Let me say first and foremost that the 1987 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ freshmen novel Less Than Zero is sans homosexuality. It’s like this essay’s title states: they sucked the gay right out of the story. I’m certain almost every homosexual instance is replaced by heterosexuality so Middle America would watch – it didn’t work and I’m pretty sure the film was a financial failure. It’s not surprising too since the characters in Ellis’ novel are thoroughly disgusting people; they’re rich but nonetheless disgusting. That’s not even prevalent throughout the film, which draws a clear line between likeable characters and villains. The book doesn’t work this way, with every character containing a plethora of negative character traits: selfishness, self absorption, vanity, gluttony – you get the point.
Andrew McCarthy portrays Clay, a Los Angeles rich kid back home from college for the winter. His father, at least in the novel, is a movie producer with an estranged relationship with Clay’s mother. His on again/off again girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is sleeping with their best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), who’s also a gigantic cokehead whoring himself out to his drug dealer Rip (James Spader). Blair and Clay begin screwing again while Julian descends into a dark world of male prostitution and heavy drugs. This is somewhat reminiscent of the novel: Clay’s back home and Julian’s addicted to drugs and a whore. I believe Clay and Blair have sex in the novel, but their relationship is so strained and bizarre that by the end of the novel Clay admits he’s never lover her. I think this difference between movie and novel Clay is the film’s Achilles heel. Clay’s a detached, self obsessed jerk in the novel whereas the screen’s representation isn’t exactly like this.
Marek Kanievska’s Clay actually cares for somebody besides himself. He tries at detachment but it doesn’t work; Ellis’ Clay is completely detached and devoid of compassion and morality. He goes through the motions of caring but his enormous wealth and self involvement, especially since he’s the narrator, presents him as hollow. McCarthy doesn’t take drugs in the film but the novel’s Clay is completely dependent on drugs, taking cocaine he buys from Rip and popping Valium at various times. Both Clay’s are perceptive, noticing the shallow culture Los Angeles champions but McCarthy’s version condemns the hedonism of his environment; the original Clay doesn’t. Clay’s a moral compass in the film, capable of love and at least an understanding of compassion – a trait absent in the book. The novel doesn’t contain a moral compass and no characters are likeable.
After reading Ellis’ novel I felt ill. The profligacy of the characters – partaking in gang-rape, watching snuff films – denotes an absence of any morality, a side of American affluence the world doesn’t normally witness. When everything’s available so easily there’s no challenge, nothing to yearn for – “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Ellis penned a scathing look at decadence. It’s almost a plea for mediocrity, charging the wealthy with sins beyond the average American. Of course the plebeians commit similar atrocities but normally they’re the targets of repercussions and these kids mostly dodge those bullets, hiding behind a barrage of money and parental connections. The wealth at Ellis’ protagonists’ fingertips allows for extravagant ethical transgressions, behind closed doors and restricted to only the rich and the rich’s playthings. For those championing this level of debauchery the novel presents it in spades but I can’t help questioning the morals and psychological health of somebody who enjoys the antics of Ellis’ characters.
When I said the film’s devoid of homosexuality I didn’t mean there aren’t moments where it’s a theme but it’s treated much differently. There’s a scene where Clay accompanies Julian to a hotel and watches Julian whore himself out to a visiting businessman and this scene is vastly different in the film. When McCarthy finds Julian in a hotel room almost naked with another man he angry and pulls Julian away. Clay would’ve never done that in the book; in fact he did quite the opposite – watching Julian degrade himself and, in essence, savoring the experience. Once again Clay demonstrates an unwillingness to show any conviction, any morality whatsoever. The fundamental difference between the two representations of Clay is morals and ethics: the novel’s doesn’t have any, nor does he care about anybody and the film’s actually cares, showing genuine concern for others.
The film ends differently than the novel. Ellis’ sequel to Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms, mentions how Hollywood needs a Christ figure in movies of this kind, a sacrificial lamb willing to die so others can live. Downey’s Julian dies so Blair and Clay can come together, find themselves, and live. Julian’s life in both novels takes a different turn and he has a prominent role in Imperial Bedrooms. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t become a sacrificial lamb of sorts in Ellis’ latest novel but he survives his first incarnation; a little worn and highly damaged, but he survives.
Less Than Zero’s cinematic incarnation is now 23 years old and it’s very dated, showing signs of dying quickly when the ‘80s did. It’s odd how the music and styles of the ‘80s, rendered quite correctly in the film, seem foreign now. It’s like a time capsule from an era farther away than just a few decades, showing an alien portion of American popular culture. It’s hard to believe some of the music people bought in droves – and featured in the film – was once popular and considered contemporary – this music is generally terrible, unable to transcend the limitations of its moment in time. Although the styles in the book more or less match those in the film a visual representation of them is corny, dating the movie horribly. This is a common occurrence in films but many times the styles present a specific moment in time, a time cherished for what it conveys about where we are now and how we got here. The Less Than Zero adaptation doesn’t do this, instead showing how stupid many people were in the 1980s. If its intention is a warning not to pursue the lifestyles the film presents it only works on a superficial level. Unfortunately, after reading the novel I can’t see these characters as likeable in any way whatsoever.
Here’s the trailer