In 1960, Hunter S. Thompson relocated to San Juan in Puerto Rico; a young American journalist disillusioned with life under the Eisenhower administration who felt the compulsion to embark on voluntary exile to the Caribbean. Here, Thompson documented his tangles with an alcohol-fuelled journalistic culture and the voracious lures of jealous lust and treachery amongst his colleagues via the fictional representation of an alter ego, Paul Kemp.
The novel that eventuated was continually rejected by publishers and remarkably remained unpublished until 1998. Since its release, however, The Rum Diary has acquired a status as one of Thompson’s most distinguished works, and rumours of a filmic adaptation have been rife with speculation over the past decade as the rights to the novel have changed hands multiple times.
The film stars Johnny Depp as Kemp, an unsurprising casting choice considering the intimate friendship Depp shared with Thompson before his suicide in 2005. In fact, it’s not the first time Depp has played the lead role in a filmic adaptation of his work. His turn as Thompson’s author surrogate, Raoul Duke, in the cult film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, came after Depp had prepared for the role by living in Thompson’s basement. Depp has stated that he views the role of Kemp as the genesis of Duke, with The Rum Diary depicting a time in which “he was learning to speak”.
The film is directed by a relative newcomer to the medium, Bruce Robinson, whose rendition of the novel is noticeably altered for the screen with the culling of the charismatic, if at times loathsome, character Yeoman in place of substantiating the role of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). The move is bound to upset fans of the novel, but the tension between Kemp and his love interest in Chenault (Amber Heard), originally Yeoman’s partner, still resonates as one of the more compelling and excitable aspects of the film.
Depp adequately leads a strong cast of solid, if not noteworthy, performances in this rum-soaked drama that is occasionally injected with a shot of adrenaline-pumping action and clever humour. Despite its charming moments, a patchy script too often falls in to substituting witty asides for slapstick humour, resorting to unimaginative sexual innuendos and cheap thrills to squeeze out a shameless laugh or two.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to gauge whether Kemp is an impassioned journalist or not. His moments of moral righteousness and journalistic integrity seem lost in the hazy notion of Puerto Rico as a place where the profession itself is infused, if not over-run, with a madness pertaining to drug and alcohol addiction. Kemp’s tenure at the paper comes at a time when his very profession is often depicted as simply a means to an end for local business to run smoothly, as foreigners bank on a group of misfits at his paper to cater for their wants amidst the tenuous political climate in Puerto Rico.
While the rarely perturbed Kemp belatedly makes a poetic pledge to direct his time toward undermining the ‘bastards’ of the world, it’s little more than a tame parting-shot, an allusion to, but not an encapsulation of, Thompson’s provocative ideas of journalism at the time.