Adapting a book to the screen is no easy task. Some of the greatest attempts have failed; some of the seemingly poorest attempts have triumphed. So what does it take to make a great adaptation? Often those films that stray farthest from the novels prove to be the most engaging of films. Yet is it possible to closely adhere to the novel itself and still produce a thoughtful and engaging film? David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis—he adapted and directed the film—comes close, but even he misses a few key marks.
In Cosmopolis, billionaire Eric Packer wakes up and decides to get a haircut in the same way that Clarissa Dalloway decides to get the flowers herself. Unfortunately for Packer, his trip to the barbershop turns into a daylong, life-altering odyssey. This is due to the fact that the president is in town (in a similar fashion to how the queen pops up in Clarissa’s morning—OK, I’ll stop with the Mrs. Dalloway comparisons) impeding his ride across Manhattan to his favorite barber—a funeral procession and out-of-control protest also cause logistical issues. A “credible threat” on his person, too, makes for tightened security and a sense of unease.
Eric makes up for his long trip by taking meetings in his sleek, white limousine—which is equipped with high-tech computer systems and a toilet. Drama with the yen threatens his company’s sizable financial grasp, so he must consult with his chief advisors to prevent full-on disaster. But he also takes breaks from these discussions to have promiscuous sex and eat meals with his new wife.
Don DeLillo’s novel is a character study of Eric Packer and what makes this stoic billionaire tick. He seems too overly concerned about his asymmetrical prostate and where limos park at night and not worried enough about his already-crumbling marriage and the yen’s destruction. He’s becoming increasingly restless and can barely focus on the present, much less his future (which later becomes problematic in his escalating attempts to feel something).
Herein lies Cronengberg’s greatest failure in the film: he fails to draw out the character of Eric. Of course, this problem lies mostly with Robert Pattinson. Whatever soulless façade Pattinson perfected for the Twilight films persists in Cosmopolis. He gives the viewer no insight into any sort of inner turmoil or anxiety until over halfway through the film when he suddenly gains a grasp of the role he’s been given.
When adapting the film, Cronenberg kept as much of DeLillo’s original dialogue as possible—to the eventual detriment of the film. While the sparse, unnatural dialogue works well in the context of the page, seen onscreen it becomes overtly abstract and off-putting—especially when it comes from Pattinson’s own mouth. He looks deeply uncomfortable in the beginning of the film, hiding behind a pair of sunglasses, speaking about himself in the plural pronoun “we,” and pretending to be an imposing figure.
Fortunately, a lot of the other actors can handle the dialogue better. Kevin Durand is a perfect cast as Eric’s bodyguard Torval. He exudes brute force and a dark sense of humor that plays well with Eric’s darker thoughts. Juliette Binoche plays the sultry Didi Fancher, Eric’s art consultant, who is also carrying on an affair with Eric in his limo. Binoche is delightful as she rolls around the floor of the limo in her underwear, discussing Rothko. Samantha Morton keeps her cool as Vija Kinsky, Eric’s chief advisor, discussing various capitalist theories while protesters shake and deface the limousine. Even Emily Hampshire—as Jane Melman, chief of finance—holds her own as she argues with Eric while he’s receiving a prostate examination by a physician (again in the confines of his own limo).
Less capable is Sarah Gadon as Packer’s wife. Her steely exterior and insanely girlish voice make her instantaneously unlikable. Not that we’re supposed to like her, but it’s hard to see what he ever saw in her other than her family’s money—something other characters are quick to assume is his motive for marrying her. They’ve been married for three weeks and still have not had sex, hence why Packer sleeps around with Didi and his bodyguard Kendra (Patricia McKenzie). The marriage is an uneasy one, again making you wonder if Eric truly had any non-financial motives for marrying her.
Even Paul Giamatti fails to engage as desperate assassin Benno Levin—he clings to that towel on his head as if it says everything you need to know about his character. Giamatti’s intense and verbose monologue kills whatever momentum the film had as he slowly brings the movie to its abrupt ending. But the fault for this rests more on Cronenberg than on Giamatti. In the novel, we are introduced early on to Levin (and in an interesting twist we learn what happens after the end of the novel) and his obsession with Eric. Without even some brief development of this in the film, it comes off as a forced confrontation—that Cronengberg leaves with a frustratingly open-ended denouement.
There are many great moments in the film—both humorous and sorrowful—as we follow Eric’s quest to feel something, anything. He sleeps around, argues with his wife, and slowly descends into more violent territory, hoping to feel any form of emotion. He becomes reckless and childlike, feeling immortal. Visually, Cronengberg captures the world of the novel, while also updating it to the present day (the echoes of Occupy Wall Street in the protests was a nice touch). These great moments, however, fail to make up for the incredibly slow pace of the film. If ten or fifteen minutes had been cut out, it would have been a more engaging, better-paced film.
The close adaptation of the novel merely shows how difficult it truly is to adapt literature into film. Much of this adaptation feels as soulless as Eric. What feels vibrant when read on the page, fails to translate—at least on film. A stage adaptation of Cosmopolis could work much better. The confined sets and abstract discussions are akin to various great plays on the stage (it’s no coincidence that DeLillo is also a prolific playwright). A stronger actor than Pattinson, who is still very novice, would have enhanced the film as well.
Had Cronengberg not cut corners with some of the critical moments in the novel, then he would have achieved that thrillingly perfectly exact adaptation. Or, perhaps, had he gone in a direction further from the novel’s precise path, he could’ve achieved a different—and potentially intriguing—exploration of this character and his place in society. Alas, Cosmopolis will remain an intriguing novel but an empty film.
- David Cronenberg: How I seduced Rob Pattinson (salon.com)
- ‘Cosmopolis,’ Directed by David Cronenberg (movies.nytimes.com)
- Robert Pattinson Insists He’s ‘Just A Pawn’ In ‘Cosmopolis’ (mtv.com)
- A Glamberous Review: Cosmopolis (glambergirlblog.com)
- Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” Will Alienate Most Audiences to the City Limits (my original JustPressPlay.net review)