Book Vs. Film: Paranoid Park

Book Vs. Film: Paranoid Park

 

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: Paranoid Park, Blake Nelson, 2006

Film: Paranoid Park, adapted and directed by Gus Van Sant, 2007

Given how often books get turned into films for the wrong reasons–say, because the book is popular enough to guarantee an audience, even if the adaptation is crap, or because a filmmaker can see a couple of elements worth strip-mining out of the book while rendering the rest of the story unrecognizable–adaptations like Paranoid Park are always pleasant surprises. It's pretty clear why Gus Van Sant made a film version of the young-adult novel Paranoid Park: It's exactly the kind of story he's been telling for the past six years, and it meshes perfectly with his sensibilities. It was perfect for him as it was, and he largely does it justice, with very little narrative tampering.

Though unfortunately, he can't resist just a little narrative tampering, which to my mind, makes the film filmier–not more cinematic, just more in a recognizable, standard-issue film form–without improving it at all.

With Paranoid Park, author Blake Nelson–previously best-known for his debut novel, Girl, which was also made into a film back in 1998–seems to be trying something few authors do: He's writing from the perspective of an actual teenager. Not putting teenagers into adult-style stories, or repackaging teenagers as the kind of 14-going-on-40 perky, precocious snark machines that films and television mostly make them out to be. The protagonist of Paranoid Park is a 16-year-old skateboarder who really does read like a 16-year-old, which is to say, kinda vapid, kinda confused, kinda stressed, and not very in touch with himself. He isn't full of snappy one-liners and trenchant observations; Ellen Page's Juno or any random character from Veronica Mars would take him to pieces in five seconds flat, while he watched with his mouth open. So he isn't necessarily the most interesting guy in the world to read about. But like a character in a Judy Blume novel, he seems pretty true-to-life, and he's likely to remind readers of their own misspent youths.

Granted, that attempt at verisimilitude means that Paranoid Park is written in super-simple style, with short, one-sentence paragraphs, brief dialogue, a lot of plain, blunt language, and some teenager mopiness. Like in this scene, where the protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend, whom he's never much felt anything for:

 

"I don't think it's working out," I said.

"What? Are you serious? Who have you been talking to?"

"No one."

"Oh my God!" She looked at me, her mouth open. She was so surprised, she couldn't think of what to say.

"You can't break up with me," she finally blurted. "We just started going out!"

"I know. I'm sorry. But I don't think it's working out."

"Why did you wait until now?" she said. "Were you waiting until you had sex with me?"

"No. I just…"

"You were! You waited until you had sex with me! You used me!"

"No, I didn't."

She hit me. A slapping blow to my upper arm. I stepped away from her.

"I just don't feel like it's–" I repeated.

"I can't believe you!" she shrieked, louder now, so her friends would hear. "You think you can just dump me? Now that we've had sex? You can't do that!"

I stood there, watching her. The whole world was a dream, I realized. Nothing was real. Everything was acting in a bad soap opera. The whole world was one big FOX TV show.

"Jennifer?" asked one of the other cheerleaders. "Are you okay?"

Jennifer ran to her friends. "He just broke up with me!" She burst into tears. She ran to Elizabeth, who put her arms around her. All the girls stared at me with hatred in their eyes. It was a big drama that had to be acted out. But deep down, nobody really cared. The other girls didn't care about Jennifer. Jennifer didn't care about me. I didn't care about anything. Everyone was so full of crap.

 

The book's plot is pretty simple: The skateboarder, Alex, accompanies a friend to a local skate park generally referred to as Paranoid Park, and thinks it's a pretty cool place, even though the people there are generally tougher, older, and better skateboarders than he is. They make plans to return, but the friend bails, so Alex nervously goes alone. He winds up striking up an acquaintance with a street kid–a "Streeter"–named Scratch, who borrows his board for a few trips around the park, then suggests they catch a ride across town on a freight train to buy some beer and cigarettes. Alex is eager to try riding a train, so he goes with Scratch, but they're spotted and assaulted by a trainyard bull. Alex smacks the bull away with his skateboard, and the guy falls under a train and is messily mangled to death. The rest of the story is about Alex trying to deal with what happened, trying to decide whether he should turn himself in, and worrying that he'll get caught. There are a couple of other elements complicating things–his parents are getting divorced, his girlfriend Jennifer has decided it's high time they both lost their virginity–but mostly it's about a boy witnessing a death and dealing with the aftermath. Kind of Robert Cormier lite.

