Book Vs. Film: Jumper

 

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: Jumper, Steven Gould, 1992

Book: Reflex, Steven Gould, 2005

Book: Jumper: Griffin's Story, Steven Gould, 2007

Graphic novel: Jumper: Jumpscars, Nunzio Defilippis and Christina Weir, 2008

Film: Jumper, adapted by David S. Goyer, Jim Uhls, and Simon Kinberg; directed by Doug Liman, 2008

It would never have occurred to me to cover Jumper for a book vs. film column if the book hadn't shown up on my desk. Even so, I almost set it aside, since it looked so much like one of those cheap, quickie film novelizations. I'd never heard of the author, Steven Gould, and I'd never heard of the book, and having seen the trailer, I had no reason to believe it was going to be anything but a slapdash action movie.

Then I checked the book's copyright date and found out it was more than 15 years old, which surprised me, and I read the first couple of pages out of curiosity. After that, I was hooked, and I burned through all three of Gould's Jumper-related books in a week. And now I wish there were more of them.

But after I finished reading Jumper, I braced myself and watched the Jumper movie trailer again. Sure enough, absolutely nothing in that trailer happens in the book, except for the female lead saying "Just don't lie to me." Action? Antagonists? Big splashy teleporting effects? Teleporting cars? Picnics on top of the Sphinx's head? A war involving high-tech future super-widgets? What huh?

Put it this way. Here, in a nutshell, are all the significant similarities between Jumper the book and Jumper the movie: Both feature a protagonist named David Rice, who finds out, as a teenager, that he can teleport. He abandons his alcoholic father, drops out of high school, and moves to New York City, where he books himself into a shitty flophouse, uses his power to teleport into a bank vault, and teleports back out with a whole lot of money. Also, there's a love interest named Millie who doesn't like being lied to.

And that's really about it.

Given that, it really isn't necessary to address every plot point from both versions in order to discuss the vast differences between them, so this column will be less spoilery than past editions of Book Vs. Film. Besides, I'd recommend Jumper the book, and I'd rather not give away so much of the story that people don't feel a need to read it. Instead, I mostly want to talk about the differences between the two versions' tones and goals. Turning a quiet, methodical coming-of-age story into a brainless action-adventure film is kind of missing the point, but it's also kind of typical of what happens when Hollywood gets its hands on a good story. Far more disturbing to me is the way Jumper the movie turns a morality tale into an anti-morality tale, and transforms a kid's search for himself into a sociopath's wet-dream justification for any crazy, murderous thing he wants to do.

Jumper was Steven Gould's first novel, and it does read a lot like a debut: It's clunky and flat in some places, especially in the early chapters, but it gradually broadens and settles in style, steadily becoming more ambitious and assured all the way through to the end. Though this could also be a part of the story arc–it's a first-person novel, and it's about David Rice growing up, so it makes sense that his story would become more complicated as his horizons broaden.

It starts with Davy's first two teleporting experiences. (You can read the first chapter here.) The first comes when his father–simultaneously more monstrous and more human in the book, largely because he's more present in general–is beating him with a belt. ("Not the buckle, dad! You promised!" "Shut UP! I didn't hit you near hard enough the last time.") Which is the clumsiest part of the book; it reads like a Very Special Episode Of Blossom or something. After Davy instinctively teleports away from the beating and finds himself at his local library, he runs away, possibly as much so he doesn't have to explain things to his dad as to avoid further beatings. On the road, he accepts a ride from a trucker, who drives him out to the middle of nowhere to meet with some friends, all of whom attempt to gang-rape him. Once again, facing violence and pain, he instinctively teleports away–back to his hometown library, which, he eventually realizes, he thinks of as a sanctuary, a quiet place where he used to escape from his father.

From there, the book improves considerably. Gould is a methodical writer who seems to enjoy process quite a bit, at least judging from the three Jumper books. He doesn't tend to skip steps: He doesn't say "So then I robbed a bank," or "So then I spent the next three months building myself a sanctuary in the mountains." He takes us though each procedure bit by bit, almost as if he were laying out a how-to manual for future teleporters. Much of the rest of the book proceeds in this detail-oriented, nose-to-the-grindstone sort of way: Davy tries to live on his own in New York City, but discovers that he can't get a job without ID, he can't get an ID without a birth certificate, and he can't get a birth certificate without ID. So he can't make an honest living. So then he walks himself through the process of learning to rob a bank. He decides to build a sort of Fortress Of Solitude in a place only a teleporter could reach. He travels to places by bus or plane and memorizes locales so he'll be able to teleport to them later. He experiments with his teleporting powers. He meets a girl named Millie at a Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, and carefully goes through the motions of courting her without letting her in on his many secrets: that he's a teleporter, a 17-year-old runaway, and a thief. Much of the book proceeds like this: It's immersive and grounded, in a very mundane you-are-there kind of way.

