Skip to main content

27th March 2015

Feature: The American Dreamer

Tom Bruce reviews the authenticity of various on-screen representations of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, comparing them with the books and with the man himself

“Hell, if somethin’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” This is an incontrovertible mantra, and one which was espoused by father of modern journalism Dr. Hunter S. Thompson on many occasions, not just in his writing career but in his daily practitionings as an avid consumer of drugs and carefree inventor of semi-plausible-sounding words (such as the one back there I just made up). Hunter Stockton Thompson did not lead an ‘Ordinary Life’, as the titles of his many lurid confessional travel books (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Generation of Swine) might suggest, and his death was no subtle affair either; having blown his brains out with a 44. Magnum in front of his beloved portable IBM Scelectric typewriter, his incinerated remains were fired from a cast iron 18th century cannon and out into the Coloradan mountains by actor Johnny Depp.

It was that same scoundrel of the seven screens that portrayed the Good Doctor in the most successful feature film to depict him on screen, Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of the aforementioned Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which became the best cult movie about druggies since Easy Rider. It’s probably better in fact, given the decades of separation between the central issues of the Vietnam war and the wildly irrational war against drugs which, after enough time had passed, seemed so chaotically, pitifully futile.

Depp’s shameless showcasing of every single possible stage of depraved, narcotic-dependent madness is masterful—one cannot tire of it. In fact, the only thing he missed out was the constant indulgence in egotistical mania that came with Thompson’s genius storytelling, perhaps the man’s only vice (after chain-smoking, bourbon, rum, cannabis, cocaine and LSD). Benicio Del Toro’s performance as Raoul Duke’s (this was one of Thompson’s many real life code names) bloated, homicidal lawyer Dr. Gonzo is even more memorable and indeed more quotable than Depp’s. What many don’t know is that the character was based on a friend of Thompson’s called Oscar Zeta Acosta, a free-living attorney who went missing at some point during the summer of 1974. Subsequently, he became the fall guy for all of Thompson’s law breaking misdeeds.

On to The Rum Diary, another film adaptation about Hunter S Thompson’s life based off of one of another one of his vaguely autobiographical novellas which also happens to star Johnny Depp as the Gonzfather. This film sucks the life out of all that was good and (more or less) true about Hunter’s first foray into fictional writing. It is soulless. It is unfunny. It also doesn’t benefit from cameos or on-set contributions provided by Hunter on Fear and Loathing. Thompson had killed himself by this point and ship captain Bruce Robinson, in his attempt to rekindle the Gonzo spirit and also relive his own heady days as the writer/director of Withnail and I, failed to raise a glass to the legend or a smile amongst the audience. Johnny Depp is also terrible. Not quite as bad as Depp in the Rum Diary but nowhere near as good as Depp in Fear and Loathing is Bill Murray, who took on an exaggerated looney toon version of the author in Where the Buffalo Roam, which was the first movie about Thompson and which was set during his decade-long stint as a grapefruit addict/investigative journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. It’s an awfully overstated film, but then again, so was the life of its subject.

For fans of the non-fictional figure, it’s worth checking out ‘Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision’ on YouTube, an intriguing—and rather sobering—on the road BBC documentary following a reclusive Thompson towards the end of his writing prime.

Hunter S. Thompson saw many things, and through his writing he encouraged an entire generation to see things differently. Politics, war, terrorism, sport and drugs were his main interests, and as he rose to the pinnacle of his very own revolutionary brand of ‘Gonzo’ journalism (basically what the Vice news network is), he stammered and hammered his way into a variety of elitist circles that no other booze-crazed sex fiend will ever find themselves in again. He got beaten up by Mohammed Ali one time. If that incident isn’t deserving of a film then, really, what is? Now all Thompson requires for a proper send-off is a two hour, off-the-chain biopic starring Sam Rockwell (the Rum Diary days) and J.K. Simmons (the later years). Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. And written by Charlie Kaufman. Because hell, if something’s worth doing…

More Coverage

Anatomy of a Fall review: Justine Triet’s forensic deconstruction of a marriage

This Palme D’or winning courtroom drama has a restless screenplay that holds the audience by the scruff of their conflicted neck to uncover all the messy details as commanding lead Sandra Hüller is put to trial over the mysterious death of her husband

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes review – Ambitious adaptation deftly translates book to screen

The latest and final instalment in The Hunger Games series has just arrived but does it live up to the book?

Monster review: Powerful identity tale meets bureaucratic comedy | LIFF 2023

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film returns again to themes of childhood and family, but this time round does all of its story strands mesh well together?

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget Review – An action packed adventure from Aardman Animations | MAF 2023

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget previewed at Manchester’s Animation Festival for a special Gala screening alongside an exclusive Q&A with Aardman studio