The Most Unadaptable Book in Fiction

Dee Rees’s new Netflix film tackles the Joan Didion novel The Last Thing He Wanted. It may have been a futile task.


There are a few moments, reading Joan Didion’s 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, when it’s possible to sense why someone saw cinematic potential in this exceptionally interior and evasive story. This is a tale about gunrunning in tropical climes, about beachside murders and political corruption. But its author also wants to deconstruct the prototypical elements of storytelling, such as character, description, and plot. This world is so destabilized that language itself has become untrustworthy, and even the simplest of facts cannot stand. There’s no single truth to rely on. The story is narrated by a magazine writer who may or may not be Didion herself, and who’s parsing how a female reporter got swept up in an arms-dealing scandal in 1984. While the story is fictional, the book is deeply attentive to real government duplicity during the Reagan era, in which “even the most apparently straightforward piece of information could at any time explode.”

Dee Rees’s adaptation of The Last Thing He Wanted debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival to baffled reviews, and has inspired similar confusion since it arrived on Netflix last Friday. The movie is, Stephanie Zacharek wrote for Time, “such an ambitious piece of work that it’s hard to know where to start with it.” In The New York Times, Glenn Kenny concluded that “the big problem with the movie isn’t the muddle, but the strain” of Rees’s attempts to make things make sense. “How does a director as stellar as Dee Rees (Mudbound, Pariah) go so thunderously wrong adapting a 1996 novel by the great Joan Didion, with a cast headed by Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, and Willem Dafoe?” Peter Travers asked in his Rolling Stone review, perhaps unwittingly answering his own question. Didion’s prestige as a writer is such that virtually anyone would want to attach themselves to a project with her name on it. But there’s also a good reason only one of her novels has previously been turned into a film or television project: Her work, this movie suggests, is unadaptable.

That isn’t a slight on the work itself. Didion’s novels and journalism are defined by a detached lucidity, often a vehicle for her unnerving appraisal of internal turmoil as symptom and statement of an unraveling world. Particularly in her fiction, Didion concerns herself with the dark lie of American identity: a legacy of blood and corruption in Run, River; the perversion of innocence in Play It as It Lays; the fragility of order and peace in Democracy and A Book of Common Prayer. Arms dealers recur in her stories, as do dead and dying parents, sterile society dinners, and heroines paralyzed by anxiety and a nonspecific sense of dread. (My favorite moment in the novel version of The Last Thing He Wanted is when Elena McMahon, in her former life as the wife of a Beverly Hills tycoon, sits glumly “in front of a plate of untouched cassoulet” at an Academy Awards watch party, so disaffected that she can’t even enjoy the show.)

But the interiority of Didion’s novels, combined with their experimental structure, tends to defy translation into the framework of film and television. The Last Thing He Wanted, in particular, is a work intended to challenge simple comprehension; even its title contains two possible interpretations. Language, the book suggests, can be distorted until it becomes meaningless. Early on, the unnamed narrator explains her impatience with writing itself, “with the conventions of the craft, with expositions, with transitions, with the development and revelation of ‘character.’” To impose order on a set of circumstances so specifically about evasion—in this case the duplicity and doublespeak of American institutions in the 1980s—seems absurd to her, and so she homes in on the story’s technical elements instead: tactical erdlators, high-capacity deep wells, laterite. Everything else is too uncertain, too changeable, too taxing to try to reckon with.

The narrator’s ostensible focus in the book is Elena, a woman who is variously—in the story’s achronological sections—a society wife and mother in California, a reporter covering Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, and an accidental-ish gun runner whose mission takes her from Miami to Costa Rica to an island that’s possibly St. Lucia. Readers are first introduced to Elena in the Caribbean, well after she’s been caught up in a shadowy conspiracy involving CIA fixers and a fake passport. Then the novel dances among fragments of her former lives—her employment at a beach resort, her exit from the campaign trail just before the California primary, and, finally, her decision to help her ailing father complete an illegal million-dollar arms sale in Central America.

