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February 4, 2012 • Reviews

Movie/Book Retrospective: The Accidental Tourist

I have said before that I have been reading much more since getting my Nook Touch last June, which has really been wonderful. The Nook Touch in my Oberon case is just a thing of beauty to hold and behold. It has allowed me to catch new books like Robopocalypse and recent releases like The Art of Racing in the Rain, re-read almost my entire Kurt Vonnegut collection, get ready for The Hunger Games, and grab books I always meant to read but had long forgotten – like The Accidental Tourist.

Whenever a movie is made from a book, the comparisons are made and are generally unflattering – sometimes the movie is better (Godfather) but most times the movie is significantly lacking (pretty much everything else). There are a few examples where both are excellent – the recent movie The Help is a great example of something you should both read AND see.

But recently I have fallen in love with another book/movie combo: The Accidental Tourist. Let’s take a quick look at both versions!

The Hype:

Scarred by grief after their 12-year-old son’s senseless murder (he was shot by a holdup man in a Burger Bonanza), Macon and Sarah Leary are losing their marriage too. Macon is unable to cope when she leaves him, so he settles down “safe among the people he’d started out with,” moving back home with two divorced brothers and spinster sister Rose. Author of a series of guidebooks called “Accidental Tourist” for businessmen who hate to travel, Macon is Tyler’s focus here, as she gently chronicles his journey from lonely self-absorption to an “accidental” new life with brassy Muriel, a dog trainer from the Meow Bow Animal Hospital, who renews and claims his heart. Not a character, including Macon’s dog Edward, is untouched by delightful eccentricity in this charming story, full of surprises and wisdom. All of Tyler’s novels are wonderful; this – her tenth – is the best yet.

The Reality:

Way back in 1988 I went to the theater with friends to see ‘The Accidental Tourist’. I had no specific knowledge of the book, other than the movie was ‘based on the book’. Then suddenly in early December, Amazon and Barnes & Noble simultaneously had the ebook version on sale for $3.99 (gotta love price matching!). Then the film appeared on the free Amazon Prime Video selection and it occurred to me how long it had been since I’d first seen the film. I also realized I never read the book. Having remedied both of those situations – and now having the rest of my family reading the book before we all watch the film together – I wanted to look at the book before the movie. Because we are talking about a 23+ year old movie and 26+ year old book, I won’t work too hard to avoid ‘spoilers’ as I discuss them.

The Book (and Story):

The Accidental Tourist is the story of Macon Leary, the fell into being the author of a series of guidebooks about business people forced to travel who want to glide through the experience as untouched by it as possible. What we quickly realize is that sentence sums up much about Macon himself – he tends to fall into things that are the path of least resistance, stays away from an active engagement with life and seems to want to just glide through things uneffected.

His wife Sarah is very different than Macon, embracing life, looking to do a variety of things, showing her feelings and emotions. Yet she is a complement to Macon rather than a polar opposite. Her free-spirited ways and adventurousness are refreshing while his steadfast reliability is an anchor. When they have a child he both connects them and highlights their differences. Macon cannot reconcile himself with the risks that await Ethan at every turn so he tries to insulate him. When finally at 12 Ethan is allowed to go to summer camp, he is senselessly murdered during a hold-up at a burger stand near the camp. Lacking the connection, Sarah and Macon drift and soon fall apart.

Macon lives by himself with his cat and dog and digs further and further into his attempts to remain untouched by the realities of life, until he is suddenly injured and need to return to live with his sister and two brothers (also divorced) in their childhood home. The group exist in an odd cocoon insulated from the realities of much of the outside world, until the behavior issues of Macon’s dog become too much and he needs to get a trainer, which is how he meets Muriel.

Muriel is everything Macon is not – she is spontaneous, free-spirited, willing to be wrong, willing to stand out, and always trying to live life. The immediate clash of personalities grows into a gradual partnership and then romance. As a counter-point to Ethan, Muriel has a boy Alexander who is sickly and frail, but capable of more than what Muriel allows, and Macon begins to help him discover new things.

But just like everything else in his life, this new life has seemingly just happened to Macon without his active patricipation. And just the same, suddenly Sarah is back and they are together and Muriel and Alexander are left behind – and Macon has no idea what he wants, what he needs, who he loves, and who he is. He realizes that he needs to live his life, to accept the death of his son and all of his grief, and accept himself and others for who they actually are – and he needs to choose to take the more difficult path, the one he wants to travel, with the woman he truly loves – Muriel. He needs to get there by choosing to stop anesthetizing himself to life, to stop being the ‘accidental tourist’ in his own life.

