So Johnny Depp’s turn as a fictionalized Hunter S. Thompson in The Rum Diary isn’t doing gangbusters at the box office. No doubt everyone really wanted to see adaptations of superior Thompson books, like Hell’s Angels or Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. (At least I do.)
It’s not the first time that Depp has played a literary figure on screen, of course. He played Thompson previously in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the distinctly non-gonzo Peter Pan scribe J. M. Barrie in Finding Neverland. Now that his name’s been attached to a Dr. Seuss biopic, it got me thinking about some other authors he could portray.
Now like any list, this list is by no means complete and there are so many more people to consider since great writers tend to lead interesting lives. But here’s just 10 people that would be a kick to see Depp play on screen since he has the star power to attract some decent bucks for production.
One of my favorite intellects and curmudgeons since first reading him in college, Harlan Ellison has had a long and enviable life. Not only has he written enduring stories, teleplays, and non-fiction, he also marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., drove a dynamite truck, almost got into a fist fight with Frank Sinatra, sued the hell out of everyone, and has jammed hundreds of women. The 2008 documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth (also the name of an omnibus edition of some of his work) only scratched the surface of an incredible existence. I mean, come on, the man lives in an eccentrically designed place full of hidden corridors, knick knacks, and bric-a-brac rightfully called the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars.
One of the wild men of American letters in the 20th century, Norman Mailer hit it big at 25 with The Naked and the Dead, based on his WWII experienced in the Philippines. He’d also co-founded The Village Voice and spearheaded new journalism with luminaries like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe (both of whom would also make interesting subjects for films). Mailer was a hot head, attention seeker, and boxing enthusiast who headbutted Gore Vidal and married seven different women, one of the seven he stabbed. And while making one of his experimental films, he almost got killed by a coked-out, hammer-wielding Rip Torn on camera.
Not just an author, Mark Twain was also a steamboat pilot, gold prospector, world traveler, journalist, inventor, and unsuccessful venture capitalist. When not pissing on James Fenimore Cooper or Jane Austen, Twain could be found associating with Booker T. Washington, Helen Keller, and Nikola Tesla. If that’s not material enough, filmmakers can draw on Michael Kupperman’s fictional autobiography of Mark Twain, in which Twain fakes his own death and romps through 1910 to 2010, going on adventures with Albert Einstein, assaulting J. D. Salinger, and doing a porno movie in the 1970s.
While a beloved writer of children’s literature, there are accounts of Roald Dahl’s life that are less than savory. His self-assessments in books like Boy and Going Solo paint a picture of a good kid and young man, but anecdotes have circulated about Dahl’s racism, anti-Semitism, and egocentrism. On top of all that, he wasn’t the best husband to Patricia Neal either. Some accounts also suggest we should credit Dahl’s editors more than Dahl himself for the children’s books we know today. While it’s unlikely to be made, a conflicted, nuanced portrait of Dahl with all his flaws would make for a great character study.
Walt Whitman is easily one of America’s finest poets. (Ditto Emily Dickonson, though I don’t know if Depp would go for drag. Well, actually, there was Before Night Falls…) Whitman’s stunning enumerations of American life gave a sense of the country and its people as something dynamic and alive. Whitman’s vagabond ways and possible bisexuality or homosexuality would be interesting to depict given the time he lived in. If anything, a film about Whitman would allow for exploration of other transcendentalists, such as Dickonson, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Perhaps Depp could play all these literary figures, kind of like how Bugs Bunny plays baseball.
H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction has been immortalized in film and literature by many others, but the writer is more mythos than man. There are different routes to go with a film on Lovecraft. A realistic portrait of the pulp writer living in poverty and corresponding with fellow authors would be okay, but a film of pure pulp excitement would probably be more satisfying. It’d be like the Lovecraft segments in 1993’s Necronomican: Book of the Dead mixed with Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka. Lovecraft looks for magick tomes, hangs out at orgies with Aleister Crowley, and kills demonic seafood with barbarian pen pal Robert E. Howard.
Just focusing on his years in Paris, Henry Miller was involved in a lot of sexual misadventures with his wife June as well as Anaïs Nin — much of it, though sensational (in more ways than one), was also sensationalized. The man was also a great wanderer of the streets and observer of the sordid corners of life. It’d be interesting to see the bohemian Paris of the 1930s revisited. Philip Kaufman did it before with the racy Henry & June, but we tourists want to see more the second time around. This second trip could draw together Miller’s own writings, Nin’s diaries, and Brassaï’s Henry Miller: The Paris Years for a more complete portrait of the man as well as the myth.
Even though Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, one of the best things in the English language, his reputation during his life was that of a failure. His first books — solid maritime adventures — were commercial successes, but Moby Dick marked a string of endless flops and critical lambasting. (Gist of many reviews: “That Melville guy — dude’s f*cking crazy now. What the hell?”) But Melville was fueled by a great sense of inspiration, the fires stoked by his correspondence with and deep admiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne (who is better when you read him outside of high school). Melville’s life is a portrait of the artist as a starving, misunderstood madman — the best kind of person, the essential struggling writer.
Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for creating Sherlock Holmes, though he apparently resented writing the character so much that he killed him off at Reichenbach Falls only to bring him back because readers demanded it. While the creation and writing of Holmes is fascinating, what interests me more is Doyle’s belief in the supernatural and his relationship with escape artist Harry Houdini. Houdini, of course, was a skeptic and debunker of spiritualists, which led to the dissolution of their friendship. This break down would be great to see on screen, especially since there are conspiracy theories that a bitter Doyle helped orchestrate Houdini’s untimely death.
William S. Burroughs
One of the most famous Beats, Burroughs did work that was distinctly different from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Rather than going the fantastic route of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch, a straightforward narrative about Burroughs would be welcome since his life is interesting as is. Whether covering the death of his wife, his relationship with Ginsberg, the obscenity trials for Naked Lunch, his heroin addiction, those sordid years in Tangier and Paris, or his golden years in Kansas where he made art with shotguns, Burroughs is a figure who’s odd enough to be interesting at any phase of life.
Again, this is just a partial list and by no means complete. People like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and others would be great choices as well. I’d also be interested in seeing him as John Cheever or Richard Yates given the great biographies by Blake Bailey. There’s also a lot of potential for playing part of a duo, like Norton Juster & Jules Feiffer, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, or, heck, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.
And really, that’s just English-language literature. There’s so much else to explore in other countries. I mean, if Paul Muni could play Emile Zola, perhaps Depp could take a turn at Søren Kierkegaard or Charles Baudelaire. (So long as he doesn’t play Haruki Murakami, I think we’re okay — he can always play one of Murakami’s translators, though.)
Whether or not any of the above actually happens, who knows, but those lives above were worth living and their works worth reading, and because of this, perhaps the stories of those lives are worth depicting on film.