It took me a while to catch onto what Gould was doing, because he generally doesn't spell it out. Which is one of the big charms of the book: It's been a while since I read a novel that was this conscious of the show-don't-tell dictate. For a good part of the story, I couldn't understand some of the choices Davy makes. For instance, he teleports home frequently for mundane things he could do elsewhere, like washing his clothes. He always avoids his father, but leaves him petulant "messages" by smashing or taking things. Long after he's escaped his old life and settled down in New York City, he goes back to his hometown for a high-school party, where he tries to impress kids he knew back in the day. He pursues Millie obsessively, but when balked, retreats into himself with alarming childishness. And in spite of his power and his million-dollar bank-heist cache, he holes up like an animal in a den, building himself a series of lairs and getting to know few people in New York.

It didn't occur to me until midway through the book that Gould is basically exploring the mentality of someone who's been serially abused his whole life, someone with emotional arrested development who's trying to get beyond what was done to him in the past, and decide what he wants to do with himself in the future. Like so many abuse victims, Davy is afraid of new things and people, and he sticks to what he knows, even returning to the site of his abuse over and over in spite of the danger; he eventually has to learn, slowly but surely, to let go and move on.

The teleportation is a fantastical, colorful element that makes the book unique, but ultimately, it's more about emotions and people than powers. More than anything, Jumper reminded me of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's Wife, another book about a man with a semi-magical ability that wound up being less about his power, and more about how it affected his relationship with his wife. (I loved that book, too.)

Jumper the book does include some action, as Davy eventually tries to track down his long-missing mom, and deals with the NSA's ongoing pursuit of him, and eventually winds up fighting terrorism around the world. It feels a bit like two different books, mushed together: In one, Davy finds his feet as a human being, separate from the father who's defined his entire life, and in the second, he starts becoming an adult, making his own choices, and using his abilities to change the world for the better, instead of just to escape his own demons. The first half of the book feels a little like an After School Special about child abuse, written for young adults; the second half feels more like an adult political thriller, albeit still an exceedingly methodical, process-driven one. The style goes from the short-sharp-sentence bluntness of that opening chapter, linked above, to passages like this one, in which Davy gets a political lesson from a Georgetown professor so he can better understand the people he's fighting:

 

"One of the problems with American public policy on terrorism is that our government insists on blurring the line between armed insurgence against military forces and installations and attacks on uninvolved civilians. Now, obviously attacking unarmed civilians who have no involvement with a particular political issue is terrorism. But an attack on an armed military force occupying one's homeland? That's not terrorism. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, I'm just saying that if you call that terrorism then the U.S. is also involved in financing terrorists in Afghanistan and Central America. See what I mean?"

"Yeah."

"Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that the proportion of American dead from terrorism is way out of proportion to the response it generates. We did nothing to stop the Iraq-Iran war because we perceived it in our interests that damage be done to both of those countries. Personally I think that's inexcusable, but I'm not in the position to make government policy. Certainly both leaders were crazy with a long-standing personal grudge, but their people paid a horrible price."

"I wasn't aware that there was a personal grudge."

"Hell, yes. In nineteen seventy-five; when Hussein settled the dispute over the eastern bank of Shatt-al-Arab with the Shah of Iran, one of the unwritten conditions was that Hussein get Khomeini to stop his political activity."

"How could he expect Hussein to do that?"

Perston-Smythe looked at me like I was an idiot. "Khomeini was in Iraq. When he was exiled from Iran he went to the Shiite holy city of An Najaf. Anyway, Hussein told Khomeini to stop and Khomeini refused, so Hussein bounced him out of the country to Kuwait which promptly bounced him out of the country to France. Over a fifteen-year period, seven hundred thousand Shiites were thrown out of Iraq. There's a lot of bad feeling there. More now of course, since the war."

I blinked. "I know you're trying to give me the big picture, but what about these particular terrorists?"

"We're getting there. It's a roundabout way, but all the better for the journey. What do you know about Sunni versus Shiite beliefs?"

 

Okay, still kind of clunky–and a little too much like a Michael Crichton novel, with one character unquestioningly eating up the political lectures of an author stand-in who's essentially lecturing the reader–but still a couple of levels denser and more sophisticated than that opening chapter, and a lot more focused on a big picture. Robert Cormier might have written this book, but few other young-adult writers would have made that kind of transition.

So at any rate. The book is about Davy growing up and getting his own life, one tied into the rest of the world.

