Book review: Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

The book … (cover image courtesy Penguin)

 

Which came first? The book or the film?

It might look like the easiest of questions to answer since the book almost always precedes the movie (except in major franchise tie-ins but that is a different kettle of promotional and artistic fish entirely); but as with the much-discussed chicken and the egg and in this of peak pop culture everything, getting to the book ahead of its cinematic adaptation is not always as straightforward as it seems.

Example A is Juliet Naked, one of Nick Hornby’s gently-insightful, witty and character-rich novels which only this year came out as a limited release movie in one of Australia’s arthouse/indie chains.

Given the book was first released in 2009, and the film followed almost a decade later, you could be forgiven for thinking that the answer to this rather obvious riddle is hardly worth contemplating.

But this is 2018, and getting to everything on offer, whether book or film, can be an act of superhuman concentration and prioritisation which is how it came to be that I watched and reviewed the film first and then, thanks to a well-stocked library in a holiday eco-cabin, read the book.

“There was always something that passed for news among the faithful, though – a [Tucker] Crowe night on an internet radio station, a new article, a new album from a former band-member, an interview with an engineer. The bulk of the content, though, consisted of essays analysing lyrics, or discussing influences, or conjecturing, apparently inexhaustibly, about the silence. It wasn’t as if Duncan didn’t have other interests … But these were all flirtations, by comparison. Tucker Crowe was his life-partner. If Crowe were to die – to die in real life, as it were, rather than creatively – Duncan would lead the mourning.” (P. 6)

In other words, it was sheer dumb luck that I had the time and the book itself in the form of a rather fetching Penguin paperback, to catch-up on the novel that inspired one of the loveliest, most nuanced and intelligent romantic comedies I have seen in some time.

Having now had the good fortune to dive into this particularly delightful Hornby novel, and not that long after the film, I can appreciate what a rich source of inspiration the original book was, and while there are a thousand reasons beyond the source material that led to the film turning out as well as it did – think fine direction, pitch-perfect performances, a just-so screenplay – the extra insight into characters and situations that books provide enriched the film all the more.

A committed reader all my life, for whom books have been as much escape as a rich way to spend my time, I am all too aware of the impetus to say, as so many readers do, that “the book was better than the film.”

In a fair number of instances that is likely true, with the book standing head and shoulders over its inferior movie counterpart; but in many cases, it is not, as with Juliet, Naked which took what it needed from the source novel to fashion a film that can hold its head high as adaptations go.

What made reading the book after the film such a rewarding experience was being able to picture scenes from the film and fill in even more detail than the conventions of cinema allow; some might argue, and likely have, that too much is lost when book goes to film, or that by seeing the film then reading the book, the wonderful flights of imaginative world-building that accompany reading a book are lost or irreparably sullied.

 

… the film (image via IMDb)

 

And while that might be true to an extent, I like the perspective of Duncan in the book who convinces himself, albeit a fair bit of internal argument, that simply because someone got to something first doesn’t ruin it for you. (He’s referring to his girlfriend Annie listening to the demo album, Juliet, Naked, of legendary artist Tucker Crowe’s 1986 break-up album, Juliet, but the point holds for my line of argument too.)

What I found for instance in the motivations of the characters was added richness and layering “lost” in the film which I need to stress again, gave us characters far more multi-dimensional than most romantic comedies.

Duncan was mostly still as one-eyed and emotionally clueless in the book as he is in the film but by spending chapters on him and why Tucker Crowe matters to him so much, and rather nicely, making his encounter with his idol at Annie’s kitchen table far more sympathetic overall than the narrative demands of the film allowed, we get to understand why he is the way he is and understand better than he’s not an intentional douchebag, just lacking in a sizeable amount of emotional intelligence.

Annie too is far more thoughtful and less flighty than the film, a woman who struggles with the lost time of her aimless, inertia-propelled (if that’s possible) relationship with Duncan who introduced her to Tucker Crowe which then led, in one of life’s happy quirks to meeting the man himself, first by email and then in rather complicated circumstances, in person.

Like all of us who look back on our life in middle-age and wonder what happened to all the things we dreamt of and planned in our eager young minds, Annie wonders what she should do, can do in fact, to rescue those 15 years from oblivion.

Having given up his career in 1986 after some personal news caused him to question everything he’d accomplished up to that point, and done little of note since bar sire 5 children, only of whom he has actually raised as a father should, Tucker has some insight on what you do with much-regretted lost time, a discuss that forms the basis of the email exchange that leads to he and Annie connecting in more ways than one in real life.

“The fifteen years were gone, anyway. And what had gone with them? Children, almost certainly, and if ever she ever did take Duncan to court, that’s what she would sue him for. But what else? What hadn’t she done because she’d spent too much time with a boring, faithless nerd, apart from live the kind of life she’d wanted when she was twenty-five?” (P. 124)

Diving into a book as good as Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, after its delightfully excellent film adaptation, is in every way a real pleasure.

The ending is that much more ambiguous and yet not at all, each of the characters comes alive in ways that films, wonderful though they are, can never accommodate and the secondary characters make far more sense, as you’d expect, when they’re given a chance to breathe.

Hornby’s hilarious tongue-in-cheek asides, which add so much to the book’s narrative, and which found their way in spirit and form into the movie, are on full display here, as is his exemplary ability to ruminate on all kinds of existential issues with a contemporaneously light tough and yet insightful substance.

Reading the book after the film is a wholly different experience than vice versa I’m sure, but in every respect you gain so much and lose so little by consuming both art forms, with each adding to the other, enriching, as is very much the case with the universal excellent Juliet, Naked book and film, the story you experience.

Tempting though it is to laud one over the other, and yes in all kinds of instances, that is wholly justified, and be like the Tucker Crowe obsessives on Duncan’s online shrine or like some readers in real life who scornfully dismiss anything not made up of the written word, Juliet, Naked, is a luminously good example of why we should all be open to  watching the film and reading the book, in whatever order time and life allow, since there is much to be gained and honestly very little left to lose. (Something Annie and Tucker would no doubt heartily endorse in their newly-realised carpe diem-ish approach to life.)

 

Nick Hornby (image courtesy official Nick Hornby Twitter account)

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