The mere fact that a movie is based on a book by Hunter S. Thompson does not mean that the movie must include LSD. In the case of the book The Rum Diary, the intoxicant of choice is, thoroughly, rum. LSD does not appear in the book, which is a fictionalized account of young Hunter S. Thompson’s drunk time as a journalist in San Juan, Puerto Rico, around 1960. LSD probably would have been very hard to come by in Puerto Rico around 1960, and yet a very down-at-the-heels character produces some, saying it’s what the CIA gives to communists and that you take it by eye-droppering it into your eyes (it is liquid acid, naturally). Then there is an obligatory scene where they wait, and nothing happens, and then his sidekick’s tongue grows hideously long (except it’s CGI, so it’s fakey-hideously long) while the young Thompson character, played by Johnny Depp, lightly freaks out. Having switched movies to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson/Depp then has a forgettable revelation while conversing with a lobster. Then we switch back.
The movie The Rum Diary is stylized and slick—where the book had grit, on-screen the grit is so pretty, you want to lick it. Depp’s sunglasses look absolutely fantastic in their costarring role, and the shots of perfect, shiny convertibles driving along improbably well-paved coastal-jungle roads are breathtaking. The sanitization of the book may be for the best; its blatant sexism and racism are cushioned to be slightly less blatant, and whoever wrote all the extra dialogue did a fine job of supplying Depp with good things to put his mouth around. There’s some humor, too (“Is it the clap?” “It’s a standing ovation”), though it’s eroded by the sweetening and starching of the Thompson character. In the book, he drifts along on a tide of rum, gathering often-callow observations; in the movie, he falls in love and crusades about Real Journalism. The happily-ever-after pabulum on the title cards at the end is the worst offense to Thompson’s work, and to his spirit. He is surely rolling obstreperously in his grave.