Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Travesties of Pittsburgh

MoPMichael Chabon is the M. Night Shyamalan of American literary fiction. You read or see one, you've read or seen them all. While viewers of a Shyamalan film expect some "twist" that will (attempt to) make them reconsider the entire film, Chabon's readers can count on one character wrestling with and having an epiphany about his non-normative sexuality. And a lot of crying.

Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, received tremendous acclaim. Of the novel, poet Carolyn Forche wrote, "Simply the best novel I've read in years....It will takes its place beside On the Road and Catcher in the Rye," while in its reviews of the Playboy magazine repeatedly compared Chabon to F.Scott Fitzgerald and the novel to Gatsby.1

chabon_l He was heralded by the gay community for the book, but what made this novel so groundbreaking became the hook upon which he hung Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, so one wonders if Chabon was just savvy, trying to corner a market, with Mysteries.

This year will see the release of the film adaptation of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and while the novel is a great first novel, the film-makers have decided to basically rewrite the whole thing, excising what is most interesting about the novel. Bravo.

suvari Throughout the novel, the protagonist Art Bechstein is pulled between Phlox Lombardi (Mena Suvari), a kind-of-femme-fatale, and Arthur LeComte, a gay man whom he meets in the library. Another storyline follows the character of Cleveland Arning (Peter Sarsgaard2), a hero who is crashing, but the emotional freight of the work is Bechstein's attempt to understand his sexuality.

sarsgaard The film makers have decided, apparently, that the character of Arthur LeComte was superfluous, that he somehow got in the way of the real story, when in the novel LeComte pulls the strings on almost every event that takes place. A LeComte-less film can only mean that the screenplay takes tremendous liberties with everything else: LeComte introduces Bechstein to Phlox, LeComte introduces Bechstein to Jane Bellweather (Sienna Miller), LeComte has been a lifelong friend of Cleveland. These people would never know one another without LeComte.

A quick look at tells you all you need to know: the introductory scene is set at a punk show (not in the novel), which one assumes will draw Bechstein, Phlox, Jane, and Cleveland together. When and where this revision will end is anyone's guess.

One wonders how well Chabon has taken to this treatment of his work. To loosely paraphrase Hemingway, when a novel is adapted into a film, the novelist drives past the studio, throws the novel over the wall, catches the sack of money thrown back, and then drives off. Although maybe Chabon's just happy to see one of his stories play out with what has become his stock gimmick.

1 Playboy is pretty close to truth, in that Chabon lifts so much directly from Gatsby. See Gatsby's Jordan Baker, the female professional golfer that captures Nick's attention, and Mysteries' Jane Bellweather, who Art first sees driving golf balls.

2Spellcheck wanted to correct "Sarsgaard" to "rearguard."

[Note: Because every website is currently running an article about Sienna Miller, this film came to mind. When I checked and the official website to see the full cast, I saw the absence of Arthur ~ Ed.]


  1. Hey, Joshua--

    Thank you for reiterating what I've been saying since October 2006 when I launched the official MOP Film Boycott

    As the self-proclaimed #1 fan of MOP the novel, I was devastated to learn that Chabon not only sold-out the rights to the writer/director of DODGEBALL, but that according to said writer/director, Chabon gave the thumbs up to ALL of the changes!

    I got my MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon in 2006. I can't tell you how many times I passed by The Cloud Factory, dreaming of the day when I would see the story of Art Bechstein, Phlox Lombardi, and Arthur Lecomte brought to life on the silver screen, after I penned the screenplay, myself.

    Now that the Rawson Marshall Thurber version is tanking with the critics, perhaps ONE day I will get the chance to right this wrong.

    BTW--I've got a copy of the MOP screenplay if you want to take a look. Let me know: bechstein[at]yahoo[dot]com

    --Frank Anthony Polito, author of

  2. FranQ-
    I checked out both sites (MoP boycott and, and you've got a ton going on...Like you, I imagine, I loved Cleveland, thought he was actually a fresh character and supremely memorable. Now, it seems he won't be as believably eating the world, telling Art he's playing with his sexual chemistry set, and everything else that makes Cleveland fantastic. (I also love how Chabon names the greatest character in the book after Pittsburgh's arch-nemesis, although maybe his fall is tongue in cheek...the burning Cuyahoga, etc.)

    I'm picking up your novel this afternoon....