Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary: a ‘Warped Casablanca’

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 TwoEpisode ThreeEpisode FourEpisode FiveEpisode SixEpisode Sev­enEpisode EightEpisode Nine and Episode Ten.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John­ny Depp Reads Let­ters From Hunter S. Thomp­son

Hunter S. Thomp­son Gets Con­front­ed by the Hel­l’s Angels

Hunter S. Thomp­son Inter­views Kei­th Richards


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