In early 1960, Hunter S. Thompson was just 22 years old and his journalism career was already on the skids. His last two jobs had ended badly. At one place he was fired for insubordination; at the other, for smashing the office candy machine in a fit of rage after it swallowed his money. So he drifted down to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and took a job at a newspaper called El Sportivo. His beat: bowling.
The newspaper went out of business a few months later, but Thompson transformed his experiences into a novel, The Rum Diary. In the prologue he describes the atmosphere of a San Juan newsroom peopled with shiftless expatriates:
They ran the whole gamut from genuine talents and honest men, to degenerates and hopeless losers who could barely write a post card–loons and fugitives and dangerous drunks, a shoplifting Cuban who carried a gun in his armpit, a half-wit Mexican who molested small children, pimps and pederasts and human chancres of every description, most of them working just long enough to make the price of a few drinks and a plane ticket.
Thompson finished the novel in 1961, but his career as a fiction writer was soon eclipsed by a growing recognition of his gift for narrative journalism, and The Rum Diary wasn’t published until 1998. As soon as it came out there was talk of a film adaptation. “Hunter’s dream,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, “was to have The Rum Diary as a movie, because I think he always saw it as a kind of warped Casablanca.”
Thompson killed himself before that dream ever came to fruition. After more than a decade of delays, a film version of The Rum Diary finally opened last weekend to mixed reviews and small audiences. Johnny Depp plays the alcoholic newpaperman Paul Kemp as if he were a young Thompson: more laid back than the gonzo journalist of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but with the same peculiar alienation and low, muttering voice. Director Bruce Robinson creates the vivid atmosphere of a Caribbean boomtown inhabited by shady businessmen, clueless tourists, drunken journalists and resentful natives. But the story is like its protagonist: adrift, irresolute.
To learn about Thompson’s early efforts to get the story made into a movie, you can watch The Rum Diary Back Story, filmed from 1998 through 2002 by Wayne Ewing. It documents the author’s initial pride at the long-overdue publication of the novel, followed by his growing frustration with the glacial progress in turning it into a movie. Ewing filmed Thompson at his home in Colorado and in a fireside meeting at Depp’s home in California. In one comical scene (episode eight) Warren Zevon reads aloud an insulting letter Thompson had sent to a producer.
Episode One is above, and the rest can be seen by following these links to Episode Two, Episode Three, Episode Four, Episode Five, Episode Six, Episode Seven, Episode Eight, Episode Nine and Episode Ten.