It happened with 'Jaws'. Then it was confirmed with 'Cloud Atlas' and 'Jurassic Park'. And now it is happening again with 'Up in the Air.' Other examples are scampering off into hard to reach recesses of my brain, perhaps not wanting to be singled out for fear of winding up less loved. What is happening again? I am being reminded that books are grittier, messier affairs than the movies they spawn.
I missed 'Up in the Air' in theaters, part of my ongoing fruitless quest to be unimpressed with George Clooney. (damn he's good! a genuine and deserving star.) But I borrowed it from the library a few months back and loved it. I bought a copy and have watched the film many times since. It charts a wonderfully affecting course along the thin overlapping space between the domains of feel-good flick and hard-hitting exposé. It earns its charm with a frank acknowledgment that Time drives us on toward demise. If we are fortunate, the trip is pleasurable along the way.
My favorite moments include the alluring Alex, in particular and without apology, her smooth backside as she walks over toward a hotel bed wearing only her new lover's necktie. Though for capturing the fleeting sweetness of mortality, nothing beats the sight of a group of tech conference attendees scampering giddily across a beach late at night in the blissful daze of waning revelry. They have just enough energy to sneak back to their hotel to share each others beds.
Last Saturday I scored a copy of 'Up in the Air' the novel at my library's used book sale. When I started reading Walter Kirn's astute yarn, I decided to hold off rewatching the movie until after completing the book. I failed. At about a hundred pages in I slipped the iPad welcome card I'm using as a bookmark into place and hurriedly curled up next to my DVD player. I needed the comfort of the movie. Why? Books are grittier, messier affairs than movies, even when both achieve greatness.
To be clear, I am really liking the book. It gets me nodding yes and slapping my thigh with literary delight. Yet, 'Up in the Air' the novel makes a point of depicting even handsome George Clooney types as having clumsy, messy, and distasteful moments. Kirn captures how little use the business world has for genuine kindness. Kindness can be a time waster. But more critically, genuine kindness doesn't close tough deals. Alex in the book is dangerous and suspicious from the get-go, which is to say she is less fun than Alex in the film. All in all, the book is less fun, less comforting...and far more compelling.
This new habit of reading the book after seeing the movie risks being a disheartening rut for me. But I hope it will be worthwhile in the long run. The books remind me how clean and fable-like even realistic films often are. So I continue to plod through Kirn's masterful tour of contemporary business and industry. I am about halfway through now and terribly curious to see where the protagonist ends up when his cavalcade of flights, meetings, and hotel stays lands him on the final page.
In mesmerizingly astute fashion, 'Up in the Air' the book reminds me of what assholes humans are. I mean all of us and I include myself. Yet, far from being aimless pessimism, the book suggests to me that humans aren't assholes because we can't help it. We are assholes because being so gets results. It is a behavioral choice that enables us to close tough deals. This is a less than savory idea to digest and, as the filmmakers determined, it is much more appealing to focus on one man's journey back toward communion with friends and family.
So before I reach the end of this great book, troubling for all it gets correct, I may need to curl up with the movie again for comfort. The movie, incapsulated in one of its songs, includes a prevailing sentiment that we can change our minds for the better, that we can help ourselves, that others are waiting for us to come home for the blessing of companionship. Those are uplifting notions worth the price of a flight home.