*DISCLAIMER* – These opinions are entirely my own and will contain SPOILERS!
In this book versus movie entry the stance you take on which was better depends solely on the order to digested them. In my case I watched the movie first and then read the book.
This hard hitting novel by Hubert Selby Jr has been transformed into a powerful movie by director Darren Aronofsky. This led to the movie which came out more than a decade after the original publication of the novel.
The film/book is about the descent into drug addiction. The four characters all find themselves falling into this trap. Sara Goldfarb becomes addicted to diet pills which adds an interesting twist to the film. No one is surprised when someone becomes addicted to heroin. Diet pills are legal and prescribed by a doctor. This kind of addiction and obsession is often overlooked in our society. Both Selby and Aronofsky have an awareness that it is also a very real problem plaguing our society.
The film is very graphic and depicts the descent into addiction very well. It is a truly ugly situation and this film makes that point very clearly. Aronofsky has pointed out that the hero of the film (novel) is addiction itself because it wins over and consumes all the protagonists. Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and Tyrone C Love (Marlon Wayons) are best friends who enjoy the occasional taste of heroin. Harry’s girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) also follows them into this world of addiction as well as Harry’s mother Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn).
Sara Goldfarb is interesting an interesting character because she is the oldest addict we see in this novel/movie. She is lonely as her husband has passed away years ago. She insists on feeling that Harry is a good boy in spite the bad things he does. He steals her TV to buy drugs and constantly berates her. She always manages to get it back from the pawn shop owner in a prearranged set up. She spends most of her day watching TV. Her problems arise when she believes she will be selected as a guest on a TV game show. She is concerned over her appearance because she cannot fit into her favourite red dress. This eventually leads her to see a doctor who prescribes diet pills. She begins to fantasize that moment when she will walk out on the show and be loved by millions. The obsession continues. All her friends are told that she will be on TV. She anxiously awaits notification of when she will go on the show. As she continues to take the diet pills and fast her weight gradually drops. Soon she is able to fit easily into her favourite dress. A particularly poignant scene is when Harry is disturbed by the knowledge that she is taking diet pills. He is obviously well aware of the dangers of the drugs and wishes her to stop taking them.
The ultimate downfall is when Harry and Tyrone decide to go to Florida to cop directly from the dealers. Marion has already begun a relationship with a pimp. She engages in lesbian acts to provide entertainment for a crowd. It is her low point as she will now do anything to obtain her fix. Harry and Tyrone end up getting arrested in the South. This is also the end of the road for them. Sara also ends up in a hospital. She is committed for shock treatments.
The movie is downright brutal in its depiction of the deterioration caused by drug addiction. They all end up losing everything. The movie has a more visceral impact than the book. That is due to the ability to shove the brutal images onto the screen. When Harry’s arm becomes infected you get close ups on this now deteriorating limb. The footage of the money disappearing from the locker is also illuminating. Money is also an addiction. That point is made in the novel as well. It’s a subtle point but one that should be well taken.
Now I want to talk specifically about certain characters and scenes in both the books and the movies.
Harry for me was the biggest hypocrite in both the book and movie because he warns his mother about drugs although he supplies and takes them himself. He also asks Marion to basically whore herself out for drugs and reacts terribly when she returns home. But as we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions and Harry personified this perfectly.
In my opinion Sara was the weakest protagonist of the 4. I felt she wasn’t strong enough to be a main character and should have been a secondary character. While she was interesting in how she fits into the overall story I didn’t enjoy reading the sections of the book that focused on her except for the hallucination scenes.
Marion was by far the best character in this entire book she is always present either in dialogue, thought or person. She influences major decisions the other characters make and she is the only one of the four to have the “happiest” ending. Her story arc develops so well in the book and the movie. She starts off quite naive and innocent, when drawn into depravity through desperation she is initially repulsed at her own actions and what she had been lead to do but after the drugs consume her she becomes more and more autonomous.
Tyrone to me was a great character in both book and movie although he does disappear from periods of time in the book and I would have liked to have seen more of him there. I feel sorry for Tyrone because he doesn’t only deal with his drugs issues but also race issues and the racial discrimination he faces in the South and unfairly he is treated because of it.
Marion’s First Transaction (money for sex)
This scene marks Marion descent into addiction and although she is a forced a little bit by Harry to do this she understands that she wants and craves the drugs that the money will buy. This scene also tarnishes her relationship with Arnold, she was meeting and occasionally have sex with Arnold before this scene although this is investigated more in the books and it’s here that Marion realizes that something has begun changing inside of her this also drives a wedge between Harry and herself and ultimately leads to her decisions at the end of the novel/movie.
Sara hallucinations play a great part in the novel and were very downplayed in the movies. These hallucinations now only depict her mental state but also allows the reader to see how vulnerable Sara was from the beginning. Sara is constantly begging for her son’s attention – well, actually she would take attention and affection from anyone that would give it to her. In these hallucinations she is beautiful, respected and loved by everyone she meets. Although within the hallucinations we see the inanimate objects like the fridge and the television play on Sara vulnerability and insecurities.
Despite this being very close to the end of the book and movie, it truly marks the beginning of the end for all the characters. Harry manages to ignore and hide this infection until it literally becomes life-threatening.
Harry Phones Marion from Jail
This scene has to be the one that really got to me the most apart from the final scenes which I will discuss next. This scene really got to me because it marks the end for Harry and Marion. He phones her from jail and the conversation appears normal until Marion asks him when he is going to be home; he replies “soon”. At this point Marion knows that Harry won’t be coming home and she will have to take care of herself which she has been doing for a while with the help of her pimp. This scene is made more potent because Harry breaks down sobbing on the phone as we see Marion preparing to meet her pimp again. Now the characters and the readers know there is no way out for any of the characters and there will be no happy endings.
THE ENDING SCENE
Sara at the end of the novel and movie is committed and subject to electroshock therapy. While in the book the reasons behind these are very in-depth the movie skims over the psychological factors leading to her committal.
Because of the drugs, her mental breakdown and the shock therapy Sara literally becomes a shell of the person she once was but continues to live out her delusions inside her mind where she is happy.
Tyrone by the end of the movie and book has been placed in prison for no apparent reason other than he is black and a drug user, although he wasn’t arrested because he was smuggling and carrying any drugs. The only thing Tyrone wishes for is his mother, who has been dead for a long time but struggles on with the harsh conditions that come with being a member of the chain gang in the South.
Harry at the end of the novel manages narrowly to escape prison because of his infection, he is rushed to hospital where the arms has to be amputated and he again narrowly escapes death.
Marion’s final scene got to me the most. In her final moments of scene time we see her attend a party her pimp is holding where she will be expected to perform sexual acts with other women in front of a male audience and in return she will get money and drugs to keep her going and dependent for a little while. This scene is stunning visual with the men cheering, the slapping of flesh, heaving breathing and blinding lights. When we see Marion return home she smiles and the camera fades out.
In the final seconds of the movie I enjoyed the stunning visual of all the characters curling into the fetal position with various facial expressions.
This visual for me represents the loss of innocence in all the characters but it also make me feel as though the characters have regressed to being infants; vulnerable and dependent on those around them.
MOVIE: ***** – It is visual, engrossing and utterly compelling.
BOOK: While I rated the book ***** in comparison to the movie I would give it ***
My final opinion would be to watch the movie before reading the book because you have a visual idea of what you will encounter in the book but from a more psychological viewpoint.