Aggressively Un-lovable: The Cinematic Adaptation of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis

“I wanted you to save me!”

The desperate pleas of a madman, holding his enemy at gunpoint, assailed upon the audiences’ ears as the cinematic adaptation, Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg 2012) drew to a close with the narrative’s protagonist, Eric Packer staring blankly into the ether whilst the camera moves closer to capture his ambivalent expression. Seemingly un-phased by his imminent demise, Packer, played by the pop-cultural icon Robert Pattinson, ignores the frantic ramblings of his would-be assassin and, just like the viewer, “waits for the shot to sound” (DeLillo, 209). Suddenly, darkness descends upon the screen; the audience is left stranded in suspense as, surprisingly, no shot is heard. The credits roll, and questions regarding the fate of the protagonist remain unanswered. The film’s anti-climatic ending creates a jarring effect upon the viewer as, unlike most mainstream films, narrative closure is denied- leaving the audience confused and disoriented.

Cosmopolis’s dystopian depiction of a world dominated by global capitalism received mixed reviews upon the film’s 2012 release (IMDB). Based upon Don DeLillo’s postmodern novel, the film Cosmopolis centers upon the “last day in the life of Eric Packer who in the course of one day engineers his own professional and personal downfall” (Davidson 477).  Set in a futuristic version of New York where capitalism in intricately entwined with digital technology, Eric Packer – a man who specializes in financial investment, embarks on a mission to get a haircut across town. Positioned as a modern day Odyssey (Davidson 471), the narrative features Eric’s unraveling as the day progresses.

Events turn increasingly chaotic as he loses his fortune through reckless investments, has several sexual encounters, kills his head of security, is nailed by a pastry assassin, and comes face to face with the man who has spent years plotting his death. Reactions to the film were polarized, ranging in such extremes as to be labeled either “psychologically brilliant (Merry)” or “absurdly pretentious” (LaSalle; Think About It!) by viewers and critics alike (RottenTomatoes). The bifurcated responses to Cronenberg’s re-invention of the DeLillo’s novel beg the question: why are viewers so conflicted over the film? The answer lies in two primary factors: 1) the film isolates its mainstream audience base; and 2)  perhaps more importantly, the film forces the viewer to identify with a character even Pattinson, the lead actor, describes as “aggressive un-loveable” (Pattinson).

In analyzing the many ways in which the film, Cosmopolis, isolates mainstream viewers, the film’s connection to its written companion cannot be overlooked. The film represents within the adaptation genre what is termed an intermediate adaptation, meaning the film maintains the majority most of the characters and narrative events of its literary counterpart while minor characters, scenes, and subplots are removed (Desmond and Hawkes). Indeed as the DVD featurette, Citizens of Cosmopolis, demonstrates the novel’s anti-capitalist themes, the novel’s plot of Eric’s goal of getting a haircut and the chaos that ensures are all well maintained as the director ‘wanted to keep the integrity of the novel” (Cronenberg). At first glance, the director appears to be true to his words; indeed as in making the film, Cronenberg appears to have copied and pasted novel onto the screen.

However, comparing a cinematic adaptation to its source text is inherently problematic as it fosters the pervasive myth that a film adaptation, whose main purpose is to generate a profit by presenting an already established narrative (Desmond and Hawkes, 15), is always second rate compared to the original text (Desmond and Hawkes, 2-3). Thus, the literary source, whether it be novels, poetry, plays, or even comic books, becomes the standard, by which the film is judged and within the eyes of the casual viewer, a film is received favorably by how close it mirrors the literary work that the film is portraying.

However, this conception denies the inherent differences between the two mediums, as a film is subject to more political, social, and economic restraints than its written companion, and forgets a simple truth: that which is appealing to the mind is not necessarily visual appealing (2-3, 40-43). Images upon a screen impact a viewer differently, though to what degree is a subject of scholarly debate, than words on a page. Furthermore, neither a film’s budget nor an audiences’ attention span could handle a carbon copy of any literary text due, primarily, to a text’s length. Thus, the text must be condensed and changes must be made.

The film’s beginning is altered. Eric’s journey begins upon his decision to get a haircut after leaving his office rather than during his sleepless night. Within the context of the novel, the focus on Eric’s sleepless behavior establishes from the onset of the narrative that a fundamental change has come over him since insomnia is new to him. For some unknown reason, his mind is not at rest; this serves as the indicator to the reader that doubt has taken root and thus, foreshadows the eventually fatal consequences of doubting his business and, ultimately, himself (Valentino). The emphasis upon the unrest created by sleep deprivation also, simultaneously, immediately places the reader within the mind and not just any mind, Eric’s mind- subjecting the reader to the mind’s dangerous ability to shape and distort (Laist 258).

It is Eric’s sleeplessness which motivates him to read the poem where a “rat becomes the unit of currency” (DeLillo 23) in the world; this poem is then carried out by rioters in the New York streets. Thus, from the very beginning of the novel, DeLillo blurs the line between the dream world and reality- suggesting the entire story could be happening in Eric’s mind (Laist 268; Valentino).  The shaky balance between reality and dream is maintained throughout the novel as not only does it take all day for his limo to reach a few blocks but, Eric also mysteriously is throughout the novel brought closer to his assassin, who has no real means of killing or even getting close to Eric, almost by happenstance (Valentino).

Despite the removal of Eric’s sleepless night, the film retains the surrealist feeling of a dream reality through crisp editing and camera techniques. The majority of the film takes place inside Eric’s limousine, a set design of itself, with the camera positioned closely towards actor’s face, zooming in on the slight changes in facial expressions whilst he talks at, not to, the many visitors he encounters. Yet, the editing of the film never truly shows anyone entering or leaving the limo, other than Eric himself. The scene merely cuts straight from a conversation with one person to Eric talking with another person. This adds to the dreamlike quality of the film, creating the feeling that the film is not truly a complete narrative story, but rather a series of segments, revolving around intense conversation, that have been pasted together.

The camera, however, keeps a somewhat distance from the other actors within the film even though that distance is limited by the space of the limousine; this removes the human element of the narrative by increasing the inherent voyeuristic sensation of the film medium. Whereas being closer towards the actors typically increases the viewer’s engagement with the characters, in this film it seems to only add to the viewer feeling disconnected, like Eric himself, from the people he interacts with and the world in which he lives. The bland setting of the limousine also gives the film a claustrophobic feel which forces the viewer to “concentrate only on the intense, thought-provoking monologues” (Cronenberg) of the actors. Even the chaos that erupts within the streets where working class people are protesting violently outside is never experienced by the viewer. The viewer only watches with Eric through the windows of the limo as people carry around dead rats, vandalize property, and even set themselves on fire.  Thus, the action within the movie is intentionally pushed aside. While this also adds to the sensation of being disconnected, it makes for a rather slow and dull viewing experience.

The novel’s ending is also changed.  As Eric’s day turns increasingly toward chaos, he comes closer and closer towards death. After losing his wealth, his wife, his limo, and his security, he willfully seeks out his assassin. During their encounter in which Eric learns more about himself and the fatal flaw of his narcissism, Eric perceives a vision of himself dead in the near future in the reflection of his watch. With a gun to his head, he waits for his precognition to become reality. The novel’s final pages end, like the film, with Eric waiting for the gunshot; yet because the narrative style which followed Eric’s progression is disrupted, the reader is already aware, through the confessions of his murderer, that Eric will, indeed, die. The break in his arrative flow, between book one and two, allow the reader a glimpse into the future. The assassin’s confessions transport the reader from mid-day to the depth of the night where the assassin laments the murdered man lying on the floor in his living room. Though the man remains un-named in the assassin’s narrative, the events of the novel reveal that Eric is the dead man. Thus, Eric’s self destructive actions do, indeed, strip away all of his material belongings and brings him to the reaper.

The assassin’s perspective, however, is completely removed in the film. The viewer is never taken away from Eric’s journey as this break in the narrative flow would only serve to disorientate the viewer and diminish the viewer’s identification with Eric. Without the given knowledge of Eric’s death from the assassin’s confessions, Eric’s fate is left open to interpretation. The ending is subjective, the assassin could easily fire the gun as Eric does apathetic to the threat of death – in fact, Eric almost seems to welcome it (Laist 273). However, given the assassin’s unstable mental state (Chandler 257), he might find himself too cowardly to pull the trigger.

The viewer will never know. The film fails to provide a narrative resolution which ultimately leaves the viewer feeling completely unsatisfied. Yet, this lack of narrative closure is both a reflection and a perversion of the film’s original source text as the film retains the novel’s ambiguous, chaotic tone and chronicles the majority of the novel’s events in a faithful fashion. However, the film discards the certainty of Packer’s death along with the narrative interruption which provides the reader with this information. The final moments of the film, Cosmopolis deviates only subtlety from the novel but with the lasting impact. Thus, the impression left upon the viewer versus the reader is entirely different.

Despite the changes made during the transition from page to screen, it is the close proximity of the film toward the novel, particularly in terms of language, which alienates the viewers. The film “does not pander to a mainstream audience” (Patty3Xonly) as it seems to violate many of the rules of success in filmmaking: the film’s duration last within the context of the narrative only a day but is not marked by either dramatic tension between characters nor sensational action. The film creates a haunting sense of urgency, foreshadowing the downfall of the main character; this sense of urgency which is marked by overtly stylistic dialogue and philosophical commentary, essentially builds to an “unsettling, mysterious end” (SoftMelodyx “The Culture Show: Robert Pattinson Talks Cosmopolis”).

The film also lacks simplicity. “It’s so easy for viewers who are not paying attention to completely miss the train on the film” (Robsessed MeesterManiac). The film’s dialogue is highly stylized and laced with philosophical commentary which assumes audiences’ familiarity as the film’s political and social theories are neither explained nor presented as facts. The films monologues hammer the anti-capitalist themes into the viewer. While this makes for an intellectually stimulating piece of literature, it does not often translate well onto the screen. The audience must think every time a character speaks in order to determine the meaning of the words being spoken; viewers who are not predisposed to the ideas such as Marxism and Existentialism are alienated. The fact that the dialogue is largely word for word a replica of the novel only proves that sometimes one of the main obstacles in adapting a work of literature is the text, itself.

Beyond the film’s failure to appeal toward a wide audience due largely to the film’s preservation of the novel’s complexity, the greatest weakness of Cosmopolis, and indeed, the underlying basis of viewer discomfort lies in the film’s portrayal of the protagonist Eric Packer. Eric is the only character which fosters viewer identification and because both the novel and film are character driven, rather than plot driven, the primary means of hooking the audience. Within the novel, Eric is characterized by his power, wealth, and utter apathy for anyone other than himself; within a narrative that is brimming with Marxist themes about the evils of capitalism, Eric serves as a metaphor for the social and moral corruption inherent in a world dominated by money (Davidson 476).

Indeed, Eric represents the master of the universe archetype whose fatal flaw is his own narcissism (Laist 272) He lacks compassion for suffering of those lower than him; he feels contempt for those who have more power than him, and believes he is above social mores and rules of law (Chandler 244; Valentino). Eric’s demise is then seen as a victory for the working class. Although Eric’s characterization within the novel, provides a fascinating means of exploring the narrative’s themes, his character imposes a significant problem for filmmakers who are burdened with the task of making him both believable and endearing toward the audience as his skin is the one to which the viewer must insert themselves.

By clinging to the novel’s skeleton, the film preserves Eric’s status as a metaphor for the narratives overarching themes such as the divide between mind and body and how it represents the current woes of a society ruled by technology. From the beginning, both the novel and the film depict a narrative in which Eric’s reality and, by extension, the reality of the reader and viewer is shaped by his own distorted psyche-  a psyche that his completely disconnected to the physical world. Aaron Chandler and Randy Laist commented on the novel’s central theme of “psycho-realism” which invites the reader to insert themselves within Eric’s mental journey with himself and discover why the protagonist creates his own downfall.

According to Chandler, Eric lives completely in his head, outside his body. He is ruled by his ability to predict trends in digital capital even to the point where he can in the streams of information see the future; his mind is so attuned to the “inseparability of technology and capital” (DeLillo 23) everything non-digital fails to capture his interest, especially his own, human body. From Eric’s perspective, the body is akin to ATMs, cash registers, and computers (Chandler 243); the body is a relic of the past which must be “junked” (DeLillo 10) He wants to transform his body into streams of digital information and thus, “live forever on a disc” (Laist 275). Immortality lies in the successful conversion into digitalized streams and patterns.

As both the novel and film progress, Eric, in his inability to predict the currency value of the Chinese Yuan, originally Japanese Yen, becomes more in touch with his own skin (Laist 275). He indulges in sex, is willfully tasered, and creamed with a pie… these actions invoke physical stimulation and culminate into his decision to shoot himself in the hand as through touch and pain he finally understands the limits of his own form and becomes more connected with himself. Because, Packer is meant to symbolize the dangers of a capitalistic society, the further he gets from the material possessions, the closer he gets to humanity. Indeed his journey to a barber across town is a journey to reconnect with his own flesh as the barber he seeks is the same one who cut his father’s hair before he died.

However, Eric’s journey is a cautionary tale as both the novel and the film foreshadow, Eric demise is in-escapable (Valentino). Though his encounter with the assassin is the closest Eric comes to interacting intimately, on an almost human level, with another person, he can never truly overcome the society that he represents. As the novel progresses, he increasing acts on impulse rather than through logical deduction as the mind and body finally fuse into one whole being (Valentino). This fusion, however, is what drives him closer to his death. Since Eric’s burgeoning humanity walks hand in hand with his doom, the novel illustrates that society cannot heal the damage capitalism creates (Valentino); society cannot revert back to its previous state- it can only be destroyed and rebuilt.

Though the film maintains Eric’s metaphorical status within the narrative, it does not even attempt to transform his on-screen persona into a likable character. The film forces the viewer to identify with a man who flagrantly cheats on his new life, lacks connection with those around him, murders his chief of staff only to feel the exhilaration, and ultimately has a death wish. Viewer identification makes the audience complicit in Eric’s actions, thus as Eric engages in amoral behavior, so does the viewer. While Cosmopolis is not the first film to position the viewer to identify with a killer, it is one of the rare films which does not try to win the audience over. Most films featuring a murderer as the protagonist attempt to generate viewer sympathy by adding other redeemable qualities. This film does not; the viewer is not meant to like Packer but is meant to identify with him as he is the only character that maintains a close relationship with the camera.

Just as the film medium both shapes and reflects society, Eric’s character both shapes how the viewer understands the events of the film and also reflects how the viewer sees themselves. Under the premise of viewer identification, Packer represents not only windows to which the audience experiences the world created by the film, but Packer also serves as the viewer’s mirror reflection. The idea of looking into the mirror and seeing a character like Eric Packer stare back from the glass presents a frightening prospect for the audience. Eric’s status as a metaphor within the narrative becomes a metaphor for the viewer’s own society- a society eerily similar to one which breeds an elite class who dominate the world through technology and possession of intangible capital.

The cinematic adaption of Cosmopolis presents a film which has left many viewers scratching their heads in confusion. The film’s preservation of the novel creates a thought-provoking, overtly talkative narrative about the dangers of global capitalism. While the film’s claustrophobic feel, intellectually stimulating dialogue, and lack of climatic action are sure to alienate widespread audiences and fail to generate large consumer profits; the film’s uncompromising presentation is a bit refreshing. This movie is not for everyone. Yet, it is definitely worth seeing, if for no other reason, to try and figure it out.

Works Cited

Chandler, Aaron. “An Unsettling, Alternative Self: Benno Levin, Emanuel Levinas, and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.” Critique. 50.3 (2009): 241-60. ProQuest. Web. 12 March 2013.
Cosmopolis. Dir. David Croenberg. Perf. Robert Pattinson. EntertainmentOne Studios, 2012. DVD.
“Cosmopolis.” RottenTomatoes. Flixster Inc, 2012. Web. March 2013.
“Cosmopolis.”  The Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Amazon Company, 2012. Web. 12 March 2013.
Croenberg, David. “Citizens of Cosmopolis.” Interview with Cast and Crew. EntertainmentOne Studios, 2012. DVD.
Davidson, Ian. “Automobility, Materiality, and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.” Cultural Geographies. 19.4 (2012): 469-81. ProQuest. Web. 12 March 2013.
DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. Simon and Schuster Inc: New York, 2003. Kindle Digital Edition.
Desmond, John M. and Peter Hawkes. Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature. Boston: Mcgraw Hill, 2006.
Laist, Randy. “The Concept of Disappearance in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.” Critique. 51.3 (2010): 257-75. ProQuest. Web. 12 March 2013.
LaSalle, Mick. “Cosmopolis Review: Investor’s Emptiness.”  SFGate: Movie Reviews. San Francisco Chronicle, 2 January 2013. Web. 12 March 2013.
Merry, Stephanie. “Cosmopolis: A Perplexing Odyssey.” Washington Post: Movie Reviews. Washington Post, 24 Aug. 2012. Web.  12 March 2013.
Pattinson, Robert. “Citizens of Cosmopolis.” Interview with Cast and Crew. EntertainmentOne Studios, 2012. DVD.
Patty3Xonly. “Robert Pattinson Talks Cosmopolis.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Jun. 2012. Web. 12 March 2013.
Robsessed MeesterManiac. “Full Interview Segment with Robert Pattinson on George Stroumboulopoulos.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 8 Jun. 2012. Web. 12 Mar 2013.
Robsessed MeesterManiac. “New Cosmopolis Robert Pattinson Interview at Cannes Film Festival 2012 from Pure Channel.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 29 May 2012. Web. 12 March 2013.
SoftMelodyx.. “Film 4: Robert Pattinson Talks Cosmopolis.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 15 Jun. 2012. Web. 12 March 2013.
SoftMelodyx.. “The Culture Show: Robert Pattinson Talks Cosmopolis.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 20 Jun. 2012. Web. 12 March 2013.
Think About It. “Cosmopolis.” Think About It: Film and Television Blog. Blogger. 23 September 2012. Web. 12 March 2013.
Valentino, Russell Scott. “From Virtue to Virtual: DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and the Corruption of the Absent Body.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 50.1 (2007): 140-62. ProQuest. Web. 12 March 2013.

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