things like this weren't supposed to happen when you had The Attitude.") Finally, Stacy goes on her own, and Crowe dedicates a couple of careful pages to what an abortion is like, and how Stacy feels during and afterward.

Which is one of the few places where the book seems to have a clear agenda: To let people vicariously experience something they might never endure in real life. Take it as a warning, as an exercise in empathy for young sexually active males, or whatever else, Crowe is unflinching and rational about it, much as he is with the rest of the book. He doesn't judge, and he doesn't editorialize. It's the one part of the book that's probably better off without his intruding personal voice.

So. Book, or Film? The film, as mentioned earlier, is faster, fleeter, and more fun, whether you're looking for one-liners, early celebrity sightings, memorable music, or boobs. For the film, Crowe cropped a lot of the rabbit trails and ephemera, and concentrated on a few strong, well-played characters and a couple of specific story arcs. The book is like his primitive first draft of the story he built with the film, and it amounts to a mildly interesting curiosity at best. But it does have some pretty funny stories.

Next in Book Vs. Film: A much shorter and sweeter look at a comic novel that spawned a very different comic movie.

All previous Book Vs. Film entries are archived here.

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