When I was in graduate school, and spent half my time reading books, my friends and I all agreed that the best sort of job would be one that paid you to read literature. Most of my friends went into academia and succeeded handsomely on that score; so did I as a movie critic, though it’s even better in my case because, when you read the book a movie is based on, people treat you as if you’re some sort of intellectual. In the kids’ pool of lowered expectations, I’m an Olympic swimmer.
For a long time I did my best to read novels that were being adapted to the screen, but more recently I’ve begun to dislike coming into a movie with the source novel in my head. Inevitably I’ll be filling in details that the filmmaker dropped or couldn’t translate to the screen, giving him more credit than he deserves, and probably overvaluing the movie for someone who hasn’t read the book. More and more, I want a movie to stand on its own.
And so I came, unread, to A Hologram for the King, Tom Tykwer’s new adaptation of the celebrated novel by Dave Eggers. The publicist sent me two copies of the paperback edition, but something about the cluttered cover put me off. An illustration shows a businessman with a briefcase pacing through the desert; inset in this drawing is a little graphic with a glossy finish, ad copy for the movie, and a severely redundant photo of Tom Hanks as a businessman carrying a briefcase in the desert. Appetizing it wasn’t.
After suffering through the movie, though, I was curious to learn what had earned the book such enthusiastic reviews. A Hologram for the King is impressive—timely, ambitious, sometimes funny or haunting—but completely unsuited to the screen. Alan Clay, a washed-up salesman from the U.S., arrives in Saudi Arabia on a last-ditch mission to sell a state-of-the-art, holographic teleconference system to the king of Saudi Arabia. He and his team wait, and wait, and wait for an audience with the king. This works fine on the page, as Alan explores the strange land and ponders the dwindling economic fortunes of the United States. But movies are supposed to move. That’s why Michael Bay finally had to scrap his long-planned adaptation of Waiting for Godot.
Adding to this miscalculation, Tykwer has cast Tom Hanks as the beleaguered hero, calling for one of those comic-everyman performances the actor can do in his sleep. (Ironically, Hanks has done his very best screen work playing dead-serious men, in movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Road to Perdition, Catch Me If You Can, and Bridge of Spies.) Right out of the box, Tykwer opens with a gimmicky mock music video, incorporating the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” that makes a cartoon of Alan’s wrecked marriage and collapsing career prospects back in the U.S. It’s a bold stylistic move that fails miserably, setting a tone that the rest of the movie can’t accommodate.
What really sinks the movie version of Hologram, though, is losing the sort of interior monologue that brings a character to life on the page but can’t be staged. Alan is a former executive for Schwinn—in the 80s he helped move the company’s production to China, and the Chinese acquired the manufacturing skills to construct these labor-intensive machines, took over the market, and drove Schwinn into bankruptcy. Having sold himself right out of a job, Alan starts heading down the ladder of success until he’s a fly-by-night consultant and can’t afford to pay his daughter’s tuition. Tykwer captures the outlines of this, but not the sort of economic detail Alan calls to mind as he ponders the migration of manufacturing from West to East and the receding glory of the American (i.e. previous) century.
Alan can still remember the old-school days of the American go-getter: as Eggers tells us, Alan started out as a Fuller Brush man, going door-to-door under the tutelage of a seasoned pro named Joe Trivole. But those days are over now, Alan thinks as he regards the three young Americans on his team: “He had nothing to teach these people. They could set up a hologram in a tent in the desert, while he’d arrived three hours late and wouldn’t know where to plug the thing in. They had no interest in manufacturing or the sort of person-to-person sales he’d spent his life perfecting. . . . None of them had started, as he had, selling actual things to actual people.”
Along with Alan’s 30 years of business savvy, Tykwer also loses his acute observations of Saudi Arabia, of the surreal clash between 21st-century technology and seventh-century morality. Some of these things are staged, like the social gyrations required for men and women to meet and mingle (when Alan strikes up a romantic relationship with an Arab doctor, and she invites him to take a swim with her in the Red Sea, she goes topless in men’s bathing trunks so anyone spotting them will think she’s a man). But once you lose a character’s interiority, you lose the chance for every new discovery or experience to register as a shock to the system.
Apart from coming to a movie with the book already in your head, the most annoying narrative experience is coming to a book with the movie already in your head. I can’t help but visualize the scenes as they played out onscreen; I can’t help but plug Hanks into the story even though his screen persona obscures the character. At some point the book and the movie will just commingle in my head, and I’ll remember them as more or less the same experience. Kind of like a hologram, though it doesn’t really exist.