An Alternative Reality: How Dark Fields Turned into Limitless…
Short of ingesting hallucinogens, probably the closest you can get to experiencing an alternative reality is when a world you created in your head is re-imagined by someone else, filmed, and then projected onto a screen in a movie theater. There are going to be differences between the two, inevitably—hence the “alternative”—but it’s the extent of these differences that will define the experience for you. And there really isn’t any middle ground here because as the writer you don’t get to be detached. What unspools before you on the screen that first time you see it will either be a relatively faithful version of your original or a desecration of it, making the experience, in turn, either a dream or a nightmare. My 2002 novel, The Dark Fields, was filmed in 2011 as Limitless—directed by Neil Burger and starring Bradley Cooper—and I can say, up front, that it was pretty much a dream.But at a remove of almost two years, and with maybe a little detachment, I can also look back now and reassess the differences between these two realities—between my original novel and its alternative version up on the screen. Because the thing is, after an extended close encounter with Hollywood, an experience which may never be repeated, that’s what I’m left with: a DVD, Blu-ray, or digital copy of this movie based on characters and a scenario I created. The extended close encounter with Hollywood—watching how Limitless was scripted, cast and made, visiting the set, attending the premiere, discovering that the net points in my contract were worthless and that I wouldn’t be sharing in any of the hundreds of millions of dollars the movie made worldwide at the box office—was all undeniably exciting, and, erm, instructive, but it was transitory. Any continuing relationship I have, for good or ill, will be with the movie itself.
Of course, the basic rule here, unless you actually write the script, or are heavily invested in other ways, is that it’s my book, their movie. This gets you through the close encounter phase, and theoretically relieves you of any responsibility if the movie tanks. But the truth is, once the movie is out there, and being seen by way more people than will ever read the book, you realize that the two are forever and inextricably linked, that the book now has a loudmouthed cousin who’s going to be showing up uninvited all the time from here on in, and that you’d better get used to it. So it’s a good thing I really liked Limitless and that it was so successful. I think it’d be pretty awful to be saddled with a movie you hated and were embarrassed by, and which, more significantly, ended up poisoning your relationship with the book.
Having said all of this, it’s clear that their movie is significantly different from my book. For the first forty minutes or so, it is astonishingly—and, from my personal perspective, thrillingly—faithful. Screenwriter Leslie Dixon used whole chunks of dialogue from The Dark Fields and followed the original narrative line very closely. As I sat at the premiere watching this, I felt as if my head were about to explode—and in a good way. Then, as the movie progresses, and for reasons that are understandable, it takes its own direction.
But where the real difference lies is in the ending. This is what people ask me about the most, usually expecting an expression of horror on my part at what they perceive to be a fundamental shift in moral emphasis between the two. Spoiler alert here, by the way, for anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie. At the end of The Dark Fields, protagonist Eddie Spinola, after a pharmaceutical rollercoaster ride, dies alone in a motel room. At the end of Limitless, Eddie Morra, having taken the same ride, is poised to win a senate seat and more or less conquer the world. Downbeat vs. upbeat. Moral vs. amoral. It’s quite a difference. In a way, The Dark Fields could be described as Empire—in the Bret Easton Ellis sense of the word. It’s a traditional morality tale, a Faustian bargain, where Eddie ultimately has to pay for his act of presumption. Limitless,on the other hand, is resolutely post-Empire, a just-say-yes, consequence-free lunge at the sun.
But I’m fine with this. Because the two endings grew honestly and organically out of what led up to them—a different process in each case, a different set of energies and demands. Plus, I knew all along that the book’s ending was never going to play in Peoria. And I like how the movie ends. I find it chilling—here’s this preternaturally attractive, chemically enhanced, very possibly psychopathic young man who’s headed straight for the White House. It’s faithful to the spirit of what I wrote, and is actually consistent with another plot strain in the novel that didn’t make it into the movie.
So I have nothing to complain about (apart from the net points thing). Having a book adapted for the screen is a curious process—a bit like getting a tattoo, perhaps. You can’t erase it afterwards so you’d better be happy with how it turns out.