Sideways: comparing Payne’s movie with Pickett’s book

“It’s very possible his film will be better than my book.”
– Rex Pickett, referring to director Alexander Payne

Truer words were never spoken. Sideways is one of those rare exceptions in which the movie is better than the book. Far, far better.

I saw the film Sideways a few months after it was released in 2004 and I loved every minute of it. I had just started getting into wine at the time so it was wonderfully relevant for me, and I reveled equally in its fine performances as well as its dark comedy – not to mention all the oenological in-jokes.

I had always meant to read Rex Pickett’s novel because the book is usually way better than the movie; I had grand expectations. But working on a degree in English literature doesn’t leave a lot of room for non-syllabus material, and I’d forgotten about it by the time I graduated. I didn’t end up reading it until 2010, when I stumbled upon a second-hand copy in Value Village for 99 cents. I buy the majority of my books second-hand, but 99 cents is a ridiculously good deal even for used books – or so I thought.

After reading it, I was eminently grateful I’d only shelled out a buck. Why? The novel sucks. Pickett’s prose is horribly prosaic and bland: the odd colourful expression or snippet of witty banter doesn’t do much to break up what is otherwise mind-numbingly dull language,  enlivened only by profanity and a few awkwardly chronicled, Penthouse forum-styled sex scenes.

The many references to wine, while a novelty at first, quickly grow just as tired and dull as the story. Miles’ discussions of wine range from trite, clichéd ululations of a snobby alcoholic attempting to justify his consumption, to painfully technical descriptions that I swear were lifted straight from the Oxford Companion. How different from the screenplay, which has well-chosen and wonderfully-articulated vinous references, the pinnacle of which is the arresting conversation between Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Maya (Virginia Madsen). My consternation with the novel was complete when, as I dragged myself towards the final sentence, I realized that this scene was wholly absent – because it was the creation of screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, not Pickett. I urge you all to take a few minutes to watch it here, in all its resplendence:

Indeed, Payne and Taylor should be commended (nay, exulted) for their Herculean feat of adaptation. Well, okay, actually they were – in the form of an Academy Award for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. So there’s that, at least.

The first halves of film and book follow each other fairly closely, but then the novel careens wildly off into an increasingly nonsensical series of neurotic, depraved escapades. Payne and Taylor did a marvelous job reigning in this mad bull and stitching together a coherent, streamlined plot from a bunch of torrid fragments.

Aside from prose and plot, the film also mercifully diverges from the book on several other fronts as well, such as the completely different characterizations of Maya and Terra. (In the case of the latter, even her name is altered.) The movie is very successful in providing substance to its characters, rendering sympathetic a group of people that are otherwise undeserving of anything resembling sympathy (except Maya). In the novel, alas, they remain static and inscrutable; the reader’s ambivalence towards them is absolute.

Another major discrepancy that must be considered is Miles’ prize bottle: a 1961 Cheval Blanc in the movie but a 1982 Latour in the book. Both are prestigious Bordeaux from excellent vintages and top producers, which in itself seems strange for Miles’ character: given his ardent love for Pinot Noir, why wasn’t he holding on to a bottle of 1985 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti?

The Latour is a First Growth and therefore higher on the Bordeaux totem pole than the Cheval Blanc; it would also be more readily available than the legendary ’61. Owing partially to its age and corresponding rarity, the Cheval Blanc is a cult wine, and only hardcore (and wealthy/deeply indebted) wine geeks would own a bottle. I suppose this could be the reason for the film’s choice of this bottle over the Latour: they wanted something that would confirm Miles’ resolute wine obsession. However, the novel’s choice of the ’82 Latour can be rationalized as well: in the novel Miles is depicted as a man masquerading a serious drinking problem with an interest in wine (this was present in the movie as well, but toned down a fair bit), and the ’82 Latour is something that a good wine store could have had available for purchase, one drunken night at a wine tasting in an attempt to impress fellow oenophiles/functional alcoholics.

Interestingly, the difference between Miles’ bottles of Bordeaux is the only instance in which the movie version isn’t clearly the better choice.

It almost feels unfair to pit the book against the movie; they are on such different levels. I’ll end by stating that my predisposition towards liking the book made it all the more shocking to end up hating it so much.

There remains only one thing for which I must blame the movie, even though it’s really not its fault: to this day, people still cannot write or talk about either Pinot Noir or Merlot without making a fucking Sideways reference.

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