“The book always trumps the movie”—a preferred axiom of unmarried American educators stroking their recently adopted third cat, and, unfortunately for fans, illustrative of the recent film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 2005 novel, A Long Way Down.
The premise: four unlikely strangers form a surrogate family after aborting plans to fling themselves from the top of a popular suicide destination in the heart of London on New Year’s Eve. The foursome includes Martin (Pierce Brosnan), former daytime talk show host, philanderer and notorious ‘pedophile’ (he thought she was eighteen); Maureen (Toni Collette), a middle-aged mother of a young man living in a vegetative state; JJ (Aaron Paul), a mid-twenties American pizza boy; and an eccentric, wildly opinionated and foulmouthed teenage girl (Imogen Poots). The narrative progresses episodically, chronicling their close encounter with death, their inevitable rise to tabloid prominence due to Martin’s celebrity and their burgeoning affection for one another. The film’s primary dramatic tension relies on whether or not such a precarious family dynamic will effectively prevent them from trying to jump again.
Reviews underscoring discrepancies between page and screen adaptions are often cursory and dry. As I’ve been called both—once in a college admissions letter and once from a gloved customs agent named Phyllis, respectively—I’m inclined to avoid such comparisons. That said, any credible assessment of a cinematically adapted Nick Hornby novel would be remiss in neglecting juxtaposition based principally on one lousy experience in a soundproofed TSA holding cell.
Temporally, Hornby’s novel privileges the reader early on with insight into what ultimately happens to his characters. The outcomes of Martin, Maureen, JJ and Jess are made clear from the onset, thus providing a forum for character exploration and the satire of tabloid media, rather than fussing around with superficial suspense. Unfortunately, director Pascal Chaumeil’s and screenwriter Jack Throne’s film suffers from everything Hornby so adroitly avoided—sentimentality.
The film transmutes personal mysteries into mere periodic reveals in a series of desperate attempts to sustain the driving narrative force, which consequentially, is one of apprehension. Scenes of private on-screen reflection appear inaccessible without a full appreciation for the context in which these powerful emotions derive from. The film exposes the particular limitations of the cinema, but only when confronted head on with the adaptive preferences of its creators.
Hornby’s novel is a remarkably empathetic portrait of fully realized characters with believable arcs—a high concept premise sustained by selective restraint. The film might entertain those not familiar with Hornby’s work; but to those harboring a special place for the source material, it will play dismally, limping onwards and suffering mostly from the surgical removal of religion, an artificially injected romance, diminished complexity and the worst of all sins: closure.
If that still sounds sexy to you then by all means, get yourself a ticket. If not, buy the book.