Talking with Augusten Burroughs about Running with Scissors generates about as much canned enthusiasm as anyone on a press junket could muster. "I was very protective of the book," he begins, "And I didn't want to option it just to see a movie made, but when I met with [writer/director] Ryan [Murphy], my gut instinct was to let him have it." Good for him, but barely quotable. His face comes to life only when I ask if he prefers book or movie tours: "Book tours, definitely. I love books, and I love writing, and I guarantee you that when all this"—gesturing around the fancy hotel room—"is over, I'll be right back at home working on my next book. I'm not going to"—an audible sneer—"go Hollywood."
Which depends on your definition of "going Hollywood." Burroughs's famous memoir, which is very much about his mother's thirst for fame, is now a movie, thoroughbred for awards season. Much of the structure of Running with Scissors—broken home, gay main character coming of age, mom prone to mental breakdowns, and oodles of eccentric supporting roles—practically howls "For Your Consideration." But the particulars—mom allows her even crazier psychiatrist to adopt Augusten, leading to attempted suicide, statutory rape, criminal negligence, and rampant substance abuse—are too harsh even for a fall-release family drama. But that's why Burroughs's memoirs are great: He reports the horrors of his life with a nonchalance that gives the reader permission to laugh.
Ryan Murphy (the creator of Nip/Tuck, directing his debut feature) occasionally manages to duplicate this dynamic, most successfully with Brian Cox as psychotherapist/father figure Dr. Finch. Cox revels in Finch's sense of bizarre entitlement—it takes a special kind of blowhard to refer to a room as a "masturbatorium" and deliver the word as though it deserves a hushed respect.
Scissors is well acted: Annette Bening, as Augusten's mother Deirdre, will be nominated for all the requisite awards, which the movie cannily mocks by cross-cutting her juiciest breakdown scene with a fantasy sequence of Bening mounting a podium to give a thank-you speech. Burroughs said that he made it clear to Murphy that he wanted the mental illness in the film to be realistic, "Not like Barbra Streisand in Nuts... When people have schizophrenic episodes and you look in their eyes, they're not there anymore." Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes) is the personification of that dead-eyed menace: a 35-year-old paranoid schizophrenic with a history of violence who becomes Augusten's first lover.
Here, the movie fumbles: Joseph Cross just isn't young enough to play Augusten. He was 19 during the film's production, and Augusten was 14 when he lost his virginity to Bookman. Cross never seems older than in scenes with Fiennes—Augusten angers and then calms the psychotic Bookman, and it doesn't carry the same sense of naive first-love peril as the book. Instead, it feels as though a capable young man is making some very bad choices.
The film's ending—as Burroughs, junketeering, says: "It's a hopeful movie, because I'm still here and I made it and I'm okay"—isn't particularly moving on its own. The fact that the audience knows that the main character survived to write what became a movie—call it The Squid and the Whale syndrome—isn't a satisfying ending. It doesn't help that the film closes with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Teach Your Children."
This movie doesn't work because an honest adaptation of Running with Scissors can't work. Without Burroughs's narration, we're left with a Tobe Hooper horror film. The movie-making changes—casting an older Augusten; miniaturizing the importance of Natalie Finch (Evan Rachel Wood), Augusten's vital support system in the book; and Gwyneth Paltrow's jarring presence—accumulate into story-killing wounds.
Back in the fancy hotel room, Mr. Burroughs gets so excited when I ask about his next book that he becomes flustered. "It's nonfiction—probably my last one of those for a while—and it's about my father." Here, instead of calling to mind Alec Baldwin's great, weary Norman Burroughs, I visualize the book's ominous vacuum of a father. "It's very different from my other books," Mr. Burroughs says. And then, with no trace of sarcasm: "I think it's going to be really dark."