Two questions arise after viewing Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg‘s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel starring Robert Pattinson as an enigmatic Wall Street trader. The first is whether copying and pasting all the dialogue from a novel is the best way to start a movie adaptation. And the second: does faithfully adapting a significant novel produce a significant film? My answer to both would have to be a resounding ‘no’. “Cosmopolis is a verbose and insufferable parade of eccentric characters and situations that are forcedly apocalyptic (…) Perhaps the skeptical reflections work literarily (…) but what is clear is that the way Cronenberg tells it in pictures is a disaster” (Carlos Boyero, El País).
David Cronenberg has talked about his process for writing the Cosmopolis screenplay, after producer Paulo Branco approached him for the adaptation: “I started typing down all the dialogues from the book on my computer, without changing or adding anything.” He then decided there was enough material for a film. But if it were that simple, there would have been an adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel long ago. There is a reason that his work resists translation to the screen, and that reason has everything to do with language.
Cosmopolis – the novel – was written in 2003 and takes place on “a day in April in the year 2000″. It is narrated from the perspective of Eric Packer, a twenty-eight-year-old Wall Street trader who is traveling across Manhattan in his limo in order to get a haircut (an actual one, not a financial one). Cosmopolis is a book of ideas – some of them prophetic – crammed into the condensed space of one day and one location (the white limo, inching through traffic). These ideas are conveyed through Eric’s long inner monologues and his exchanges with the people who work for him. The combination of the intimacy of its setting and the density of its ideas makes it an impactful book. A book that can leave you a bit disoriented after you have put it down.
With the inner monologue gone (extensive voice-overs seem to have gone out of fashion in modern cinema) two things happen in this movie. One is that Eric Packer becomes a complete enigma. A pale-faced man in a suit with a blank stare. Enter Robert Pattinson, who does exactly what this role asks for. But he leaves us guessing as to the character’s inner life. His actions don’t help us either. Yes, there is sex and violence. But it is sprung on us without a motivation or a build-up, thus “failing to create any type of tension” (Carlos Boyero, El País). The second thing that happens is that the dialogue becomes even more syncopated and artificial than it is in the book. Again, this is a book of ideas. We accept eccentric conversations in that context. On the screen, it looks like a Wes Anderson movie without the lightness and humor.
The ideas of Cosmopolis remain compelling and their relevance has perhaps never been greater. But conveying these ideas through a visual medium requires more than copying the dialogue. It is a shame that it takes a disappointing movie by an accomplished director like Cronenberg to make this clear.