This Sunday I will be attending the Seattle International Film Festival for the premiere of Grassroots, a film based on my first book, before Grassroots comes to New York -- and beyond -- in July. Never having attended a premiere before, I imagine that people will be approaching me only when they can't find a real celebrity to talk to, but nonetheless they will approach me at some point, and ask me some breathless questions. I can only imagine how these conversations will go:
They, breathlessly: So, did you like the film?
Me, aglow with a luminous patina of prestige bestowed upon the abruptly famous: Oh, yes! Very much so! Jason Biggs --
They: Wonderful! So the director was faithful to your book?
Me: Well, to be honest -- can I be honest here?
They, leaning in, uncertain: Yes, of course!
Me, also leaning in: He [director Stephen Gyllenhaal] totally gutted my book. He thoroughly emasculated it. He left the original story a dying heap on the cutting-room floor. So, no, he wasn't faithful to the book.
They, astonished: Then why are you even here?!
Me, hurt: I said I liked the movie, didn't I?
Every author who has a movie made from one of their books goes through the same predicament regarding Hollywood and the translation of their writing into film. Inevitably, something, if not everything, that is precious to the author gets abridged, mistranslated, or left out entirely. The challenge for the author is to find some way to make peace with these changes -- or walk away from the entire project -- while still pocketing as much of that sweet, sweet Hollywood cash as possible.
So, my thoughts on Grassroots, which the world will soon see for itself: I loved the film, but it's not my book. However, I couldn't support it more if I tried.
My own experience is probably different from other authors because my book is about politics, and the reason I was able to go along with Gyllenhaal's crucial story revisions has less to do with my aesthetic vision than it does my political impulses.
My book, which is being re-released under the title Grassroots next month by Nation Books, is about my experiences in 2001, starting with the moment in which I'm fired as a writer by the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger. Shortly thereafter my friend Grant asked me to run his political campaign to unseat someone on the Seattle city council. Grant Cogswell is a strange dude. A poet, a populist, and a music critic, he was so passionate about his adopted city that in the late '90s he tattooed the city logo on his left bicep.
The movie places Grant's city council campaign at the heart of the story, with a thematic emphasis on how badly our democracy needs young people to take a chance and get involved in politics. Using the same factual details, the heart of my own book lies elsewhere. I stress instead just how tough grassroots politics can be. Through the building storyline my book crushes the romantic idea that we can rely on lone crusaders any more to save us, implying instead that change takes place only through the drudgery of motivating volunteers, building consensus, and making alliances. "Campbell has written a mordantly funny account of the erosion of his youthful ideals," the Chicago Reader has said. Through narrative, the book clearly explains why populism rarely overcomes establishment politics.
But it should be obvious to anyone reading the above description why Hollywood wouldn't want to faithfully adapt this book. What studio wants to distribute a movie into the world that crushes a romantic idea (in this age, any romantic idea)? Who wants to represent the real drudgery of campaign work on film? So a lot of campaign minutiae is changed or ignored, a bizarre roommate wielding a Glock gets tossed out, a barely referenced love story gets played up like a breast augmentation, and pretty soon the film's ending is a lot happier.
Why go along with this? Self-delusion? Cognitive dissonance? Yes. No! Maybe. Again, I think it comes back to politics. Not Hollywood politics. Local politics. American politics.
I've gotten to know Stephen Gyllenhaal fairly well over the past five years that he's spent trying to turn this film into a reality, and I know his motives are honest and sincere. He really hopes that his movie will inspire people, especially younger people, to give politics a try. Check out the social media for Grassroots on Facebook and on www.grassrootsthefilm.com (the section marked "action").
Plus, on its own terms, divorced from the book, it's a good movie. And it's pretty funny. And, believe it or not, I'm OK with happier. What schmuck doesn't like a happy ending from time to time? I sat through Toy Story 2 with my four-year-old and enjoyed it just fine, thanks.
Grassroots: An upbeat film with a quietly powerful message for the audience to get engaged with the problems of our day. Yes, my bitterly funny book has been gutted, but no, I'm not upset about it. Given the number and depth of our current political problems, anything we can do to promote positive grassroots change, anything we can do to get people to get off their butts and try to change the system for the better, I'm absolutely for.