Don’t Hold Your Breath: Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke [PART 2]

(To jump to the first half the article, which includes a review of the “Snuff” book tour, CLICK HERE)

“CHOKE” The Movie

I’d like to begin this review by letting everyone know that it contains what some would refer to as “SPOILERS“.  If you have already read CHOKE and are simply curious about how well one of your favorite novels was adapted into a film, I will be addressing those issues in detail.  Since the creative liberties taken through its transition into cinema are so vast and affect the overall result so much, I wouldn’t know how to approach this review without referring to them with specifics.  If you have not read the book CHOKE yet, I would suggest that you do so before or, rather, instead of seeing the film.   It’s a great novel and masterfully composed.  You, of course, are welcome to continue either way, but know this: I am here to spoil the movie, the movie spoils the book and, although my intention would never be to ruin the book, it may happen indirectly if you are persistent about reading past this paragraph.

I had reservations about the film based on the casting and from what I saw in the trailer but I was still genuinely excited about seeing the film.  I was so excited that I arrived at the Egyptian Theatre on Capitol Hill hours before show time.  The tickets were already all accounted for and some creepy mother fucker tried to scalp some to me.  “How much are tickets anyway?” I asked him.  “How much are MY tickets?” he asked.  “Fuck off, you pedophile looking bastard.”  I got the inside scoop that there was a specific number of tickets held for V.I.P. ticket holders and more would open up to the public if they failed to arrive.  I came back an hour before show time and stood in line, holding spots for my girlfriend and little sister while rain sprinkled down on me.  About 10-15 minutes before the movie started, they released some tickets and we funneled into the theater looking for any open seats that we could find in the packed house.

I had planned to pace this review and put more thought into it’s structure than the film itself had but, I’ve already waited 3 months to write this so I’m just gonna say it:  “THIS MOVIE IS ABSOLUTE SHIT!”  It was fucking horrible.  Sorry, but I needed to finally get that off my chest.  Whooo… I actually feel a lot better.  I tried to like it, I really did try but it was soooo bad.  I knew that it would be difficult to adjust to director, Clark Gregg’s interpretation of the story and characters.  I tried to account for that in my mind, but there aren’t enough excuses to exonerate Gregg for his merciless rape of this magnificent novel.

The movie began with the speech about the “legends” of sexual disaster from chapter 2.  This monologue was taken straight from the text and, for those who haven’t read the book, it’s all about the different urban legends of doctors removing household objects from some guys ass or the lady having her dog lick peanut butter off of her snatch, etc. etc. The main character, Victor Mancini, has a sex addiction and is explaining that these aforementioned sexual perverts are, not only real, but that he comes in contact with them regularly.  I thought that was a nice place to start the film but they lost me almost immediately after wards.  Here, let’s dissect some of the characters and the storyline a bit further.  It really is a tangled disaster but I will try to locate a good place to start.

Palahniuk’s book starts with Victor as a young child traveling with his eccentric and neglectful mother.  The introduction warns the reader that they are wasting their time reading about the “stupid little boy” and helps to establish Mancini’s self hatred and source of his addictive personality.  Victor’s mother, Ida, is a former political activist that was regularly on the run from the law and transfers her paranoia to her son.  She randomly reappears in his life to kidnap him from whoever his current foster parents are at the time.  Victor’s best friend is a fellow sex addict names Denny who has a masturbation problem.  He works with Victor at a Colonial Williamsburg-style tourist attraction acting in historical reenactments. The novel and it’s characters are dark and complex.  It’s brilliance stems from it’s moral ambiguity and multi-dimensional characters.  The film is far from that- did I mention that it was “fucking horrible?!

