April 14, 2012

Guest Review: Running with Scissors

I feel very privileged to be publishing this guest review by Lana Penrose – a very talented lady who has worked as record company promotions manager; music journalist; music television producer; personal assistant to an iconic pop sensation; and author. Lana’s best-selling non-fiction title To Hellas & Back was optioned for film development in September 2010. She is also the author of Kickstart My Heart and is working on two other manuscripts. Please join me in welcoming Lana to ‘Book or Big Screen?’

Don’t you just love those occasions where a memoir leaves you feeling good and drunk?  You find yourself releasing involuntary guffaws as you merrily wobble around each page, inadvertently startling your City Rail contemporaries out of their slumber.  That’s how it was for me when I devoured Augusten Buroughs’ Running With Scissors a few years ago. I digested each page faster than an amphetamine- gobbling conspiracy theorist swilling chardonnay chasers. I laughed myself stupid. And then came the movie.

Now it is with some trepidation that we humble readers venture into cinematic terrain.  After all, how many times have we been let down? How many times have we lamented, “The book was, like, a billion times better than the movie!”  We eye off directors and screenplay writers with trepidation and ambivalence as they chew their bottom lips. If they don’t do “our” books justice, they can expect an abrupt nipple tweak!

For me, the appeal of Running With Scissors – the book – was found in its innocence and gut-tickling hilarity. My dependency was forged around the effortless narrative delivery and the quirky storyline where comedy burst from the macabre, aimed at the armpits. Even the title grabbed me, summing up the author’s unconventional upbringing in three simple words.

Running With Scissors is the story of Augusten Burroughs. Born into a fractious world in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he contends with an alcoholic father and a mercurial mother – the melodramatic and misunderstood Diedre; an oppressed poet with illusions of grandeur. She relates to seven-year-old Augusten as though he’s a contemporary and their bond is strong. But as Burroughs enters his teens and his mother all but regresses, the word “crazy” arises. It soon becomes evident that this brand of crazy goes way beyond “eccentric", “wacky” and “zany”. Diedre is out-and-out nuts; in fact she’s of the “toothpaste sandwich” variety.

Insanity soon permeates almost every character as Augusten’s life opens up to prove that truth really is stranger than fiction. Joy can be found in psychiatrist Dr Finch, with whom Augusten finds himself firmly ensconced. The good doctor offhandedly references the “Masturbatorium” adjoining his office, hooks patients on sedatives and divines hidden messages from his ablutions. His daughter, Hope, telepathically converses with a dead cat, while his long-suffering wife, Agnes, grazes on dog kibble.

As Augusten’s young mind grapples with all this and more, his whip-fast wit is evident on every page. The complexities he contends with orbit around the mind, relationships, sexuality and family dysfunction as love’s undercurrent flows tranquilly beneath the choppy surface. You couldn’t ask for more when it comes to film fodder. But … what if they wrecked it?

With DVD in trembling hand, I pushed Running With Scissors into my player, pleased to see that the right cast was rallied. Joseph Cross plays Augusten Burroughs, bemused and lovable. Annette Bening seems to have a wonderful time playing the neurotic Diedre. Brian Cox is equally superb as fruity Finch. The film also features Alec Baldwin (Norman Burroughs), Gwyneth Paltrow (Hope Finch) and Joseph Fiennes (Neil Bookman).

But … was it a fair adaptation? I hear you gasp. Well, as a devotee there were hurdles to clear. A couple of characters were dropped. (Fair enough.) The body-shape of Natalie Finch was altered. (Why?) I found my disbelief unsuspended during a couple of Bening’s sedation scenes. (I forgive her.) And some of the more distasteful truths found in the book were only vaguely implied to ensure character connection and overall quirkiness. (I get it.) It therefore … worked! (Do you feel the relief?)

I pondered how writer and director Ryan Murphy had pulled it off and decided he probably loved the book as much as I did, his passion spilling gleefully into his work. He managed to capture the visual imagery I’d imagined myself. The human frailty was perfectly accompanied by visual cues peculiar to the seventies: sharp collars, helmet hairdos, gaudy oranges, candy pinks and olive greens, as ridiculous as they were delicious. And the story came even more to life courtesy of 10CC, Elton John, Al Stewart and Manfred Mann. So in a nutshell Murphy remains nipple-tweak free.  He added sound, colour and texture to an already riveting story, his stylisation playing asset to his screenplay, which, although not a direct facsimile, loses little and elicits laughs.

For those with a penchant for dry humour, in my humble opinion, both the book and film Running With Scissors make the grade, being of particular appeal to those “toothpaste sandwich” crazy.

I would be very happy to receive your comments and feedback on ‘Book or Big Screen’ – please click on the below link to tell me what film adaptation you are excited about, or to suggest the book/film that I should review next.

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