London Fields, the oddly dystopian novel by Martin Amis, is a great book. It’s more than that– it’s a literary marvel. The lurid story of a femme fatale who engineers her own murder is so densely packed with literary riches that it’s a virtual treasure trove of reader’s delight that would take its own graduate seminar course to unpack.
The novel is a murder mystery in which all the details of the murder are covered in Chapter 1, leaving the other nearly 500 pages of the story to largely discover the why. The novel is a series of Chinese boxes, full of ambiguities, beginning with the title. Taking place in 1999 (it was published in 1989), there is a blending of reality and fiction within the work that is reflected by the work itself. In Amis’ dystopian London, one of the characters finds himself unable to distinguish between the truth and fiction. He reads news sources of a most unreliable nature, watches lots of television and pornography, and is so utterly confused by the concept of a “docu-drama” that he needs another character to walk him through it. The same is true for the book itself, as the actual geography of London is shifted to suit the story. Amis, whose literary giant of a father once berated him for actually naming a character in his novel “Martin Amis”, this time goes for a thinly-veiled alter-ego named Mark Appsley (while also dedicating the novel to his father), who in one of the story’s Chinese boxes is also the narrator Samson Young. London Fields is also notable for its collection of unreliable narrators, each of them competing for authorship, manipulating the others for the power to shape the narrative.
The novel is undoubtedly polarizing, as it seems unapologetically masculine and is the blackest of comedies. So controversial is the novel’s greatness that it lost the Booker Prize despite three judges agreeing on its quality as the top work of the year because the other two judges refused to recognize it at all, deeming it misogynistic and morally offensive.
While it seems that bringing such a stylistically dense novel to the silver screen would be a massive undertaking, the production seemed to have legs. With a star-studded cast featuring Amber Heard, Billy Bob Thornton, Theo James, Jim Sturgess, Cara Delavigne, Jason Isaacs, and Johnny Depp, it promised to bring Amis’ colorful characters to life. There were some early warning signs that would ultimately prove portentous, as Martin Amis’ own screenplay was scrapped in favor of one by Roberta Hanley, wife of producer Chris Hanley, who had exactly one screenplay credit to her name at the time. Additionally, as the project once had luminaries such as David Cronenberg and Michael Winterbottom attached to direct, the producers eventually settled on Matthew Cullen, who had only a Katy Perry music video under his belt.
Things went downhill from there, as the film’s world premiere at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival was canceled after Cullen filed a lawsuit against the producers, claiming that the producers defrauded him by taking away his rights to the final cut of the film, among other complaints. The producers counter-sued Cullen for breach of contract, accusing him of going $4.5 million over the film’s $8 million budget and encouraging the film’s stars to not participate in promotion for the film, according to Variety. The producers then sued Heard, accusing her of sabotaging the film at Toronto, per Variety.
After so much dysfunction and strife, the film will be released this weekend. As of this writing, it has a 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Literally zero. With only 16 official reviews in, that number may very well rise, but whatever the case it seems an awful shame that such a great novel did not receive a better treatment on screen. It looks as though London Fields may join the pantheon of failed book-to-screen adaptations, so instead of heading to the theater this weekend, perhaps a trip to the bookstore is justified instead.
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