Weekly Read: The Lost City of Z

I generally roll my eyes at people who see a movie based on a book and then tut tut that “the book was better.” Even as a writer, it comes off as snobbish to me. The written word is a different medium than film, which makes adaptations their own things. One’s rarely “better,” even in a subjective sense, than the other. They’re just different.

The film, The Lost City of Z (released last year), got a good amount of praise when it was released. I’ve even seen people list it as being snubbed in the Oscar race. It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, who repeatedly search the Amazon jungle for evidence of a lost city in the early part of the last century. The wife and I put it on our list of flicks to see and, the other weekend, were able to pay per view it. My thoughts at the time was that it was a fine flick, but it suffered in comparison to such jungle fever dreams as Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

It did interest me enough to go read the book upon which the movie is based. Also called The Lost City of Z, it weaves the history of Fawcett’s expeditions in with the attempt of author David Grann to track down evidence of Fawcett’s final expedition (no spoiler alert – Fawcett’s disappearance in 1925 is one of the everlasting mysteries of the golden age of exploration). I’m glad I did, not just because the book provides more detail than any movie possibly could, but it makes clear that large hunks of the movie are complete and utter fiction.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about whether the film itself, or the book, is “accurate” from an historical standpoint. There was a lively debate at the time the movie came out with historians arguing that it portrayed Fawcett in a much more positive, progressive light than the historical record supports (also, he sucked at exploring). Naturally, the director’s response to this was, in essence, “it’s art and you can’t talk like that about it.” That’s not what I’m really interested in. However, I will note this observation from one critique of the movie version of Fawcett:

The original book, by David Grann, was much more intelligent and nuanced, as one would expect from a staff writer on the New Yorker. But everything has gone wrong in its clumsy adaptation for the screen by director James Gray, who has written his own script and then filmed it with great reverence – almost always a mistake.

That sounds about right, although “clumsy” is perhaps too kind. It’s simply bizarre for a movie based on a particular non-fiction book – it even uses the title! – to break from the book in so many fundamental ways. I’m not talking about the inevitable compression that happens to turn a biography into a movie – that Fawcett had 8 Amazon expeditions, not 3, or that he and his son had a third person on their final voyage makes sense. I’m talking about things that get the character so wrong I don’t understand why the writer/director used the name of a real person.

For example, one of the most obvious diversions from the book is the in the film Fawcett is portrayed as having fallen into exploration after being tapped by the military and Royal Geographical Society to survey a river on the border of Brazil and Bolivia. In fact, Fawcett caught the exploration bug while stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) when he fell hard for a story of buried treasure (he didn’t find that, either). He’d already attended a 1-year course at the RGS before the surveying mission came up.

Or take the depiction of Fawcett’s relationship with his eldest son, Jack. In the film Jack is shown as an angry kid, raging against his father as a failure after an expedition collapses spectacularly (bonus point – the book never mentions that Fawcett resigned from the RGS in the aftermath, as the film portrays). They’re reconnection as they plan the last expedition is a moving part of the film. But, according to Grann’s book at least (the source material for the film!), the two were always close and Jack wanted to join his father in his explorations almost as soon as he could.

But the most egregious example involves World War I. Fawcett was well into his Amazon explorations when the war broke out. He went back to England and, eventually, to the Western Front. The film portrays Fawcett leading a Paths of Glory style assault over the top (after consulting with a Madame Blavatsky type – she died in 1891) during which he’s wounded by gas. No just wounded – blinded. A doctor even tells the blind Fawcett that he’ll never see the jungle again. This is utter fiction, unless Grann decided to skip the episode completely in his book. Fawcett wasn’t wounded, much less blinded, and didn’t sit around the English countryside recuperating for years until his son convinced him to give it one more go. Why the director (who also wrote the script) decided to put it in is anybody’s guess.

Somebody could have made a really interesting movie out of the Grann’s book. Even without the modern day overlay of Grann’s own expedition, the atmosphere of doom that clung to Fawcett’s final expedition could have really worked as the backbone of the movie (cover what else needs to be covered in flashbacks). Or, alternately, somebody could have used Fawcett as the basis for a truly fictional character and played around with the details as he saw fit. The Lost City of Z the movie isn’t either of those and it suffers for it. The Fawcett of the book is much more interesting than his celluloid counterpart.

But it did lead me to the book, for which I thank it. For, in this instance, the tutters would be right – the book really is better than the movie.

lost city z bookLost City of Z film

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