One of my favorite scenes in the book comes pretty early on, when Alex is hanging out alone at Paranoid Park, just enjoying watching the other skateboarders do their thing, and Scratch and his buddies approach and ask to borrow his skateboard, since he isn't using it. He demurs, Scratch presses, and without any great drama taking place, the scene becomes hideously uncomfortable. Alex has no way of knowing that the Streeter isn't going to break his board for fun, or steal it, or hit him with it, or otherwise humiliate him. If he gives in, he risks a whole range of possible humiliations, compounded by the fact that he let himself in for them like a chump. On the other hand, the longer he holds out, the more he risks being seen as selfish, afraid, uptight, uncool. Alex knows Scratch is cooler than him–he's older, harder, and more experienced, and he's there with friends, including a girl. Secretly, Alex wouldn't mind hanging out with them and absorbing some of their comfort with the scene. In the end, he gives Scratch the board, Scratch tries a few tricks and gives it back, they hang out, and all is well, at least for a couple of pages. But it's a perfect illustration of how virtually every social interaction is a pit trap for people at an age when they aren't entirely sure of themselves, and they aren't clear on the rules of engagement.

What makes this scene so perfect for me, though, is that Nelson doesn't spell out any of it. Alex doesn't run through the possibilities in his head, thinking about what could happen to his board. He doesn't think "Wow, these guys are cool, I would like to hang out with them. But what if they are mean to me?" He isn't even that self-aware; he basically just knows that he doesn't want to hand over his board, and he's going to have to. Nelson follows the show-don't-tell rule, and just tells readers what everyone says and does, and lets them fill in the blanks themselves.

Which is why Paranoid Park adapts so easily to film. The book does have a running mental monologue from Alex–it's a first-person novel–but it's pretty simple, not filled with nuance and possibilities and musings that are lost onscreen. Gus Van Sant readily captures Alex's drifty, half-conscious, instinct-driven way of life because it fits perfectly with the kind of films Van Sant has been making lately. In particular, 2002's Gerry and 2003's Elephant focus on similarly lost boys, wandering through life in a bit of a haze, dealing with a lot of stresses without necessarily thinking them through. His version of Paranoid Park makes a neat triptych with the other two movies, by letting movement stand in for conversation and communication. All three of these movies put the camera right behind people who are walking, biking, driving, or skating. Van Sant observes them at length, moving forward without actually going anywhere. In the process, he achieves a sort of hypnotic, blissed-out trace state. All three movies are visually simple, and all three start out within a small space–inside a buddy-buddy relationship, inside the confines of a school, inside Alex's head–and don't feel a need to explain it with a lot of exposition or voiceover. They're all elegant, in a very stripped-down way.

And so Gus Van Sant sticks very close to Nelson's very simple story, just observing Alex as he skates, watches other skaters, experiences a death close-up, and then frets about it at length, in a sleepy, soupy, moody sort of way. There are two main differences between the versions: first off, Van Sant has the benefit of sound and music, which he uses in peculiar ways. He leans heavily on tracks from Federico Fellini's Juliet Of The Spirits, of all things, in addition to more obvious choices like Elliott Smith and Ethan Rose, to further give the film a swirly underwater quality. And second, he screws around with the chronology.

I understand why he does this: to inject a little mystery into the story, to give audiences something to wonder about besides whether Alex will get caught. The book's chronology is straightforward: Alex goes to Paranoid Park, Alex witnesses a death, Alex sweats about it a lot. Not much mystery there. The film instead jumps around in time, first revealing the police investigation after the trainyard death, then later revealing that Alex was involved. The book is all about asking what will happen next; much of the film is instead more about asking what's already happened.