Sam Rockwell portrays Victor as a super slick bad ass.  Palahniuk’s Victor slept with a lot of women but it wasn’t because he was supposed to be like Fonzi; it was because he had emotional and abandonment issues from his upbringing.  Rockwell’s character seems all too proud of himself in the film and becomes the kind of character that is only appealing to assholes and the type of dipshit fratboys that Palahniuk takes subtle jabs at.  In this film, Victor is a guy with a smug attitude that gets a lot of pussy and acts like he has it all figured out.  The character in the book, on the other hand, is constantly aware that he doesn’t have shit figured out and is deeply resentful of his mother for creating his relationship barriers.  There’s a quote from the book that reads, “The magic of sex is its acquisition without the burdon of possessions.  No matter how many women you take home, there’s never a storage problem.”  I have a feeling that comments like these were misinterpreted by Gregg.  The same things that represent Mancini’s contemplative nature and struggle to redefine his course in life are translated into little more than bragging and opportunities to measure his cock on the big screen.

The character of Ida Mancini was a huge disappointment.  Clark Gregg actually mananged to take the Oscar winning, Hollywood royalty of Anjelica Huston and found a way to make it look like she had spent her carrer doing Malox ads.  The adjustment of her character and it’s involvement in the film is perhaps, the most confusing.  In the book, Ida is mostly bedridden and confined to a hospital but, in the film, she doesn’t seem to have any physical limitations whatsoever.  Her mental deterioration is a bi-product of her physical illness but the film plays this off as mere senility.  It’s true that the memory loss is still a key point in the book but the omitance of her physical condition wounds the storyline severely.  Ida never recognizes her son when he visits her, instead Victor usually has to pretend to be whoever she believes him to be at the time, which is usually one of her old lawyers.  This is the same in the book but is written much more complex.  He cannot shake his yearning for his mother’s acceptance and, although it pains Victor to make these visits, he’s willing to do so for a couple of reasons: 1) He feels obligated to continue taking care of her and 2) He’ll gladly accept any approval that he can get, regardless of who his mother’s intended target is.  When Ida begins to refer to Victor in their conversations, he has the added benefit of eavesdropping as someone else.  The film doesn’t set up the backstory at all before introducing Ida into the picture; Victor arrives at the hospital pretending to be someone else and they go from there.  This would be fine except that the entire concept of his mom and her neglectfully nomadic lifestyle is never addressed until deep into the film.  Nothing is segued and, without ever forming these foundations in the storyline, I don’t know how anyone that hasn’t read the book could even follow it.  By ignoring the fact that his mother is dying, it doesn’t make any sense when she is so horrendously ill at the end of the movie.  There was no build up.  On a smaller note, there is a great part in the novel where Ida takes a young Victor to a ZOO at midnight to “liberate the animals”  Instead of releasing the beasts, however, she liberates the animals by feeding them LSD.  I was pleased to see that Gregg worked this portion into the film, until Huston actually did release the animals.  This is, perhaps, less important but works as a prime example of how much this guy “just doesn’t get it“.

Dr. Paige Marshall is played by Kelly Macdonald from “No Country For Old Men“.  [Here comes another spoiler folks] Paige is a lunatic patient at the hospital who wears a doctor’s jacket and has Victor fooled until the end of the book.  She spends a lot of time with Ida and tries to convince Victor that his mother is an amazing woman that should be appreciated for the efforts that she has made in the name of revolution.  Due to Ida’s deteriorating health, Paige offers to have sex with Victor in an attempt to work some experimental stem cell magic and return Ida to her original condition.  Gregg decided to use his screenplay to rewrite their relationship and fuck that plot point in the ass.  He has Victor confused by his deepening love for Paige which, in turn, makes it difficult for him to fuck a broad for the first time.  Basically, it’s typical Hollywood shit.  You may be thinking, “Hey, in the novel he has trouble sleeping with her too!”  That’s true my friend.  You are right about that, but in the original story he’s questioning things a lot deeper.  Victor is fighting over his feelings about saving his mom because he’s finally found control in their relationship and he realizes that he likes keeping his mom in that weak state because someone finally needs him.  Victor’s fucked up and hates himself.  Most of his actions are born from his mangled personal identity and can’t be adequately explained away by some romantic Hollywood storyline.

