Generally speaking, if I get really excited for a movie that was based on a book, I want to read the book first. I realize this puts me at odds with many people, but I’m the sort who always prefers to err on the side of the original author. In this case, the author is Alan Glynn, who wrote the 2002 novel The Dark Fields, upon which Leslie Dixon based her screenplay for Limitless. The Dark Fields was then re-published under the Limitless name, but having both read the book and watched the film, I can tell you, they’re two very different creatures. The good news is that I liked them both.
I didn’t know there was a novel when I went to see the movie, but I liked the movie enough to seek out the book. Even though I saw the movie first, I’ll talk about the book first.
The Dark Fields/Limitless is the story of Eddie Spinola, a copywriter who stumbles into a new drug that opens up the full potential of his mind. With near-perfect recall and much higher cognitive functions than ever before, he begins to chart a new course for his life, including an invasion of the world of high finance and running afoul of a Russian loan shark. But when the drug creates a dependency, he finds himself in danger not only for his fortune, but his life.
This is a terribly dark book, one with an incredible premise and a nice block of characters. Reading along as Eddie’s mental faculties are raised and lowered and raised again makes the experience of reading the novel somewhat like what I imagine it’d be like to read Flowers For Algernon on a roller-coaster. Glynn masterfully paints the picture of a man who is completely losing control of his life. We can feel it as one thing or another slips away from him, things that even his mythical doses of MDT-48 can’t save him from, and by the end of the book there’s really only one place it can go.
Which makes a very interesting contrast to the movie. Because although the set-up is identical, the ending is completely different.
Limitless (the film) is the story of Eddie Morra, a struggling novelist who stumbles into a new drug that opens up the full potential of his mind. With near-perfect recall and much higher cognitive functions than ever before, he begins to chart a new course for his life, including an invasion of the world of high finance and running afoul of a Russian loan shark. But when the drug creates a dependency, he finds himself in danger not only for his fortune, but his life.
Familiar, no? But screenwriter Leslie Dixon throws in some differences in the first half of the film — a girlfriend who doesn’t exist in the novel being the main one. (She also abandons some other characters, such as the daughter of Eddie’s boss who exists in a bizarre subplot that, in the book, really goes nowhere.) After that first half, though, she takes Eddie Morra’s life in a totally different direction than Eddie Spinola. This Eddie still finds himself losing control over his actions, but he also manages to hold on to a few grains of hope that Eddie Spinola loses somewhere along the line.
Frankly, if you look at Limitless the movie as an adaptation of The Dark Fields, it doesn’t really work. It drifts not only from the plot, but also from the spirit of the story in a totally irreconcilable way, where the screenwriter drew not on anything the original author gave her, but created things from whole cloth to tell a different story.
To my amazement, though, I liked them both.
Usually, I get very upset when an adaptation strays this far from the source material. In this case, though, while The Dark Fields made a very strong novel, I don’t think the climax would have been thrilling or exciting enough to make for a satisfying motion picture. Dixon created from whole cloth, to be certain, but she created something that made for a much more entertaining cinematic experience than I think the original story would have been.
This is almost a revelation to me, friends. Both the book and the film have the same basic concept, the same idea, the same elevator pitch… but the execution in the two different media almost had to be different, because I don’t think either would have worked in the other media. I’m going to have to actually step back and look at other books and movies that I didn’t think made the transition well, maybe give them another chance. Because while I still think the original author’s intentions should be paramount… well… if he’s okay with the change, I should be too.
EDIT: Of course, as soon as I finish writing this, I think of two other films with different endings that I think worked. First was The Mist. Yes, I know Stephen King purists (my girlfriend included) may be pissed at me for saying this, but I thought the ending of the film was a brilliant twist that really cut you to the core… and from what I understand, King himself agrees with me. The other is Watchmen. Curiously enough, many people criticized that film for being too faithful to the source material, to the point of dragging, but the one big change in the story, the one that comes to the end, is actually the rare case where I think the movie ending makes more sense than the original graphic novel. (It has to do with assigning blame, which is all I can say without delving into spoiler territory.) Of course, this is a case where the original writer, Alan Moore, famously did not approve of the changes, so this may be inapplicable to this discussion.