The Accidental Tourist is an amazingly well written character study, full of humor and sadness and anger and pathos. Ann Tyler really brings these characters to life through their words, sights, feelings, observations, reflections of others and life experiences. While the framework of the book is not overly surprising at this point – many stories since then have used similar paths – it is HOW she weaves the tale, the symbols and metaphors she strings and weaves through that make it such a remarkable read.

The Movie:

The key job of bringing a great book to the big screen is to ‘not screw it up’. Lawrence Kasdan had already directed William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in 1981’s Body Heat, had written the Star Wars’s screenplays Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, and written and directed the classic Big Chill (again with Hurt). His reputation as a writer and director was well established, and he had already shown the ability to get nuanced performances from actors – something that would be needed to deliver the contrasts of emotional intensity and closedness so well done in the book with as few words as possible.

To say that Kasdan succeeds is to understate things: this is one of those extremely rare movies which will make you want to read the book and remain satisfied with both after having read it. Similarly, if you read the book first, seeing the movie will remain a totally satisfying experience as well. Each is unique yet connected by the fundamental threads of Tyler’s characters and story.

Ultimately the success of the movie comes down to the portrayals of Sarah, Muriel and Macon by Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis and William Hurt. For Turner the role is perfectly suited to her own strengths as an actress – strong personality, quiet charm, sexy looks, and compelling ability to emotionally convey ideas. She brings the Sarah of the book to life in a way that is perfectly believable but fully in her wheelhouse. Turner was in her prime during the 80’s before Rheumetoid Arthritis took control, churning out great performances in Body Heat, Prizzi’s Honor, Romancing the Stone, and War of the Roses.

Geena Davis was still relatively new, but I remembered seeing her in Fletch after later seeing her in The Fly (be afraid, be VERY afraid) and one of my favorite 80’s movies, Beetlejuice. We enjoyed that so much that a group of us went to see Earth Girls are Easy – which was like a 90 minute Julie Brown music video! But as Muriel, Davis brought her dimple-flashing smile, charming good looks, oddball style and off-beat sense of humor to bear. She needed to be someone you would instantly like and want to talk to, yet who made you somewhat uncomfortable and was very flawed and just a bit out of step with the rest of the world. Reading the book I don’t think I immediately pictured someone as tall and robust as Geena Davis, thinking Muriel as someone slighter and overly thin, but upon seeing Davis in the movie I wondered how I could ever have doubted the characterization. She truly earned her Oscar in a great field of 1988 nominees.

But the thing that stuck me again and again was William Hurt as Macon. How can you possibly portray someone trying to avoid life happening to him? Someone who has a definite ‘happiness boundary’ that separates the comfort of things known from the avoidance of the unknown? These are all things that are the purview of books, that cannot be spoken on screen, and yet Hurt masterfully brings them to life in a way that is my favorite performance of his entire career.

Even having just read the book and knowing every little detail of the story, my family found ourselves cheering everyone on, hoping for things to work out, saddened at the tragic turns and cheered by the uplifting ending. And I had forgotten the gorgeous theme by John Williams (yet again), and the amazing cinematography work and direction by Kasdan makes every small detail pop to life and brings everything vital to the screen with nothing extra to distract.

In an age when we see so many movies – even from good books or remakes of great movies – losing the key themes and instead focusing on action and sex and explosions, it is refreshing to see a film in which story and character are placed at the very forefront. The pacing of the movie is restrained throughout – I worried that my kids would find it slow, but instead it was more like a slow embrace.

Here is the theatrical trailer for The Accidental Tourist:

Movie/Book Retrospective: The Accidental Tourist

Where to Buy: for the Movie and eBook

Price: Book is $11.99 (Kindle version), Movie is Free with Amazon Prime membership (or $2.99 rental, $9.99 purchase)

What I Like: Excellent story; well developed characters you care about; excellent translation to film; great characterizations by actors;

What Needs Improvement: Nothing …

Source: Personal purchases

One Response to " Movie/Book Retrospective: The Accidental Tourist "

  1. It’s funny, because my wife and I were talking about this movie and book combo just this morning.

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