That Elena’s motivations are hard to unravel is a problem with the story even Didion acknowledges. “The facts of Elena McMahon’s life did not quite hang together,” she writes early in the novel. “They lacked coherence. Logical connections were missing, cause and effect.” The first section of the book has a dreamlike quality, in which a sleep-deprived Elena drifts through events in a vertiginous haze. On a flight to Miami she experiences “a brief panic, a sense of being stalled, becalmed, like the first few steps off a moving sidewalk.” Her mother has recently died and her world is folding in on itself in indecipherable layers. Elena appears to be mired in a state of ennui that makes imminent peril seem preferable to suffocating sameness. “What no Didion heroine can entirely reconcile herself to,” Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker last year, “is the split between what she wants and what a woman is supposed to do.”

In the novel, confusion is the reigning state that colors the action; it’s meant to communicate how turbulent and untrustworthy American authorities were at the time, shipping arms to Nicaraguan rebels in off-the-books transactions while denying that such transactions were taking place. “This was a business,” Didion writes, “in which truth and delusion appeared equally doubtful.” When Elena reads the papers one morning over breakfast, news stories convey global destabilization: earthquakes, unusual wind patterns, reef erosions, political protests, even infertile pandas. As she takes on her father’s final sale, she meets people with multiple names and varying nationalities in uncertain geographic locations. “You will have noticed that I am not giving you the name of this island,” Didion writes, explaining obtusely that “the name would get in the way.”

The only constant amid this intentional obfuscation is discombobulation, conveyed through Elena’s fractured mental state. The book’s atmospheric uncertainty can make for a frustrating reading experience, even as its immersive qualities build into an Orwellian fever dream. It’s an intoxicating work, skillfully constructed, but it also resists at every point the strictures of mainstream storytelling.

Rees, to her credit, seems committed to keeping the spirit of Didion’s original work intact, while restructuring it into a more linear narrative (Rees co-wrote the screenplay with Marco Villalobos). The movie opens with Anne Hathaway’s Elena on assignment in El Salvador in 1982; she’s documenting war crimes alongside a photographer, Alma (Rosie Perez), and barely escaping assassination attempts. Having discarded the book’s narrator, and without the space to communicate Elena’s interiority or how passively she floats toward danger, Rees and Hathaway instead present Elena as a crisis junkie, simultaneously addicted to conflict and compelled to reveal abuses of power around the globe. In one scene, a very Didionesque Elena strides through the newsroom in a jumpsuit, smoking ferociously. In another, she existentially eats an apple.

In its first half, the movie is propulsive in a heady-conspiracy-thriller kind of way, and its disorienting events are easier to accept. But as Rees is forced to reckon with the terminal self-obfuscation of the novel in the second half, each plot point gets harder and harder to justify. Ben Affleck’s character, a State Department fixer named Treat Morrison, gets none of the backstory from the book; he’s just a square-jawed suit who shows up in odd places and may or may not be an ally. The British character actor Toby Jones appears, playing a rum-soaked hotel owner who in his own words once ran the only “first-rate gay bathhouse in all of Port-au-Prince.” David Arquette pops up, with even less context and even fewer lines. In the final scene, Rees discards the plot of Didion’s book altogether, changing the ending to make it somehow even less plausible.

What’s left is a sticky, indecipherable tangle. But The Last Thing He Wanted is at least an interesting mess, and it seems to illuminate some of the land mines that come with turning novels into works of film and television. It’s notable that the only previous adaptation of one of Didion’s novels, the 1972 drama Play It as It Lays, was done by the author herself. Didion’s own screenplays—which she co-wrote with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, and which she seemed to view as a starkly commercial undertaking—imply how separately she saw the crafts of fiction and movie writing. Making movies, she wrote in the essay “In Hollywood,” is defined by “a spirit not of collaboration but of armed conflict,” a process in which any artist’s work is going to be tweaked and corrupted. Even writing about film, she observed in the same essay, has long been “a traditional diversion for writers whose actual work is somewhere else.” In other words, to try to reconcile her fiction with an art form that she herself disdained is an undertaking that’s doomed even before it begins.