Problem is, the film's version of the story just doesn't work as well. The attempt to inject some "What happened?" tension doesn't mesh well with the dreamy laid-back tone, and it means viewers miss out on a lot of worry about and for Alex. When a detective shows up to question him about the incident, viewers don't yet know that he had any involvement in it, so have no reason to worry that he's going to let something slip. The purpose of the sequence isn't clear until much later, which is a problem given Van Sant's long, slow, naturalistic scenes. Some of the sequences don't make sense out of order, but they blow by too quickly to let audiences absorb them and think them over. Gabe Nevins' debut performance as Alex is so serenely, obstreperously blank, so tabula rasa, that it doesn't raise any early concern that something serious is going on, and it's hard to imagine people getting caught up in the backward story as though it was a tense mystery.

That aside, I have to take a moment to compliment Nevins' performance, which perfectly captures Nelson's protagonist as a slightly emo, slightly adrift kid who doesn't necessarily have a plan, or the depth of intellect to form one, and at the same time isn't stupid. He's a teenager, naïve and inexperienced, but having reached the point of instinctively not trusting adults. The scene where the detective (Daniel Liu) interrogates Alex is subtly brilliant; Alex comes across as stonewalling and hiding and being a bit dense, but no more so than any other teenager. It's easy to see how the detective might be suspicious, even frustrated, without necessarily thinking Alex had more to hide than any other skateboarder kid who automatically clams up when the authorities come around.

Apart from the chronology thing, there are a few scattered differences between the book and the film:

• In the film, the accident that kills the guard is implausibly and obviously Alex's fault; he and Scratch are hanging from the train, and he bonks the guard on the head with his board, sending him staggering backward just exactly as another train happens by and hits him. It's much less direct in the book version, where the guard is far more aggressive and frightening, and attempts to beat the crap out of both boys with a lead-weighted baton even after they jump off of the train. Alex eventually hits him hard enough to stun him, but when the guard gets up a minute later, he moves too close to the train they just jumped off of, and gets his coat caught on a train car, which gradually drags him in and under to his death. It's much more clearly a completely unplanned, no-fault accident.

• There's actually more action in the book for some reason, as Scratch's friends eventually run across Alex and chase him down, intending to seriously hurt him on Scratch's behalf, because Scratch had to skip town to avoid being possibly blamed for the security guard's death. Alex winds up having to seek asylum with the detective who's been tailing him, and who possibly–more so than in the film–knows he was involved in the guard's death. In the film, on the other hand, Scratch evaporates after the trainyard incident, and is never mentioned again.

• The character of Macy, who serves a couple of key purposes in the story, is barely there in the film, which makes her a bit confusing. She's more present in the book, and we get a little of her backstory, as a younger girl who used to have a crush on Alex, but has since apparently gotten over him, just in time for him to realize that she's actually kinda cool. She isn't a hugely present character in the book, but she doesn't just appear out of nowhere to give him key advice, either. The book also doesn't have the seriously weird scene of them trying on clothes together.

• The movie never reveals why the skate park is called "Paranoid Park," which leaves viewers to wonder whether the title is more about Alex's state of mind than anything else. In the book, he points out that it's because of an urban legend about a skinhead that got stabbed there once, and how the story gives the place a particularly raw, sketchy vibe.

But more than any of that, the difference is that the book is about a single, uninterrupted, long nightmare: a bad experience followed by the haunting fear of being caught and subjected to some entirely unknown punishment. Whereas the film is instead about a series of sliced-up moments and feelings, a bunch of disconnected segments that feel more like they're being lived in memory than in the present. Nelson fills his book with moments where Alex worries about what the cops know, what he should be doing, what'll happen to him if he gets caught. Van Sant instead observes his placid blankness, and chops it up amid raw, grainy footage of skaters gliding around and trying out their tricks, moving forward while simultaneously just killing time.

Overall, though, both film and book capture the same haunted vibe of being young, not really knowing what's going on, feeling every emotion incredibly keenly, having a lot of time to kill, and desperately wanting to fit in without having any idea what everyone else is really about.

So. Book, or Film? Given that the book took me all of an hour to read, and the film isn't much longer, and they both tell pretty much the same story, this seems like a fairly silly question, along the lines of "Which of these two potato chips should I eat?" I think the book's straight-timeline approach winds up being significantly tenser, while the film is more absorbing and convincing in its portrayal of a certain flavor of teen life, particularly in its haunting, hypnotic use of sound. But neither one is exactly a huge commitment. If I had to pick one, I'd probably go with the movie, which was more obviously made for adults, but in a pinch, either one will do.

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