Reading departure signs in some big airport
Reminds me of the places I’ve been.
Visions of good times that brought so much pleasure
Makes me want to go back again.
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
“A zip code is something I’d rather do without.”
Up in the Air
Written by Walter Kirn
Over the weekend I decided to read Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air to see how it’s different from the new movie starring George Clooney. It’s actually quite different. I read somewhere that Kirn said that the movie was not the book, and the book was not the movie, but that they had the same “genetic code.”
But I was surprised how little connection there was between the two story-wise. I remember reading the book Seabiscuit after seeing the movie and it was remarkable how similar the two were. In that case several hundred pages had to be pared down, meaning that huge chunks the story had to be left out. In other case things were added to streamline the story. But the two worked as almost a mirror of each other.
Not so with Up in the Air. The core is there. A man named Ryan Bingham flies around the country living in hotel rooms and chalking up frequent flyer miles in between his job as a career transition consultant—he fires people. Yet though he is connected to the entire United States, he’s disconnected from just about everything and everyone else.
And he does motivational speaking on the side. Though in the movie it’s a seminar called “What’s in Your Backpack?” and in the book it’s a business parable called The Garage. They are similar, yet different.
Here are some other differences:
In the book Bingham is 35-years-old (which explains why Leonardo DiCaprio was attached at one time), Clooney is closer to 50.
In the book Bingham’s base is Denver and in the movie it’s Omaha. (Perhaps because Omaha represents more the middle of the country. Perhaps as a tribute to writer/director Alexander Payne (Sidesways, Election) who Up in the Air director Jason Reitman is said to be a fan of his work.
Bingham’s sister lives in Minnesota and that’s where a family wedding is planned, whereas the movie has the wedding taking place in Wisconsin. (Perhaps simply to remove it from the same state where Reitman’s Juno takes place.)
Only fragments of dialogue overlap between the book and the movie. (“You’re awfully isolated, the way you live.”)
The plot of the book is more about Bingham getting a million frequent flyer miles where in the movie it’s more about Bingham keeping his way of life on the road alive. The story and supporting characters are probably the biggest differences between the book and the film.
Perhaps the biggest additions to the movie that are not in the book are Bingham has a young female traveling companion and there is an online technological change to the film. Both of these help the film. One gives Bingham a chance to explain his way of life and the other help make the story contemporary.
Things like discussions about Mormonism and Binghams’s preference for listening to Christian rock music are left out of the movie, but the movie has its own spiritual undertones–albeit subtle. In the book, Bingham likes to do his paperwork in the small worship places that are found in most large airports. Simply because they are quiet and usually empty. That would have been a nice touch for the film. Perhaps fitting of Bingham’s character if he would have met a lady friend there.)
Both stories have a good twist in them, but the twists are different.
One thing that stays consistent is a key event in Bingham’s life takes place in Iowa. In the movie it’s Dubuque and in the book it’s Fort Dodge. “I like the name,” Bingham says about Fort Dodge. (A place just about an hour to the west of Cedar Falls where I’m typing this post. Just did a shoot there a month or so ago.)
The worst thing about the original hardback book is the cover artwork. It lacks the simple, elegant design of the movie poster. It’s cartoonish clouds could be taken as an explosion and there is a burning person falling to the ground. (Of course, it didn’t help this book that it came out just two months before September 11, 2001.)
But the theme of people losing their jobs is much more timely in 2009/2010 than it was when the book was first released.
One thing the movie can’t capture is Kirn great ability at turning a phrase and his descriptive writing;
“Dwight is my age but with an air of elegance, as though he grew up abroad, in grand hotels.”
“I suppose that it’s time to explain about women. There are lots of them. I credit my looks.”
“The car, a new model I’ve never driven before, smells of a fruity industrial deodorant that’s worse than any odor it might be masking.”
“Our clothes and papers strewn across the room like wreckage from a trailer-park tornado.”
And a fitting place to end this post is with this Iowa-friendly section from the book:
“My mother has developed a sense of place; her mental map of the country is zoned and shaded according to her ideas about each region’s moral tenor and general demographic…If I’m in Iowa, sensible, pleasant Iowa, I’m eating well, thinking clearly, and making friends.”
His mother’s right, you know? Sensible, pleasant, clear thinking. (Except for the meth labs and some of the people I’ve interviewed when producing segments for The Montel Williams Show & The Doctors.)
Update: You can follow Walter Kirn on Twitter @walterkirn.