The passing of Joan Didion, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, is tough to put into words. Really, only Didion herself could fully pull off the mighty task of encapsulating her grand and wildly influential output. Her clear-eyed and no-nonsense view of American culture, stripped of its own propaganda to reveal the grimy hypocrisies lying underneath a gleaming surface, could be as elegiac as it was merciless. During the most confusing and incomprehensible of times, be it the paranoia of post-Manson Hollywood or the battlefield of her own grief, Didion provided a guiding light forward. Even as some of her most famous words have become iconography for Pinterest boards devoid of their original context, Didion's anti-Romantic glance lost none of its potency.
Given her status as one of California’s homegrown talents, a Sacramento girl who partied with the Doors, hired Harrison Ford as her carpenter, and had dinner with Sharon Tate, it’s somewhat surprising that Hollywood has been so hesitant to adapt one the finest documentarians of the Golden State. Alongside her husband, John Gregory Dunne, Didion wrote several screenplays, including the Barbra Streisand version of A Star Is Born (1976), the ultimate story of industry glory gone inevitably wrong. Mostly, however, Didion’s various novels and non-fiction reports were viewed as impenetrable. Her work does not concern itself with holding its readers’ hands and instructing them. At her best, Didion’s fiction rejects the most basic aspects of traditional storytelling. Perhaps a writer so internal, so focused on the experimental possibilities of the literary form, is just not meant for the big screen.
Of course, it was Didion herself who managed to pull it off.
Based on arguably her most well-known novel, Play It as It Lays (1972) was a family affair, with Didion and Dunne on screenwriting duties and her brother-in-law Dominick Dunne producing. In the director's chair sat Frank Perry, the fiercely independent filmmaker behind low-budget dramas like David and Lisa (1962) and Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970). The team-up seemed ideal given how frequently Perry’s work, like Didion’s, focused on the disenfranchisement of women and struggles with mental illness. The protagonist, Maria, played by Tuesday Weld, is a former actress turned housewife who slowly descends into inescapable nihilism. Her director husband is distant but manipulative. Her young daughter has been institutionalized for some "aberrant chemical in her brain," and her best friend, the closeted B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), is in as dark a place as she is. As she spends her days zipping between boredom and self-destruction, the bright lights of the so-called New Hollywood become ever-grimier.
After the film flopped at the box office and garnered little in the way of critical support, Didion would distance herself from her own screenplay, saying that it was all too different from her novel. With all due respect, I wholly disagree. Perry’s film perfectly highlights the scathing focus of her book, bringing to life characters and a world defined by their vast apathies. The 1970 novel follows in the proud tradition of stories about Hollywood that see the town, its industry, and the people who populate it as beyond redemption. Like The Day of the Locust (1975) or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Play It as It Lays is smothered by the fatalism of a world seemingly designed to be empty of true value or purpose.
Didion’s Hollywood is one with an inside view. She wrote screenplays for 20th Century Fox. She fought off the advances of Warren Beatty. She bought the dress that Linda Kasabian wore during her testimony for the Manson trial. There’s a no-frills presentation to this shiny world of celebrity, both in her journalism and her fiction. Didion was too much of a professional to be impressed by the sparkle of it all, a noted contrast to the fizzy joy of her L.A. contemporary Eve Babitz, who died a week before Didion. While the end of the tightly controlled studio system brought with it a new wave of outside talent and ideas, it wasn’t devoid of the stifling demands or hypocrisies of the good old days, something Didion was keenly aware of. In her 1973 essay "Hollywood: Having Fun," she dismisses the endlessly repeated claims that the studios no longer have any power or that Los Angeles as a whole is dying. The only New Yorkers, she wryly notes, who get "the reality of the place" are the offspring of industry heavyweights of yore. “We don’t go for strangers in Hollywood,” she is told. Newcomers will only find a repeat of what came before, albeit with a few younger faces.
It's a conundrum that Maria is keenly aware of on the page and screen alike. Didion details her slide into apathy and mental illness through contemplative and tightly controlled run-on sentences that take up entire paragraphs. Chapters are short, often fragmentary, and uninterested in following a cohesive or traditional narrative pattern. The matter-of-fact documentation of moments as brutal as Maria’s abortion or the suicide of her best friend are crystal clear in their presentation, even as Didion makes their emotional context more opaque. Didion’s greatest work created a cohesive reading of an era that utterly rejected such neatness, but she wasn’t always so concerned with questions of “why” as she dissected the “how” of things.
Perry’s direction quietly mirrors Didion’s literary style. Sporadic voiceover offers moments of character but isn’t interested in easy exposition. The sharp edits echo the brief chapters and non-linear timeline. It’s that deceptively light touch that helps to amplify Didion’s intent rather than drown it out. Didion herself seemed to understand that no adaptation of her work could capture the quality of her prose. To fill the pages of the screenplay with copy-pasted paragraphs of her words would be to drown out what she actually wanted to say. Frankly, she’s too deep for the shallow world of Maria and her New Hollywood stooges. They ramble but say nothing, the polar opposite of Didion, who never wasted a word.
Didion’s novels became denser and less concerned with accessibility to the casual reader, but she never lost her piercing gaze towards the malaise of America. 1984's Democracy saw Didion using herself as the self-conscious narrator ("I am resisting narrative here," she writes) of a story of a Senator's wife and her romance with a CIA agent and war profiteer. Her last novel, 1996’s The Last Thing He Wanted, eschewed well-trodden character and plot beats in favor of an elliptical tale of America’s militaristic grip over the rest of the world and intrinsic corruption in its role as the planet’s official police. Dee Rees’s noble failure of an adaptation, which was released on Netflix in 2020, attempted to turn it into an old-school thriller, resulting in an incomprehensible jumble that failed to understand the ruthlessness of its source material. Rees and co-screenwriter Marco Villalobos worked overtime to make relatable the cipher-like characters who operate more on desolate instinct than anything familiarly human. To have a broken woman passively drift into the world of arms dealing works better with Didion’s detailed distance than the conventions of the three-act drama. But audiences struggle to accept questions with no answers.
In her 1976 article "Why I Write," Didion remarked, "The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind [...] The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what's going on in the picture." Perhaps that's why only Didion herself could ever make a Didion film work in any capacity. The utmost precision of her prose creates the portrait so thoroughly that to translate it to another medium is to miss the point. Frank Perry pulled it off but not without the writer herself. The adaptation of Play It as It Lays deserves to be seen as more than a curiosity, the exception that proves the rule of Didion’s work, but maybe said rule exists for a reason.