Harvey Pekar’s series of comics titled American Splendor follow Pekar’s own life in Cleveland, Ohio. Subject matter can range from his job to his bouts with cancer but, for the most part, the focus is on the negative aspects of his life. Pekar utilizes these negative chronicles in his life to twist them into a sort of dry, sardonic humor. Themes present in his comics include brutal realism, regret, and depression.
The 2003 film American Splendor, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is based from the comics written by Harvey Pekar of the same name. Starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his wife Joyce Brabner, the film functions in a similar fashion to the comics in that it serves as an autobiography of sorts and follows Pekar in his dealings with depression, writing comics, his battle with cancer, and his relationships with friends and family. Berman’s film maintains the themes of the comics and manages to draw humor from the seemingly unfortunate chain of events that make up Pekar’s life. The filming style is a mixed bag of techniques which employs documentary-like footage, animated bits, a comic panel-like effect and interviews alongside the film’s own unique narrative in order to afford the audience a glimpse at the true Harvey Pekar in juxtaposition to Berman’s adaptation. The soundtrack is largely jazz-influenced with various appearances of Motown.
When viewed beside its graphic novel counterpart, Shari Springer Berman’s American Splendor is unquestionably a faithful adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s works and life. While the film isn’t a word-by-word, shot-by-shot carbon-copy of the comic, it manages to keep the themes, humor, and overall spirit of the original series. The film, like the comic, focuses on the mundane issues that Pekar faces on a daily basis as a comic writer such as a troubled relationship with his wife, uncertainty regarding his commercial success. Most importantly, Berman managed to capture Pekar’s special brand of “optimistic cynicism” through the casting of Paul Giamatti who channeled the world-weary writer beautifully.
3rd Party Sources
An interview between IGN’s Steve Head and directors Shari Springer Berman and Rob Pulcini in which they discuss their interactions with the real Pekar, his own personal input in the film, and the reception of the film.
A blog posted on Savageminds.org from Matt Thomson that focuses solely on Pekar’s work in comics and how faithfully his own life is reflected in his work.
A movie review written by Liane Tsui that goes beyond a critique of the film itself and touches on subjects like how successfully the film was adapted from Pekar’s own work and how believable the actors involved were at “playing” in his world.
C. Despite the fact that movie reviews are typically read to judge the critical reception of a film, Tsui’s blog post allows newcomers to Harvey Pekar’s work an inside scoop on how the film can be stacked up against Pekar’s comic. I was particularly interested in the section in which she discusses the omissions and detours from the original works because, as a lover of literature myself, I can always appreciate the brutal honesty in book-to-film critiques as well as the commendations of a job well done (as was the case here). The most benefit to be had from reading this review before the film is for those, like myself, who hadn’t even heard of Harvey Pekar and saw this as “yet another Paul Giamatti movie” (he seems typecast in these sardonic, sarcastic, visibly jaded roles).
How does the film express naturalism and/or realism? And how does it compare to the way the book is naturalistic and/or realistic?
Harvey Pekar’s opening line warning the audience of their film decision did a phenomenal job of setting the tone for the rest of the movie and its blatantly honest commentary on the “real” problems that cannot be captured in a romanticized world. American Splendor, a series written by Pekar himself, serves as an autobiography that does not waste its time trying to force-feed its audience with a feel-good narrative. This is not to say that Pekar draws the world as a place of perpetual darkness, but instead tells a tale of subtle inspiration through a man who, because of a terminal illness and a swath of social problems, must contend with the day-to-day reality that is his life. One could argue that there are no lessons to be learned and no progression for Pekar as a character but this simply lends a sense of legitimacy and genuineness to his life. The film as, well as the comic series, remains mundane in its nature and, speaking of nature, its accurate depiction of life “as we know it” down to every last detail stays true to the naturalist style employed in both mediums.