Victor’s best friend Denny is played by Brad William Henke.  Denny is a pretty small guy in the book and Henke is a large oafish bastard who staggers over Sam Rockwell in the film.  Denny spends much of the first half of the book with his head locked in the stocks for slipping out of his colonial role at work.  With his hands restrained, he reduces his daily masturbation count and begins to get locked down on purpose.   What I like about Palahniuk’s characters are their drastic transformations.  Denny operates like a sidekick to Victor’s more dominant personality but, as the book progresses and Denny begins to find himself, there is a shift.  The same is true in “Survivor” and, by the time I was halfway through that book, I felt like I was reading about a completely different person.  The characters in the film version of CHOKE are incredibly static by comparison.  Denny is crashing at Victor’s place and begins spending time alone in reflection.  He begins collecting small boulders and dragging them home each day just because he needs anything to redirect his focus from sex.  Through his strenuous work Denny’s physique is altered in the book and he becomes both physically and mentally healthier.  The basement and house begin to fill with rocks and eventually Denny transfers the rocks to an empty lot.  He forms a relationship with a stripper that he meets dancing at a club and, after he is fired from his job, they start spending their free time building a structure in the lot.  He doesn’t know what will come of it but likes the idea of creation.  Jaded by his life, Victor tries to sabotage the venture by contacting the media but, ultimately starts helping them and winds up promoting the project on television himself.  In the film they don’t explain any of this in detail.  One minute Denny is bringing a rock home in a baby carriage and then, far later in the film, they show Victor as an advocate on the news, but they never reference it again or explain what’s going on at all.  This film is so fragmented and misguided that it’s ridiculous.  You can give someone a piece of crust and a pepperoni and they may even like it, but it’s not a fucking pizza.

Who the fuck is Clark Gregg?” you may ask.  He’s an actor who plays Julia Louise Dreyfus‘ ex-husband on “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and has no other directing credits to his name.  There is an uptight background character named Lord High Charlie in CHOKE that regulates the historical authenticity of their jobs and is the one responsible for placing Denny is the stocks.  Gregg decided to expand the role of this worthless character for the film and gave him a love story all his own.  Keep in mind that he also decided to give himself the role.  He has transformed a darkly comic and intellectual novel into a light quirky comedy with absolutely no continuity.  He tends to focus on the miniscule, irrelevant aspects of the book and completely abandons everything that gave it its proper structure.  The book is called CHOKE because Victor’s fondest childhood memory is of him choking in a restaurant and being saved by his mother.  He pretends to choke in restaurants to con strangers into “saving” him.  They feel like heroes and regularly send him cards with money to check up on his status and make sure that he’s doing alright.  He then uses that money to pay for his mother’s hospital fees.  After appearing on television, a huge crowd of people show up that recognize him as the man they saved.  They begin talking and, in realizing that they’ve all been scammed, start throwing stones at him and destroy what he and Denny have built.  He is exposed and it acts as one more situation that forces him to move forward.  NONE OF THIS HAPPENS IN THE MOVIE! I’m serious; none of it!  That resolution doesn’t occur.  In fact, they barely address the choking at all.  Gregg tears the story apart and reconstructs it as a simple love story about a guy who wants to know who his real dad is.  This couldn’t vary more from the intention of the book and the liberties that he took give a huge middle finger to the core and soul of the whole storyline.

