Book vs Film: Requiem for a Dream

Pitting the written word against the moving image in a battle to determine the best fiction.

Alisdair Hodgson
Editor-in-Chief, Bandit Fiction


The Book:

Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem for a Dream (1978) follows the closely interwoven lives of four New Yorkers: Harry Goldfarb, his mother Sara, his girlfriend Marion Silver, and his best friend Tyrone C Love. Set in the late 1970s, each character is driven by their own vision of the postmodern American Dream. Harry and Marion seek to open an artist’s coffee shop, Sara wants to be on television, and Tyrone wants to elevate and legitimise himself any way he can. But Harry and his friends are heroin addicts whose habit taints every facet of their lives, and Sara’s living room obsession with becoming a quiz show star leads her into the deep waters of amphetamine diet pills.


The Film:

Released in 2000, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream stars Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans as Harry, Sara, Marion and Tyrone. Written by Aronofsky and Hubert Selby Jr himself (who has a brief cameo as a prison guard), the setting, situations and challenges are largely unchanged from the novel, but split into three definitive chapters (Summer, Fall and Winter) and updated to the turn of the millennium. Throughout, the idea of the dreams they are chasing are rooted in memories and hallucinations, capped by the iconic image of Marion bathed in bright sunlight, waiting for Harry at the end of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier.


What’s the difference?

Book:

  • Set in the ’70s
  • Marion is a visual artist
  • Harry and Marion dream of opening a coffee shop
  • Tyrone seeks a better life for his own wellbeing and its own sake
  • Harry’s arm is amputated at the shoulder
  • An overarching sense of Judaism and everyday Jewish tradition
  • The pervasive soundtrack is Gustav Mahler’s ‘Resurrection Symphony’

Film:

  • Set in the late ’90s/ early ’00s
  • Marion designs clothing
  • Harry and Marion dream of opening a clothing store
  • Tyrone seeks a better life to make his mother proud
  • Harry’s arm is amputated at the elbow
  • A broadly (though not explicitly) atheistic approach to subject and culture
  • The pervasive soundtrack is Clint Mansell’s ‘Lux Aeterna’


Hubert Selby Jr’s fourth work is a challenging, sordid and miserable read, but that ought to be no surprise for those familiar with his writing – after all, his 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn was the subject of an obscenity trial in the UK. Nonetheless, Requiem is an accomplished and resonant work that manages to succeed without any of the usual trappings of literary fiction. It utilises a continuous stream-of-consciousness largely void of punctuation and conventional formatting, removing most of the formality of writing and connecting us to potent and immediate voices and experience.

There is a pervasive sense of hope throughout the novel that gives the reader confidence to continue, leading us to believe, like Harry, Marion, Sara and Tyrone, that the win we are desperately seeking is waiting, just out of sight, around the next bend. But the futility of addiction, paired with an unforgiving system and the hollow nature of the American Dream, is what drives the book to its bleak conclusion. The protagonists’ attempts to drag themselves out of dire social situations only lead to greater torments – prostitution, amputation, chain gangs and ECT – making their failures that bit harder to swallow. None of the four die in the process, but we can’t help but feel it would be a mercy if they did.

A pioneer of transgressive fiction, Selby used this novel to shine a light on the largely untapped miseries of the addicted, paving the way for the best work of writers such as Irvine Welsh and helping middle-class society connect with and find sympathy for an underclass whose trials they did not understand.

VS

Following his low-budget indie darling debut Pi, Darren Aronofsky’s second feature-length film is as harrowing and unforgiving as its source material. Requiem is dark, claustrophobic and, in every way, an exceptional adaptation. It uses jump cuts, split-screens and fast-forward hip-hop montages to help bring the lives of its four very different addicts into full colour, and weaves a dream-like quality throughout, often blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality. The sound design matches every frame, blending very raw diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, and throbs with a musical mantra that utilises bass, beats, scratches and shrill keys, all underpinned by the haunting strings of ‘Lux Aeterna’. The visuals, editing and score work in unison, building to a rapid-fire crescendo that could have even the most hardened viewer reaching for the bucket.

Though the film is slightly more comedic in its initial tone than the book, this helps it rapidly achieve the kind of emotional contrast Selby spends the first half of his work labouring over. The rise and fall of Harry, Marion, Sara and Tyrone follows in quick succession, and the ease of access to each individual’s worth as a human being and inherent worthiness of love and compassion makes us feel the full force of the feature’s grisly three-and-a-half-handed denouement all the more. Equally, none of the central or secondary performances are left wanting, and Ellen Burstyn in particular brings Sara Goldfarb’s loneliness, desperation and inevitable plight into sharp, heartbreaking focus.

This feature is meticulously shot and edited throughout, each frame demonstrating theme, character and the stylish early-21st century filmmaking sensibility shared by other young pioneers of the time, which marked Aronofsky alongside the likes of David Fincher and Richard Kelly as a new breed of talent. Even though it uses a lot of the original dialogue, the film is pure 2000s zeitgeist – in the best possible terms.


And the winner is…

The Film.

Coming out on top by the narrowest of margins, Aronofsky’s Requiem slams into high gear early on, matching and condensing the book while providing a few extra dimensions in its portrayal of the costs of addiction. Though it is a whistle-stop tour of the novel’s key moments, the pitch-perfect cast, unforgettable score and uncompromising directorial vision make it a visually, aurally, dramatically and emotionally arresting work that is as deserving of repeat viewings as it is (almost) unbearable.


Next up: French Exit (Patrick deWitt / Azazel Jacobs)


About the Contributor

Alisdair Hodgson is a film, poetry, entertainment and fiction writer based in Scotland. He is also Bandit Fiction’s own Editor-in-Chief. His short fiction, poetry and non-fiction can be found in a variety of magazines, journals and anthologies, and he always has something brewing in the background. Find him on Twitter @Youthanised.

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