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Rum Diary: Depp does dipso dread
67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun – for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax – This won't hurt
November 11, 2011 | By:
The good news: Johnny Depp's movie of Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diary has opened in the UK. The bad news: its theme of ageing haunted the hard-drinking Thompson all his life. Richard MacKichan reports
Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp

Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp in The Rum Diary

About ten years ago, a dear friend of mine was alone in a Mexican bar, reading the kind of cheap and frustrating book that tends to punctuate a holiday. He looked up to see a world-weary yet affectionate looking man approaching him, clutching a worn paperback.

“Here, take this,” said the man to my friend, offering him the book. “You’ll like it. You’ll like it a lot. The author is a friend of ours. He’s a friend of the truth, the smart, the unruly. And though the author himself would admit he’s not one to follow or idolise, we have to accept that these are strange and dangerous times and we all have to make concessions.”

On his return to England, my friend handed the same beat-up paperback to me, with the same speech. As introductions to books go, I’ve yet to hear a better one.

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The book, as it turns out, was The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson. Its introduction was thoroughly deserved and today it makes the traditional leap from page to screen after years of production hell.

The Rum Diary was written 52 years ago, when the 22-year-old Hunter was a jobbing writer with wanderlust (though it wasn’t published until 1998). Having applied for countless jobs – and collected the rejection letters – he spied a 28-word newspaper advert for a sports writer in Puerto Rico. He was offered the job and set off for San Juan, whose dusty streets and sweat-drenched bars would form the backdrop to his semi-autobiographical tale of lust, drinking and degenerate newspapermen.

Its frenetic pace and maniacal characters bore the early signs of the ‘gonzo’ style that would later define Hunter. Yet there is something more considered about The Rum Diary. While the central character and narrator Paul Kemp is a thinly disguised Thompson, it technically remains his only true work of fiction. At its core though – perhaps strangely coming from a marauding 22-year-old – is the lingering fear of ageing.

‘Kidding ourselves’

Kemp-Thompson debates it with himself: “I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I felt that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between those two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.”

He sees it surrounding him: “Sounds of life and movement, people getting ready and people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks.”

He is even ambivalent about it: “There was an awful suspicion in my mind that I’d finally gone over the hump, and the worst thing about it was that I didn’t feel tragic at all, but only weary, and sort of comfortably detached.”

Still, the book is shot through with that fear, as much as it is with rum, sweat and outrage. And, of course, the demons with which he had wrestled as a sweaty 22-year-old famously caught up with him at 5.42pm on 20 February 2005, when the 67-year-old Thompson shot himself in the head.

His suicide note read: No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun – for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax – This won’t hurt.

It was a sadly predictable exit for a man who once claimed he would feel trapped if he didn’t know he could commit suicide at any moment. Sad for his fans, too, as we would have delighted in his commentary on today’s state-of-the-nation(s) and, of course, his continued ability to grow old disgracefully.

Hunter freaks, though, can be as feverish, precious and stubborn as the characters in his books. So when rumours of a Rum Diary film began to surface over a decade ago, they were met with suspicion by the faithful. (Screen adaptations do that to book fans.) Two things brought them round.

The first was Johnny Depp, a close friend of Hunter’s since he portrayed him in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. In fact it was Depp who found the original manuscript of The Rum Diary in Hunter’s basement and persuaded him to publish it. As a promise to the author, he came on board both as producer and star. The second was the director. Following aborted attempts involving Benicio Del Toro and Nick Nolte, Depp coaxed Bruce Robinson out of retirement and appointed him director and screenwriter. Robinson is the man who brought us the last great tale of drinking and degenerates, Withnail & I.

Last month, The Rum Diary opened in the States to mixed reviews and a less-than-impressive box office return, but with its lingering theme of corruption at the heart of the capitalist American Dream, it may fare better now it has opened in the UK. “It’s got the Fifties style thing, which is back in vogue, and it features a rotting newspaper at its centre, which is quite timely, what with all these side-winding fuckers at News Corp,” said Robinson recently.

The spirit of Thompson was integral to filming. A director’s chair with HUNTER across the back was adorned with a bottle of rum, a packet of cigarettes and a copy of the script daily. Johnny Depp’s production company took full control of proceedings. Though Robinson has warned Hunter’s fanatic devotees that he has ended up using just three lines from the original novel.

Still, heed that stranger’s words: these are strange and dangerous times and we all have to make concessions. A sentiment I think Hunter would agree with.

Now watch the film’s trailer:

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