Pete Dexter’s novel The Paperboy is a concisely written account of a journalist’s attempts to free a supposedly innocent man on death row. How then, does Lee Daniels’ adaptation of the book (which he co-wrote with Dexter) become a lust-fueled orgy of exploitation? Could the answer simply be that because Daniels is a gay African American male, he chose to use those identities to inform his auteur take on the novel? Or did Daniels just simply want to make a wildly bizarre film after his heartwrenching film Precious? And which (if either) is the one you should check out?
In the late 60s, Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack) is on Death Row for the murder of a sheriff (who is beloved for only killing black men). Van Wetter is about to receive some aid from an unlikely gang composed of the famed Miami Times reporting duo Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Archeman (David Oyelowo); Ward’s brother—and temporary driver—Jack (Zac Efron); and the woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who is in love with van Wetter despite only knowing him from the letters she’s written to him in prison. Determined to prove his innocence (in the murder, at least), the gang ostracizes themselves in the small community as they aim to release this violent man from prison.
Both book and film begin from this scenario, but slowly their stories diverge. In Dexter’s novel, Jack narrates from the first-person his account of what happens in the journalists’ quest for truth. He protects and idolizes Ward (who gets into some trouble with some sailors); clashes with Yardley; and watches a self-proclaimed maneater devour his father and his father’s newspaper (which Jack is supposed to inherit). Dexter tells a succinct story that concerns itself more with finding the truth than with oversexing the characters. While this makes for a perfectly adequate novel, it does very little to set it apart from other adequate or mediocre novels.
Daniels’ film, however, alters much of what happens in the book (or at least how it’s portrayed), making for a far more engaging (if also absurd) story. The Jansen’s maid, Anita (Macy Gray), narrates the film with her exaggerated Southern accent. Yardley has an affected British accent and is portrayed by an African Englishman, despite the character in the novel being a white American man. Even Jack and Charlotte’s relationship (which is merely a hinted at flirtation in the novel) turns into a full-blown sexual affair (with Charlotte peeing on Jack after a jellyfish attack to prove her affection for him—a group of sunbathing nurses does the task in the novel).
The greatest (and my personal favorite) change is Daniels’ overall approach to the film: making it essentially a love note to Zac Efron. Gratuitous shots of him swimming or running around in his white briefs make it easy to see what Charlotte found so attractive about Jack. And Efron’s ease with this role shows that he’s really coming into his own as an actor. All of this adds the necessary character development to Jack that is lost from him not narrating the piece.
While I’m the first person to say that you should always read the book first (and I do stand by that), The Paperboy is that very rare exception. If you are interested in reading Dexter’s concise novel then it is best to read that before you tackle the film. But the film is such an amazing roller coaster of an adventure that I highly recommend you see it and don’t even bother with the book, which pales in comparison.