Film Adaptation of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

by Mark Wallace

One of the perks of being a grad student is the possibility of wandering into a cinema in the early afternoon of a week day, when one can have almost an entire theatre to oneself. One pities the poor fools who have to crowd in like cattle to weekend showings. Nothing says freedom like cinemagoing on weekday afternoons. Popcorn in hand – or maybe a pack of sweets from the next-door newsagents if I’m not feeling too extravagant, feet maybe on seat (gasp!), I settle into the womb-like darkness and give myself over to the magic of movie narrative.

So that’s what I was doing on Tuesday just past. I wandered into an almost empty theatre to watch Inherent Vice, the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel from 2009. This film has been well received by critics: 81/100 from Metacritic, for example. General viewers have been more polarized, as can be seen from the debates on IMDb’s Message Boards. Most critics, I imagine, watch this as an adaptation. That is, they know (or know of) Pynchon’s novel. They know, also, that director Paul Thomas Anderson is a much feted auteur. So this film has a lot of prestige around it. It’s the first ever adaptation of a Pynchon novel, too, so interest has been high. I read the novel when it first came out – I recall enjoying it considerably, but little in the way of detail.


It’s set in 1970, in LA, and is pretty much entirely focalized on PI and hippie doper, Doc Sportello. It’s heavily inflected with real-life events of the time: the Manson murders and trial, Vietnam, etc. Generically, it’s somewhat of a crime noir in the Chandler, Hammett mode, but Sportello is no Sam Spade, rather a typically Pynchonian schlemihl. Mostly, at least: there’s a (now famous/ controversial, since the movie) sex scene where he mans up and gets all Sam Spade about stuff (not that there are any actual sex scenes in Hammett’s Sam Spade books, as I recall). But it’s also a very funny book. Reviewers at the time tended to stress its engaging and accessible character, by comparison with Pynchon’s other novels, famously difficult. This tends to recall a famous exchange between Truffaut and Hitchcock:

Tr.: I take it then that you’ll never do a screen version of Crime and Punishment.

Hit.: Even if I did, it probably wouldn’t be any good.

Tr.: Why not?

Hi.: Well, in Dostoyevsky’s novel there are many, many words and all of them have a function.

Tr.: That’s right. Theoretically, a masterpiece is something that has already found its perfect form, its definitive form.

Thus Inherent Vice is the first of Pynchon’s novels that is adaptable precisely because it is not a masterpiece, but a genre piece. Plot-wise, it kind of follows the rules: all the paranoia about conspiracy theories is resolved in a fairly coherent denouement, much more so than, say, V., anyway. And one shouldn’t be too picky about the denouement of the film, because of the history of the noir genre: famously, films like The Big Sleep (1946) have plots that don’t properly resolve – noir is not Agatha Christie.

One thing that’s clear from rereading parts of the book over the last few days is that Anderson really went for fidelity. Most of the dialogue is verbatim from Pynchon. The change is mostly in the area of condensation: it’s all Pynchon, but it’s not all of Pynchon. One unusual choice is in the voiceover. Pynchon’s narrator is heterodiegetic (i.e. not a character), but the language of the narrator is that of Doc, and when he get into doc’s mind it’s sometimes hard to tell where the voice of Doc’s thoughts (presented as free indirect discourse) ends and the voice of the narrator begins. Doc and the narrator seem inextricably linked. But Anderson goes with a female narrator (voiced by musician and now actor Joanna Newsom). Doc still remains at the centre of the film, though. He’s the one we know: well-meaning but ineffectual, a perennial loser in some respects, but pretty zen about it. Which is why the aggressive sex scene mentioned above has seemed pretty jarring to some (though it’s par for the course with Pynchon, who’s a very, well… pervy writer).

Joaquin Phoenix is well cast as Doc: he drawls, he mumbles, he has an off-kilter, enigmatic charm that keeps the character warm. The relatively unknown Catherine Waterston was good as Doc’s “eternal feminine draw[ing] us ever upward” (kinda) love interest Shasta. Lots of well-known faces pop up in supporting roles to keep it interesting. There’s an intriguing side-love-plot between Doc and a DA played by Reese Witherspoon. Just a couple of scenes, but a nice juxtaposition there. So my knowledge of this film is not so great as to allow me to perform a full formal analysis,  but I think I can stretch to an experiential analysis. Experientially, I would say: I enjoyed it. So, yeah. That’s about it. Its two and a half hours didn’t drag, and that sense of well-being that comes from being in a cinema theatre on a Tuesday afternoon was not dissipated by the film itself, its anti-establishment vibes chiming neatly with the sense of being an outlaw that comes with such an excursion.