The film, by contrast, is about a kid in a permanent state of arrested development, pissed off at the world, hung up on a girl he's had a crush on since early childhood, and given the power to do whatever he wants. I feel like I covered that ground a bunch already in my review of the film, and I don't want to overdo it. But in brief, I don't think the film's biggest bastardization of the book is in adding "paladins" who run around trying to kill jumpers because of some vague religious belief that only God should be everywhere at once. I don't think it's in changing the nature of teleportation, such that it's a big, flashy effect that leaves behind "jump scars" which other people can jump through, and that paladins can hold open with super-machines. I think it's largely in turning the protagonist into a selfish, creepy sociopath who goes out of his way to hurt people. [pagebreak]

I took some crap in comments on my film review for reviewing the film's morality rather than the film, which in part makes me think I expressed myself poorly. It isn't that the film is morally objectionable and should be avoided because it teaches kids bad values, and shame shame, won't someone please think of the children. It's more that the film is brainless and childish and not very interesting. Its Davy is a bratty kid who storms around breaking laws not for any particular reason, but just because he can. The book gets into his head and justifies his actions; the film doesn't give a shit why he does what he does. He has a super power, dammit, and that alone justifies any behavior, both to the character and to the film, which never reaches beyond or even examines his superficial morality. (Which I think he really sums up in the film's first scene, when he tells the audience how he used to be "a normal person, a chump, just like you.") It isn't important that he lies to Millie constantly in order to impress her and get her into the sack: What's important is that he gets her into the sack. Cool! It isn't important that he has ridiculous amounts of money, yet when he wants to go surfing, he uses his power to steal a wetsuit and a surfboard, then teleports to someplace with some good waves, then teleports out again when he gets in over his head, leaving the stolen board behind. Wicked, man! The film doesn't care why he does anything: It's just about the action.

Which is fine, except when the paladins show up, led by Roland (Samuel L. Jackson), and suddenly the audience is supposed to have some sort of stake in the proceedings. Except that we can't care about Davy, because we don't know anything about him, except that he's a spoiled brat. And we can't root for Roland, because we don't know a damn thing about him, either, except that he kills brats like Davy, apparently for religious reasons. So the film doesn't really give the audience a stake in anything. So who cares who wins when they start fighting?

Even where the film actually follows the book, it changes everything it can possibly change, in ways that pretty much make Davy more of a meathead. To wit:

• When book-Davy first teleports to escape his father, he instinctively teleports to his local library, his sanctuary where he shuts out the outside world. Later in the book, he returns there frequently for research and reading, because he still associates it with his few happy memories of childhood. When film-Davy (whose dad is sorta scary, but is never seen beating him) first gets himself into danger by falling into a frozen river, he also instinctively teleports to the library–and wrecks a huge swath of it by accidentally bringing along a flood of water. Later, he returns again, and this time, he completely destroys the place in the process. This is a product of the film's flashy aesthetic, not some kind of cruel anti-library message. But as a book-lover, it's hard not to be annoyed at the guy who thoughtlessly flattens the local library. Maybe some vague show of regret is too much to ask for, especially in an action movie, but still, it just feels like another sign of the movie's "Nothing and no one is important but me" mentality. Not to mention its dunderheaded lack of interest in stupid ol' book-learnin'.

• Book-Davy robs a bank because he has to: He has no other means of support. But after the one theft, he's done–he lives relatively conservatively off the money, getting himself a small apartment and mostly buying books. And he feels guilty as hell about it. And when he takes other things, like the construction materials he teleports into the wilderness for his hideaway, he leaves cash to pay for the stuff. And in Reflex, it comes out that once he did start earning money, while he couldn't confess to the crime and pay back the bank, he donated an equivalent amount of honestly earned money to charity as a compensatory measure. Basically, there's a big ol' "Don't steal, kids, it's wrong" morality message there.

Presumably film-Davy robs that first bank for the same reason, but immediately afterward, the film jumps forward eight years, and it rapidly becomes clear that a) he's still robbing banks, given that he has a massive closet packed with shrink-wrapped flats of cash and huge sacks of money, and b) he's blowing the money on whatever strikes his fancy, given his massive high-rise home full of motorcycles and high-tech toys. And even so, he still uses his power to steal random objects. And to add to that, he's so dumb, he's leaving an IOU at the site of every robbery–when Roland shows up to kill Davy's lame ass, he has a pile of "I'll totally pay this back" notes from the sites of Davy's crimes. This detail baffles the hell out of me. Clearly Davy isn't going to pay the money back–he's stolen way, way more than he needs, presumably for fun or to show off. So why is he leaving evidence behind, in his own handwriting, yet? Is he being disingenuous? Does he believe he's actually going to pay the money back? Or is he just being a smug dick?

