Lately, it seems that even the most successful film adaptations don't have much more in common with the books that spawned them than the title and some of the characters' names -- at best. Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, for instance, had little to do with James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, apart from its major theme of very white men doing very bad things. With the notable exceptions of Scott Frank's clever reworking of Elmore Leonard's Out of Sight and John Irving's streamlined rendering of his own Cider House Rules, most screenplays use the original as a guideline and little else, sometimes eschewing it altogether. (See: the last half of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and while you're at it, much of the first half as well.) You can hardly blame them: After all, trying to shoehorn 300 pages into two hours of screen time is about as easy as squeezing Camryn Manheim into a size-2 mini-dress. There's too much there, so some of it has to be sacrificed for the greater good.
Yet it's rarely that simple, since shooting a best-seller means not only that the film has a built-in audience, but also that it has some of the harshest critics. God forbid the wrong scene is excised or the wrong person is cast in a part everyone who's read the book has imagined as someone else. Before High Fidelity even hit theaters, fans of Nick Hornby's book were grousing about such minute details as hair colors and styles, not to mention the most glaring of alterations: transplanting the setting from the north side of London to the north side of Chicago. The reaction was almost as if one of the main characters of the book were killed off before making his first appearance in the film -- think Angela's Ashes without one of the dour McCourt boys.
But the change in location affects High Fidelity only slightly, if at all. It remains the story of Rob Gordon (John Cusack), an obsessive record collector and owner of the faltering record store Championship Vinyl, who has to decide whether what people are like is better than what they like. And it works as well here as it did there -- especially in Chicago, which is every bit as provincial and music-crazy as London. In fact, other than a few minor quibbles (since when does Rob start his own record label?), fans of Hornby's book should have very little gripes with director Stephen Frears' dedicated, almost reverential, treatment of High Fidelity (written by Cusack and his Grosse Pointe Blank partners, D.V. DeVincentes and Steve Pink).
Directed by Stephen Frears
Screenplay by D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, and Scott Rosenberg, based on the novel by Nick Hornby
Starring John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, and Tim Robbins
Even the scenes from the book that didn't make the film -- what few of them remain -- were clearly shot at one point, such as a bitter spouse offering to sell Rob the holy grail of singles collections for pocket change. (Check the DVD for that and others: Strangely, the call setting up the scene remains in the film.) The film is so much like the book, it might as well come with a bookmark to hold your place when you step outside to use the restroom or pick up some snacks from the concession area.
Of course, if you've read High Fidelity, chances are you won't lose your place when you see High Fidelity. As in the book, Rob's longtime girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) walks out on him just as the film begins. Rob then spends the better part of the next two hours moping around his store, ticking off various Top Five lists (Top Five Side One, Track Ones; Top Five Songs About Death), aided and abetted by "the musical moron twins," Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Tenacious D's Jack Black). When Rob, Dick, and Barry are in Championship Vinyl, that's when High Fidelity is at its best, particularly when Black is on-screen. He's a sloppy bear of charisma, John Belushi in thrift-store threads, dominating every scene he's in. Even when Cusack is in the scene with him, the film belongs more to Black than to anyone else.
Along the way, Rob falls into bed with "kind of Sheryl Crow-ish crossed with a post-Partridge Family, pre-L.A. Law Susan Dey...but black" singer Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet) and revisits the girls who broke his heart at one point in his life, the women who reside on the list of his personal Top Five All-Time Breakups. The list includes movie critic Penny (Joelle Carter), the desperately lonely Sarah (Lili Taylor), and Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the college sweetheart who left him a college dropout, 15 pounds lighter and working in a record store. It's Rob's what-does-it-all-mean? tour of the past, ostensibly to help him deal with the present and figure out the future.
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Clearly, he wants Laura to be a part of both, but he repeatedly stunts his chances with his awkward attempts at prying her away from her new boyfriend, Ian (Tim Robbins), the man with "the shitty Steven Seagal ponytail." His clumsiness, according to Laura's best friend, Liz (Joan Cusack, without whom the cast wouldn't quite be complete), has only made Laura and Ian into a unit, fighting a common enemy: Rob.
In many ways, High Fidelity is a much better-done version of Singles, down to the unexpected cameo by Bruce Springsteen, reminiscent of former Seattle Supersonic Xavier McDaniel's don't-cum-yet appearance in Cameron Crowe's tribute to Seattle's grunge years. Then, there's also Rob's running commentary delivered directly to the camera, the book's inner monologue come to life. And most important, the obsessive attention to detail placed on the music that surrounds the film, almost swallowing it whole at times.
The film sometimes one-ups the book in that respect, from the opening-credits sequence featuring The Thirteenth Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" to the perfect marriage of characters, scenes, and songs (Laura, with Liz Phair's "Baby Got Going," for one). Music is the soundtrack and the plot, the beginning, middle, and end. High Fidelity does its best to bring itself up to right now: In one of the few scenes that doesn't really pay off, Rob boasts that he's "about to sell five copies of The Beta Band's The Three EPs." Whether he does or not -- you never know, because seconds later he's out the door chasing down two skate-punk shoplifters -- isn't the point. At least, it doesn't seem to be. As with Grosse Pointe Blank, the film is loaded with similar we're-hipper-than-you references. Remember the radio station Minnie Driver worked at in Grosse Pointe Blank giving away tickets to see Palace? Yeah, that would happen.
That, more than anything, is what High Fidelity amounts to, giving all record-collecting geeks a series of thrills (Rob's favorite book is Cash by Johnny Cash? Me too!) and a reason not to feel so bad about spending a lifetime obsessing over albums and the people who make them. Cusack's Rob proves that you can be a grown-up (eventually, at least) and still know, in a split-second, that High Fidelity is the name of an Elvis Costello song -- track 10 on 1980's Get Happy!, more specifically. Well, some people might be beyond all hope.