It’s not often that a movie can capture the general public’s concern on a current issue and portray the feeling in a sensitive and grounded manner. Even rarer is when the movie is based on a book written almost a decade ago. “Up in the Air” claims both achievements, one Oscar-worthy and one purely coincidental.
The 2001 book and its 2009 Jason Reitman-helmed film adaptation tell the story of a man who flies around the country and fires people from their jobs. More important, however, is the honest and straightforward depiction of a nation struggling economically and how a recession affects the everyday lives of so many people.
On the surface, it’s remarkable that a book about the pre-9/11 financial climate and job market could draw so many parallels to the America’s present situation.
But, says Walter Kirn, author of the original “Up in the Air” novel, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“When I wrote the book we were just coming to the end of a huge dot-com stock bubble,” he explained, referring to the time period between 1998 and 2000 that was characterized by over-investment in Internet-based companies that couldn’t turn profits.
“It seemed evident to me that the country had become obsessed with fictional or almost fantastic pursuit of symbolic wealth in the form of stock values,” Kirn added. “People thought they were going to get richer and richer, that the business (cycle) had ended forever and things were going to go up, up, up … I wrote the book because everything that must go up must come down.
“And just as that market crashed, and, you know, left us in a little bit of a recession, it happened again before this movie came out.”
Kirn is no stranger to the concept of film adaptations. His 1999 novel “Thumbsucker” was released as a movie in 2005, directed by Mike Mills and starring Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn and Tilda Swinton.
To say that the two times Kirn found out his novels were being made into screenplays came as surprises would be an understatement.
“Very few literary books … ever get made into movies at all,” he said. “I’m surprised every time any book like mine gets made into a movie, let alone one that I actually wrote.”
Commenting on the often limited success of film adaptations, Kirn said, “(Some) movies get made (and) never reach the screen — they go straight to DVD. … You’re really beating the odds in every way when books of yours make it onto the screen. And you are really beating the odds when the movie of the book turns out to be a good one.
“It’s like finding a winning lottery ticket in the bottom of your laundry basket,” he added.
As for his relationship with the film’s directors, Kirn said, “It (was) like riding in a taxi. You know the destination but you can’t hold the wheel. … You just have to trust the driver knows where he’s going.”
Although Kirn didn’t have much say during the filmmaking process, his experience was a positive one and he was pleased with the end results.
“In both cases, (the directors) were people who … were passionately and sincerely trying to make real works of art, not just entertainment,” he explained, adding that he “had not been exposed to Hollywood, (but) was astonished both times by how earnest and detail-oriented and compelled by their highest ideals these directors were.”
Film direction poses one concern for an adapted author, but casting presents a completely unique predicament. The selection of George Clooney for the lead role of Ryan Bingham was a point of brief but ultimately short-lived internal turmoil for Kirn.
“It took me about 30 seconds after I heard the news that (George Clooney) had signed to play Ryan Bingham to realize that it was a brilliant choice,” he said. “In the first 10 seconds I thought, ‘Wait, he’s older than the character that’s in the book, he’s far better looking and he’s a lot smoother.’
“But then I realized, having read (Reitman’s) script, that he was perhaps the only actor I knew of who could play a guy who fired people for a living, and keep the audience’s interest and sympathy to share some magnetism.”
Clooney’s performance, Kirn said, succeeds largely because of the normalcy of his character.
“He just plays a guy in a suit,” he said. “And that gives him so many dimensions and such depth and subtlety that you almost don’t notice it.”
But is Clooney’s portrayal exactly how Kirn intended Bingham to be when he wrote the novel?
“The book tells us Ryan’s story from the inside of Ryan’s head and the movie tells us his story from the outside looking in,” Kirn explained. “The basic difference is that to make a screenplay of this book and to make a film of this book, (Reitman) had to give Ryan sort of counterparts and sidekicks and situations that dramatized what he was thinking, how he was changing, and how he was feeling … He didn’t have the ability I had to just go straight into Ryan’s head and tell us.
“Making a movie of ‘Up in the Air’ … was (like) unpacking this closed box of the main character’s head and taking the pieces out and making them visible,” Kirn said. “And (Reitman) did a wonderful job of it.”
Kirn hopes that audiences will be watching “Up in the Air” in years to come, hopefully in better economic times but still striving for the same goals.
“I think it will be a movie that people go back to time and time again … because it’s captured in a time and a place in American history that I think it does better than any other movie right now,” he said. “It will always be true in American (lives) that we’re going to chase these dreams and then see them break up and have to live through the consequences.”
Luckily for Kirn, the ambition inherent in the American dream and a little help from the stock market helped his brainchild make its way from the silver screen and red carpets, and into the hearts of viewers around the country.