Brief Interviews and Long Narratives

First things first: This is not going to be a mere excuse to tell you how much I like David Foster Wallace’s short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. For one, any loyal reader knows that already. Plus, I already have one series of posts where I write more than anyone should about something you almost certainly don’t like as much as I do.

No, this is more about a more general point, specifically the importance of a narrative arc. Even more specifically, about the importance of narrative arc within the context of John Krasinki’s film adaptation of Wallace’s short story.

Last year, John Krasinki released his directorial debut, an adaptation of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” When I first heard about this film, I was surprised, and not just because it associated one of my favorite things with one of my least favorite things. I was surprised because the story seemed to me, as it likely did to most people who had read it, unfilmable. It is, as the title quite literally states, a series of interviews with unnamed men. If there is any connection at all between these men and the interviewer, or each other, it is not mentioned or even really hinted at. The interviewer, in fact, never speaks and is not characterized at all; there is no indication that it is even the same person in each interview (the dates and times given for each interview actually suggest that there is no single interviewer).

In other words, the story lacks recurring characters or even scenes; a faithful retelling would be a series of unconnected, unillustrated monologues. Krasinki, however, is not wholly faithful.

In many ways, Krasinki’s film is more faithful than one might expect: The most important thing—Wallace’s prose—is almost unchanged in the script. The interviews, from the general tone to the specific turns of phrase, appear on screen in nearly identical forms to the story. What changes, however, is that these faceless, nameless men are given faces, names, and, in some instances, back-story.

The film also turns the interviewer into a single protagonist: Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), a recently-dumped grad student working on her dissertation about men in a post-feminist world. Several of the interviewees are Quinn’s friends or acquaintances, and one, the climactic interview of both the story in the film, comes from her ex-boyfriend (Krasinki).

The reason for all of this is clear: Without it, there would be no story. The film connects all the interviews together through Quinn’s struggle to explore the male psyche. In other words, the “hideous men” are all filtered through her perspective.

This, however, is totally at odds with the short story. Wallace’s story is objective and detached, letting the men in question explain themselves. The clinical tone of the writing is essential to the story’s themes. It is simultaneously sympathetic (since we learn about the men entirely through their own self-perceptions) and dehumanizing (in that it treats the men purely as subjects, laying bare the delusional elements of these perceptions). By giving these clinical subjects more back-story and viewing them through Quinn’s eyes, though, the film loses that objectivity.

In fact, the film works best when viewed without the narrative at all, but instead as a series of loosely related vignettes. Some of the vignettes are quite powerful. Christopher Meloni’s story about hitting on a recently abandoned woman at the airport, for example, is well-acted and cleverly edited in a way that intersperses his telling of the story to a friend with Quinn’s eaves-dropping on the story and with the actual event. The best sequence comes from Frankie Faison (Wire guy!) in the only interview that has nothing to do with women or sex.

And that’s kind of a problem. Faison’s scene has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the movie—it doesn’t enrich the story or develop any of the main characters or underscore the themes. In Wallace’s story, this is acceptable—it is in accord with the detached, analytic quality of the writing. But in Krasinki’s film, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The rules of storytelling don’t really change much: Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end. These don’t have to be driven by plot; they can be divided by tone, theme, or style. In Wallace’s original story, the progression of the story comes merely from the expanding sequence of interviews—each one builds on the last, even without retaining any of the same characters or situations.

Once a traditional plot has been introduced, though, it becomes the driving force of the narrative. So adding a plot to connect the interviews does not enhance them, but detracts from their impact. Ultimately, interviews that are supposed to have added resonance, like Kraskinki’s final confession to Quinn, end up falling flat: Instead of standing on its own, the audience expects them to color in thinly drawn characters. By trying to do more, Krasinki’s film ends up doing much less.

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