• Finally, book-Davy meets Millie at a show, and starts pursuing her bit by bit. She's part of his new life, his escaped life, his adult life. And she's actually stronger and more principled than he is; she sees his damage, and talks to him about it, and tries to help him get over it. Film-Davy knows Millie from childhood. He wanted her as a kid, he wanted her as an adolescent, he wants her as a grown-up. She's just another sign of his own arrested development, his inability to make mature connections. In this clip, he sums it up with the line "It was always you. Ever since we were 5.":

It doesn't help that film-Millie is kind of a bimbo, easily bowled over by film-Davy's lies and money and power. By the end of the film, in spite of him lying to her, endangering the hell out of her, and destroying her life, she's draped over his arm, basically as another accessory that he accumulates to show how awesome he is.

Morality aside, there's obviously a broad tonal difference between the book and the film. The book, as I've said, is methodical, sometimes almost plodding, in laying out the step-by-step procedures of making a life in a new city, or developing an information network that will help stop terrorist attacks. The movie is broad and spastic, fast-forwarding past Davy's development from a scared kid to an overconfident lout played by Hayden Christensen. (Yes, he's about as stiff and uninteresting as he was in the Star Wars prequel films. While he never tells Millie she's soft and smooth and not at all like sand, his relationship with her is about like his relationship with Padme in Attack Of The Clones: clumsy and glowering and grunty.) And the movie's skip-to-the-action aesthetic leaves a bunch of massive logical holes in its wake. For instance, it's never really clear what the paladins believe, or why, or where they came from, or how they find jumpers. It's also never clear why Davy's teleports sometimes barely disturb the papers in the room he's leaving, and sometimes smash walls to powder.

These things are actually cleared up elsewhere, in stories that are more interesting than the movie by a good bit. The future life of book-Davy is also laid out in an unrelated book. Some brief summaries of the other Jumper-related books out there:

Reflex is the sequel to Jumper, and has nothing to do with the film universe: It's about Davy as a grown-up, now married and with most, but not all, of his abuse issues behind him. In this book, he's captured by some individuals who've learned about some of the limitations of his powers, and use them to control him and begin conditioning him. Like Jumper, it's methodical and detailed, walking through the steps of what they do to him and what the results are. That's about half the book; the other involves Millie trying to figure out what happened to him, and trying to save him. It's more of a traditional thriller than Jumper, and less of a young-adult book. I'd recommend it. In some ways, I think it's a better book than Jumper–more balanced, better-written throughout–though I wouldn't recommend reading it without reading Jumper first.

Jumper: Griffin's Story is a book Gould wrote as a prequel to the movie, and in the movie universe rather than the universe of his original, paladin-free Jumper. It's the backstory of Griffin, the experienced jumper played in the film by Jamie Bell. And it reads more than a little like a retread of Jumper. Griffin isn't abused and doesn't have the same issues, and he's much younger than Davy, but he's forced out of his home when paladins come after him and kill his family, and he goes through much of the same steps in escaping his old life, learning about his powers, and gradually building himself a home. This book does a much better job than the film of showing why the paladins are the bad guys–ruthless people with way too much power who will casually kill anyone to achieve their goals. And it explains a lot more about the variables of jumping–how sloppy or sudden or unplanned or emotional jumps disturb the area and bring along more detritus than controlled ones, for instance. It also explains a lot about the paladins' methodology–some of them can sense teleportation, and use it to track their prey. This one's inessential, though, except for people who really enjoyed the movie and want to explore the world at length. Or people who think the movie looks dumb, but enjoyed Gould's other work and would like a more nuanced, Gould-flavored look at the world of the film.

Jumper: Jumpscars is a tie-in graphic novel not written by Gould, from the perspective of a newbie paladin learning why jumpers are bad and need to be killed. And it makes some pretty good arguments, actually, especially in light of the film. It's presented more as a tragedy than a primer, but it's an interesting look at the other side of the equation, and it's far more nuanced than the film's "God wants you to die!" paladin perspective.

One more thing about the film: It really wants to be a superhero comic. It underlines this a lot, with Davy repeatedly telling Griffin that their story is like a Marvel Team-Up arc, where two unrelated superheroes briefly hang out and work together. The metaphor comes up several times. But Davy isn't a hero, or even an anti-hero. He's a supervillain, and he just doesn't know it. Maybe, just maybe, he'll actually go all the way into villainy or heroism in the next movie, and become an actual interesting character. I'm not holding my breath, because it doesn't seem likely. But since the film goes out of its way to set up a sequel by throwing in irrelevant unresolved plot threads, then hitting viewers over the head with them at the end of the film, and since the movie's fairly close to making back its production budget after a week in theaters, I think it's fairly likely that we'll be seeing Jumper 2: The Jumping Boogaloo at some point in the future. Hopefully it'll at least make the protagonist someone worth caring about, one way or the other.

Next time on Book Vs. Film:

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