So I finally went to see the film adaptation of The Rum Diary, it had been coming out for about 3 years and I had read the book in the summer. It was one of the early works of Hunter S Thompson, written in a style which aped F. Scott Fitzgerald who had a profound impact on Thompson with his almost perfect novel The Great Gatsby. This is before the acid enhanced tales of Freak Power nor is it the search for the American Dream or an honest politician. It has the early signs of Gonzo which Bruce Robinson and Johnny Depp exploded onto the big screen. No doubt the personal knowledge Depp has of the man helped to craft a story on how Thompson found his voice as a writer. In other words it is primeval to the emergence of Gonzo journalism which Hunter S Thompson pioneered first with The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved for Scanlon's Magazine. Of course it is a "vanity piece" to some extent as Peter Bradshaw has commented smugly, as Depp was out to effectively play Thompson out of admiration for him and his work. The man dissolved in a vat of alcohol and drugs in the end, entertained conspiracy theories and gave up the good fight when he blew his brains out. But these are not the reasons we read Dr Thompson.
The good Doctor filtered reality through a freakish mania sustained or possibly endured with the help of copious amounts of (both legal and illegal) substances. For Gonzo the claims of 'objectivity' which permeate American journalism are false and absurd, the blind-spots of which provide room for people such as Richard Nixon to slither into public office. It is not just a writing style, it is politically charged dynamite and a self-critique of journalism. He once described journalism as "a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage." Instead Gonzo wallows in its own subjectivity, it oozes provocative opinion as well as hard fact and comment meshed together with just the kind of sordid thoughts that will shock the squares. It has a lot in common with the Freaks of the 1960s, Thompson noted the word 'freak' should be an endearing term given the political trajectory of American society.
The hints of a politically conscious youth can also be found in the book, there are references to the "rise of communism", discouraging events in Cuba and the brutality of capitalism. The McCarthyite atmosphere of the day is captured as the newspaper is owned by a man named Lotterman, an ex-communist who attacks anything remotely left-ish to prove himself as a reformed character. Power is consistently portrayed as sleazy, amoral and self-interested. The Americans based in Puerto Rico as journalists, businessmen and soldiers are depicted as a horde of corrupt, perverted and sex-crazed sociopaths. There is Moberg who is obsessed with cannibalism, Zimburger who is described as "more beast than human", the reckless Yeamon and the unfuckable Sala. In the film version this depiction takes on a more political dimension as Zimburger's vitriolic anti-Communism is taken to an extreme, with him at one point claiming that 76% of "Negroes" are controlled from Moscow. Moberg is transformed into a collector of Nazi memorabilia and Lotterman becomes merely a cynical journo seen taking pleasure in the beating of protesters.
The political tensions which are about to reach a boiling point in the 60s are captured accurately. Paul Kemp is seen raging at the debates between Nixon and Kennedy, "How long can this blizzard of shame go on?" he asks. Later Kemp notes the smell of ink as the smell of bastards as well as truth. Kemp pledges to "speak for his reader" with a voice of "ink and rage". We can spot a Republican campaign poster for Eisenhower in Sala's apartment. In the novel, we might situate Kemp between Sala and Yeamon as a kind of "moderate witness" who is not as passive as Sala nor as rebellious as Yeamon. Paul Kemp participates and observes the mayhem, but manages to pull-back from the edge and gets to walk off towards the sunset as it were. Yeamon is gone completely as Robinson realised that Thompson had split himself into Paul Kemp and Yeamon. The aspects of Yeamon which were still necessary for the plot were amassed in Sanderson. So the formula of neither rebel nor passive but moderate witness is partially lost in the film. Kemp remains the moderate witness insofar as he gets away to tell the tale, whereas Sala and Moberg are left behind on the island. But neither adequately fit the roles of passive and rebel.
In reality we shouldn't kid ourselves that the good Doctor was an agonised human being who became too comfortable in resistance at the typewriter. One face of Thompson looked to ultra-leftist libertarianism while the other faced the establishment politics of the Democratic Party. He supported the last liberal to run for the Presidency George McGovern, as well as conservatives such as the Kennedy Brothers and Jimmy Carter who made way for Reaganomics. In the end it was all or nothing as the forces of reaction seemed to be winning in his lifetime, the threat to his vision of America was too much to stand but not enough to seriously fight for. He would have happily voted for Richard Nixon if he had ran against George W Bush in 2004. One can't help but note that Nixon was far worse than any of the Bushites, the atrocities committed in Vietnam make Iraq look like a children's game. It is a real shame he gave up before Mr Obama came on the scene. Thompson was a great one for the Civil Rights movement, no doubt he would've bludgeoned every other opponent as he did in the 1972 campaign.