The Disaster Artist: The Woes of Adaptation

A lot of my reading during this prolonged, indefinite period of quarantining happen to be works that have been adapted to other mediums. Adaptations are nothing new, so I was bound to consume media that first saw success in a different format. From reading the A Song of Ice and Fire books out of my love of Game of Thrones and disappointment of the later seasons, or reading the grisly Helter Skelter out of the intrigue Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood hinted at, my reading choices have been mainly laid on the foundation for film and television.

The Disaster Artist is no exception.

When released in theaters in the winter of 2017, the film quickly became my favorite among an incredibly strong roster of pictures released that year. The Room had become something of Hollywood legend, and to witness the making of the “Citizen Kane of bad movies” was an experience I couldn’t say no to. The film was my fourth favorite film that year, as I praised its subject matter, James Franco’s acting/directing abilities, and an inspirational message that could have easily fallen on its face if handled badly. However, like The Room, it was a rousing success, though one that was intended, unlike The Room.

Nearly three years later, I finally sat down and began to read the book that the film was based on: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Like its cinematic counterpart, it chronicles the tumultuous production of The Room as well as the friendship between star/author Sestero (Mark in The Room) and writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau. As far as premises go, the film and book seem to go hand in hand, and rightfully so, the story told through both mediums does have to do with the making of a film and a friendship during the film’s production.

Image provided by AbeBooks

I completely understand when film adaptations modify or change things around from the source material. What works and soars in a film might hinder and halt a book’s momentum, and vice versa. Changes are always needed to be made especially when strictly adapting a book to a film with 100% faithfulness results in something more akin to a slow, meandering miniseries. If the soul of the original work is there, the adapted work has effectively done its job in transposing a story to a new medium. This is very much a tightrope act that we have seen work beautifully in the past with its fair share of shameless duds.

This is where I find myself conflicted about The Disaster Artist. I remember loving the film when it first came out, and though I still very much like it now, I can now say Franco and co. did not do the book justice. I hate the adage of “the book was better” schtick as much as the next person but hear me out.

My main gripe with the film adaptation isn’t so much of what it omits and adds, it’s how it omits and adds to its source material. If you only saw the film, you would think the crux of the story is the phenomenon that is The Room, and the beginnings of its unlikely legacy. The book touches on that, yes, but finds much more value on Sestero’s and Wiseau’s unlikely friendship and how they unexpectedly push each other to be better. Greg’s story is one of finding success in Hollywood, a haven for the has-been’s and could’ve-been’s and never-was’ with the occasional few who make it. Tommy’s tale is one of hardship, an underdog who (allegedly) knew great hardship and witnessed the ugly side of humanity, miraculously making something of himself as he seeks success and fame in America.

The film treats Greg’s career aspirations/progress as a way to establish character beats: his first time in an agency shows his lack of experience and wide eyed ambition, whereas his later excelling in the theater signifies his growth in talent well after The Room wrapped. In the scene where he reluctantly shaves his beard even if keeping it meant a role in Malcolm in the Middle, these actions are in service to The Room and Greg’s involvement. The book touches on the same situations, though the whole Malcolm thing is a fictional add on, but having it told through Greg’s perspective shows how his career and his relationships were impacted by his decision to help Tommy on his passion project. The book communicates how consequential and significant his time during The Room’s production was to his career and life, whereas the film opts to show it as this lightning in a bottle moment in history that would change cinema. It did just that, to a certain extent, but Greg’s detailing of events is far more personal and intimate, bringing new life and personality to the filmmaking process.

Why “The Room” Is a Better Movie Than James Franco's “The Disaster ...
Credit to the film: the reenactment of scenes from The Room has incredible attention to detail *image provided by The New Yorker*

I wouldn’t call Franco’s film a bad adaptation. It delivers on the same initial premise as its source material: a peek behind the curtain on how The Room was made. It’s hilarious, well-acted, and oddly inspirational. Tommy and Greg are depicted as underdogs trying to make it into an industry where there’s more self-loathing to go around than actual success. It is incredibly effective at that front.

The film is instead a misguided adaptation, failing to recognize Sestero’s and Bissell’s chief sentiment in the book. The making of The Room is the initial selling point, but Greg’s and Tommy’s pursuit for Hollywood glory, individually and as a collective, is what makes The Disaster Artist special. Perhaps this was never meant to made into a film, especially with its star power and A24’s prominence as a production company. To have James Franco, a Hollywood staple who has long enjoyed considerable success over his career, tell the story of two friends pursuing success in Hollywood is a damaging decision in hindsight. Though readers might feel burned after watching the film adaptation, it is no surprise that Franco is more attracted to the production side of things and opting to leave the friendship angle as a backdrop rather than the whole point of the story.

Again, The Disaster Artist, both book and film, is an incredibly fascinating and unlikely success story of how a terribly beloved film came to be. As two separate entities, however, one is sorely lacking the heart and endearing quality that made the other a must read. The woes of this adaptation are hardly about what was added and what was shelved to save time, but how one storyteller prioritized one aspect of the story that was never meant to take center stage. In a way, a misguided adaptation can hurt more than a bad adaptation. The film constantly flirts with the greatness found in the book that it is almost infuriating that The Disaster Artist’s heart and core never truly got its due.

You can almost say that it was tearing me apart (Lisa!).