Most of you may think that my love for the book hindered my experience with the film but I think that it actually worked as a benefit, if anything.  Without reading the novel, I’m not even sure how anyone can follow the disjointed catastrophe that is CHOKE the Movie.  The cinematography and acting lent about as much subtlety to the film as a Jr. High play.  There was a real cinematic story handed to this guy and wrapped with a fucking bow but he found a way to destroy it.  The story of Victor fighting to take ownership of his current state in life and moving beyond his issues was a great story to begin with and something amazing could have come from it.  Citizen Kane was an introspective triumph that slowly exposed flaws of the main character.  Much like Orson Wells, Palahniuk forced his readers to question societal roles and, more importantly, themselves.  I viewed the novel as a drama that had some really smart comic aspects woven into it but, the film was just a poor dumbed-down comedy pandering to mainstream America.  I am shocked by the positive publicity that it is receiving and it feels like people are afraid not to support the film.  The Sundance Film Festival awarded CHOKE with a “Special Jury Prize” for a dramatic ensemble cast but all that does is make Sundance lose credibility.  There were reports that Radiohead loved the film and decided to score it after discovering that Palahniuk listened to the album “Pablo Honey” religiously while writing the novel.  That’s untrue; they only donated the song “Reckoner” to the end credits and the actual score couldn’t have been cornier if it was cranked out of a jack-in-the-box.  I’ve never seen this much advertisement behind a film labeled as “independent” and every piece of hype that can be found is being worked into the marketing campaign.  Palahniuk even makes a small non-speaking cameo as a plane passenger.  They need to place his face on this project to show his involvement, but this guys pumping out a book a year at this point so, his involvement has to be limited.  I still highly recommend his literary catalog and hope that his endorsement doesn’t turn on him.  It’s important to understand how many obstacles have prevented his films from being produced in the past.  Survivor’s production was halted after 9-11 due to having a subplot involving a high-jacking, and there must be great relief for the author to finally have a project follow through to the end.  As for Clark Gregg, I think that he should have just went all out and put a food fight in the film, complete with a wacky pie to the face.  I don’t think he’s a completely inept director but I hope that he’ll focus more on his strengths and stick to realms where he can truly shine.  Preferably something along the lines of Homeward Bound.  I think this guy could really have a promising future in dog and cat adventure films.

-Dead C

Dead C

Located in Seattle, Dead C is the founder/editor, as well as the principal writer and photographer, of Monster Fresh. Creating the site in 2007, he did so with a specific dream in mind. Unfortunately, being a muscle relaxer-fueled fever dream, it's hard to recall all of the details. "I remember that my mom was there, but it wasn't actually her in the dream, it was actually 70s heart throb, Jan Michael Vincent. And everything took place here, in this room... but it wasn't actually here... it was different. The colors were washed out and, for some reason, there was a raccoon kicking it with us and it was wearing a holographic monocle."

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  • Lindsey

    I think your review summed up the movie perfectly. It took an amazing book with dynamic characters, an amazing plot line, and a psychological mind trip and destroyed it in somewhat of an hour. Clark Gregg misinterpreted the book so much, it felt like he read a quick summary of the book and then wrote a shitty screenplay; or, even worse, he read it but couldn’t grasp the depth and symbolism the book had to offer. The movie was a disappointment all around.

    Not only were the characters static though out the whole movie, but they were vastly changed. For example, Page was not a med school dropout, she was from the future and needed Victor’s sperm so she could take it to the future with her. That is why it was a surprise at the end when no one could find her a the hospital because she was supposed to return to her future. I also agree with Dead C. when he states that the depiction of Denny was obliterated in the movie. All in all this movie was a waste of time and I am disgusted that it won anything at all. Clark Gregg should be chastised for this abomination.

    This movie does not reflect Chuck Palahniuck as a writer. I truly hope anyone who has seen the movie has either read the book first to see what a terrible adaptation this was or will read the book shortly after to make sense of that mess.

    Thank you Dead C. for writing a wonderful, honest, and quite humorous review.

    Lyn-z S.

  • Thanks for commenting. I’ve gotten a lot of shit for this review for people that refuse to accept reality on other sites. I feel that I would be doing a disservice to readers and creators if I sugar coat something that I feel is garbage.

    The most common protests that I hear refer to the idea that they worked with what they had, as far as time and finances, and that a screenplay is supposed to be a different animal than a book. My response to that is that they took what I liked out and replaced it with shit that I didn’t and that if you can’t make it right don’t touch it at all. I was trying to review a film, I don’t think that anyone should have to review a film with the constant restriction of having to factor in how it was produced because, if it’s well made, the actual production should be the last thing that you are aware of while watching it.

    I really do appreciate your open minded and thoughtful response. I would even have appreciated a negative one as long as it was thought out as yours was and not fueled by defensiveness like so many others. You’ve obviously seen the film and my guess is that you probably found a few blindly positive reviews of the film already on line. I actually wrote this for you and other people like myself who felt the same way and were tired of reading reviews that they knew were bullshit.

    thanks again