GRIPING ABOUT HOLLYWOOD’S TREATMENT of one’s favorite book has been unbecoming for many years. Even now, I can still recall an older relative criticizing, upon film’s release, Francis Ford Coppola’s version of “The Godfather,” of which I knew nothing, with the trenchant observation, “They went from the wedding straight to the dirty stuff.” Even at age 6, I got the sense she was full of shit.
I have never read Mario Puzo’s book — sold as a film even before completion — but have by now read many books that later were made into the movies and have found watching each one a fascinating experience, from “All the King’s Men” (twice!) to “L.A. Confidential.” Yet never had I made a real effort to find and watch “A Fan’s Notes.”
This is partly because it just didn’t seem available, especially after I initially fell thrall to Fred Exley’s “fictional memoir” as a confused undergraduate in the 1980s, when VHS was still battling Beta. It also was due in part to the fact that “A Fan’s Notes” was more an internal monologue than a story, the prototypical unfilmable novel, and a third reading finally revealed that the book’s episodic attempts at fiction — a brief marriage and the escapades with the enigmatic Mr. Blue — were clumsy, the very problem that torpedoed Exley’s other two not-very-good books.
In short, I knew it wouldn’t be any good; and furthermore suspected I wouldn’t enjoy watching it be not very good.
Yet I now have watched the 1972 film adaptation of “A Fan’s Notes” twice since finding it streaming on the Warner Archive Roku channel (and online at instant.warnerarchive.com). It is, as they say in the Maltin guide, a real curio — an unambitious attempt to mine the depths of an ambitious book; an episodic attempt to catch the ironic iconoclasm of the literary zeitgeist a la “Little Big Man” or “Catch-22.” Perhaps the fatal flaw of “A Fan’s Notes” is to use the book’s final image, of Exley jogging on a two-lane, doggedly getting back in shape for the fight of his life, as a whimsical wraparound. Here, Exley has decided to sit in the middle of the road and tell his story to a biker. It’s really awful.
“A Fan’s Notes” is not a failure because it fails to capture Exley’s lugubrious rage. It occasionally does. The problem is, in the movie, the rage comes from nowhere. Exley’s depression came from a real place: a visceral aversion to the American lie that left him hospitalized in a state of social inertia. The movie spends next to no time establishing the source of this horror. A brief interlude at Bunny Sue’s childhood home is left to suffice, and is the one point at which the movie starts to make dramatic sense.
But Bunny Sue’s parents, the ne plus ultra of U.S. consumerist vacuity, live in a split-level that appears to be at the edge of the Yukon rather than the suburban satellite of an American metropolis feasting on children’s dreams and angels’ tears. “A Fan’s Notes,” a very American book, has become a very North American movie. It reminds one, in fact, of “Barney’s Version,” the Paul Giamatti film of what appears to be the Canadian “Fan’s Notes,” a closely guarded you-have-to-read-this book about a self-absorbed, autodidact alcoholic fuck-up. That is a better movie by far, but I admit to not having read the book.
Jerry Orbach is miscast but isn’t bad; he in fact becomes Movie Exley. But, again, Movie Exley is more a wise-ass know-it-all than a man crushed by dreams and expectations. Fred Exley wanted to fit in and couldn’t; one never gets the sense that Movie Exley ever really tried. A game Burgess Meredith injects some vigor into the proceedings in a few scenes as Mr. Blue, but it doesn’t fit. And while the fantasy scenes that attempt to get into the protagonist’s head quote some good prose from Book Exley, they are nonetheless ham-fisted. Only the moments between Exley and his wife, Patience — played with tragic stoicism by Patricia Collins — have any real tenderness.
Those with a Roku can get Warner Archive free for a month, and cancel before being billed, though it has some good hard-to-find-streaming stuff for $10 a month. I also found, as I prepared to write this, “A Fan’s Notes” in its entirety on YouTube, and this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKqwrMkfAB8