Bonfire of the Vanities first edition
First edition

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Novel, 1987
approx. 267,000 words
On Greatest lists
Notable lines
First line

"And then say what? Say, 'Forget you're hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop—Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem—'"

Great lines

It was all over. There was no hope now. The darkness closed in around them. And then I noticed the most peculiar thing. Sherman was smiling.

"What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses..." Ah well. There are compensations.

He did not discuss what happens when one's self—or what one takes to be one's self—is not a mere cavity open to the outside world but has suddenly become an amusement park to which everybody todo el mundo, tout le monde, comes scampering, skipping and screaming, nerves a-tingle. loins aflame, ready for anything, all you've got, laughs, tears, moans, giddy thrills, gasps, horrors, whatever, the gorier the merrier. Which is to say, he told us nothing of the mind of a person at the center of a scandal in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Sherman made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later. For the first time he realized that the man before him was not an aging father but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps love, adopted a role called Being a Father....

Last line

Mr. Fallow, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the McCoy case, could not be reached for comment. He was reportedly on a sailing vessel in the Aegean Sea with his bride of two weeks, Lady Evelyn, daughter of Sir Gerald Steiner, the publisher and financier.

Bonfire of Vanities photo

Melanie Griffiths and Tom Hanks head for the flames in The Bonfire of the Vanities film.

The Bonfire of the Vanities

THE NOVEL | THE MOVIE

Hold the bonfire—it's not that bad

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990): Director Brian De Palma; writer Michael Cristofer; featuring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffiths, Bruce Willis, Kim Cattrall, F. Murray Abraham, Morgan Freeman

A movie usually doesn't suffer much public criticism for differing from the book it's based on. The thousands of readers who make a serious novel popular are nothing compared to the millions that see a hit film without having read the book. Most readers, even if they like to say "The book was better", understand film is a different medium from print with its own standards and they accept a certain amount of revision to fit twenty hours of reading into a ninety-minute visual presentation.

But the movie adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities was hated. I mean, HATED.

For one thing, the book has been read and loved not just by thousands but by millions—a rare serious novel whose readership might compare in size to a movie audience. So a lot of filmgoers out there can tell you about the film's every departure from the original text.

For another thing, there are plenty of departures from the original text. Some of them may not seem to make much cinematic sense but, in defence of screenwriter Michael Cristofer and director Brian De Palma, many of these changes are unavoidable. Tom Wolfe's novel gets inside the heads of each of the characters in his huge cast and the fun comes from us experiencing their internal machinations as they rationalize whatever devious behaviour is in their self-interest. In the film we have no access to this interior turmoil except through the characters' outlandish behaviour. We are left with the bare bones of the plot serviced by actors going way over the top.

I think this could have worked if it were clear that we were viewing fantasy worlds seen through the characters' eyes. Sherman McCoy as the Master of the Universe bestriding the world of finance before being brought low by the rabble. The District Attorney standing for the people, slaying injustice, while furthering his squalid political ambitions. The preacher working in God's mysterious ways to bring freedom to his people and cash into his pocket. It could have been a great satire as these self-images clashed.

But viewed entirely from outside, these characters are just cartoons. They vamp from realistic dialogue to surreal explosions of confession. One moment the DA (F. Murray Abraham) seems politically shrewd and the next he's screaming his ulterior motives to his entire staff. Sherman (Tom Hanks) is such an out-there putz that that you can't figure how he could ever have been considered anything else.

The hit and and run in the South Bronx in the adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities.

The biggest offender is probably Peter Fallow, Wolfe's British alcoholic society journalist turned by the film into an American alcoholic tabloid writer played by Bruce Willis. The whole story is now framed by Fallow having written a celebrated novel about the Sherman McCoy saga, making him more like Tom Wolfe than a character in his own right. Not a bad idea maybe, but nothing Fallow does or says in the movie fits in with anything else he says or does in the movie. You can't tell what his attitude toward McCoy is from moment to moment because I don't think the screenwriter or actor knows what his motivation is from moment to moment, except to move the story along with occasional voice-overs. Even that doesn't make sense, as Fallow couldn't possibly know all the events as they're depicted.

Oddly, one of the oft-heard criticisms of the movie is that it turns all the characters into grasping swine. Yet the beloved novel is much worse in this regard. The movie repeatedly softens the edges in an ill-advised effort to make it more palatable. Sherman's rigidly moralistic father has a supposedly touching reunion with his son. Apart from cheating on his wife, Sherman is more sinned against than sinning.

Worst of all, the ending is destroyed. Granted, the novel's conclusion was a real anti-climactic downer. But the film provides the typical Hollywood happy ending, complete with a ridiculously earnest speech about "decency" by the judge (Morgan Freeman) facing down an angry crowd in a manner reminiscent of a hundred westerns in which the town's one upright citizen shames the lynch mob.

The Bonfire of the Vanities tries to be both a blackly humorous, surreal take on liberal values in the 1980s and an uplifting, mainstream, liberal film. It ends up being a mess.

Still, it's not as big a mess as some of its critics contend. Not one of the worst films ever made. Just a mediocre flick that seems worse because expectations had been so high.

— Eric

THE NOVEL | THE MOVIE

Related:

Author
Tom Wolfe

Novel
The Bonfire of the Vanities

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