Books

What went wrong: The Night Listener

How did it all go so horribly wrong, Armistead Maupin?

After a marathon reading session from one in the afternoon to nine at night, I finished Maupin's excellent The Night Listener, so utterly caught up in the lives of the people in the story, and Maupin's ridiculously accurate exploration into the meaning of actual and perceived truth. It's an original, complex, moving book.

Possible spoilers ahead

The Night Listener
by Armistead Maupin
Bantam
2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]


So, excited to see what Maupin had done with the screenplay, I watch the Robin Williams film version the same night. Big mistake. The original, complex, moving book became a stock-standard, by-the-numbers, stupefyingly unoriginal screenplay with a twist ending so cringe-inducing, it's almost impossible to watch. In the book, Maupin expertly develops a man in the grips of a personal crisis. In the movie, Robin Williams gets tazered in the back of a police car. Something is wrong with this picture.

Now, I understand books and movies are different. I understand the culling and condensing that must take place in order to lift a story from the page to the screen. It's difficult, however, in a case like this, to adequately conclude why Maupin would shove the first 150 pages of his book into the film's opening few minutes and then entirely re-write everything after. Especially something so meaningless.

Night Listener breakdown: Gabriel Noone is a radio show host in the middle of a burnout. He can't get excited about his show or his writing, and his 10-year relationship is coming to an end. In the middle of all this, he befriends a young boy, Pete, by phone. The kid, stricken with AIDS, comes with a shocking back story of abuse to be detailed in an upcoming memoir. Noone becomes a mentor to Pete, and in his desperation, ignores the signs that perhaps this sad child is not a child at all.

Noone believes in the kid, and his need to prove Pete's existence drives the book. It's a desperate hope, and the hook on which everything else snatches, most effectively Noone's relationship with his father and ex-lover, Jess. It's very much a father, son, Holy Spirit thing, and as it pulls together, it's so completely stirring. I almost lost it as Noone discovered the truth about his protégé. I, too, knew something was fishy, but, like Noone, refused to believe it. Maupin has infused Noone with such faith, that you experience the same.

The movie misses the mark on every level, but, then again, it never appears to want to reach those levels. Noone's driving faith is non-existent, and he appears to know the truth very early on. The kid's existence is almost never in question as the film plays stupid voice tricks during the Noone / Pete phone calls. Toni Collette as the kid's mum is just immensely creepy from the moment we meet her. The book's final, suspenseful chapters appear in the movie before the halfway mark, and instead of a film about patriarchal bonds and storytelling and a man's creative resurrection, we get a semi-thriller of the is-it-real or is-it-not variety. No points for guessing correctly on that one. The movie doesn't want to create doubt. In the book, Noone's quest to validate the kid is a quest to do the same for himself. He is forced to examine what's real and what isn't in more than just his relationship with the kid, but with his father and Jesse.

And that ending? Maupin did more than change the story; he gave the kid's mother a whole new set of weirdo psychologies that have very little connection to the woman in the book, or the woman she's apparently based on who really did introduce her dying adopted son to Maupin.

Watching The Night Listener with my partner, it was all I could do not to shout at the screen "that didn't happen!", "this isn't right!", "what's happening to this beautiful story?"

It's a real mystery.

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