I've seen Wild at Heart a number of times since I first it watched it in college. It's not my very favorite Lynch effort, for sure, but in a career like David Lynch's, even my least favorite of his films are far and away above the work of most other writer/directors. So let me be clear: while Wild at Heart isn't his best (in my humble opinion), it's still fucking awesome, and definitely deserves to be included in serious conversations about film.
On a recent whim, I decided to pick up a used copy of Barry Gifford's novel of the same title, the source material for Lynch's adaptation. The book's cover has Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage on it, arm in arm, as the infamous Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune. And while I usually try to avoid buying books with artwork inspired by their recent film adaptations for pretentious aesthetic reasons, I just couldn't argue with Nic Cage's smoky gaze. Besides this, I hoped that the novel, at a surprisingly short 159 pages, might provide some insight into how someone like David Lynch goes about making a pre-existing story something uniquely his own. To that end, Wild at Heart is the ultimate example of Lynch's adaptation style when not under the influence of studio higher-ups with vested interest in the script (see: Dune, The Elephant Man).
Lynch's take on the story of Sailor and Lula fully embodies the titular line from both the film and the novel: "The world is really wild at heart and weird on top." In fact, Lynch manages to visualize that sentiment in a way that is, in a sense, far more palpable than in Gifford's novel. The points of plot of wilder and the characters are rendered a hell of a lot weirder. At least this is the conclusion I came to after finishing the book and then re-watching the movie. My immediate reaction when first starting the book, however, was a bit different. Originally, I thought that Lynch really played it fast and loose with Gifford's narrative. I know from reading about the production of the film that Lynch completed his first draft in under a week, and I thought this may have influenced him to rely more so on his own imaginings than the actual book. In fact, Lynch's alterations to the structure of the story alone are numerous enough to turn his film's narrative into an entirely different animal all together. Characters are missing, new characters are added. Original plot points are tuned way down while new twists and turns are created. And this doesn't even begin to go into the subtle and overt thematic changes the film makes, like, and this just me pulling something out of the air, the fact that The Wizard of Oz is never so much as mentioned in the book, despite the huge allegorical role it plays in the film. In short, the two versions of Wild at Heart are different. Like, really, really different.
After a time, though, I began to feel like there was more of a method to his adaptation madness. Lynch stays eerily faithful to certain, often times subtle aspects of Gifford's novel. Whole swatches of dialogue are transplanted despite their awkward jump from the written word to the stage. Certain characters are casted and directed in a way that is uncannily close to what I saw when reading the book. It's clear that Lynch had a lot of respect for the source material. For example, his direction of Laura Dern as Lula is absolutely spot-on. Listen to the way that Dern constantly delivers her lines with a rising intonation regardless of what she’s saying. This is because Gifford distinctly indicated this style of speech in the novel by having many (like 70%) of Lula’s lines end with question marks—even when they aren’t questions. It’s a strange quirk of characterization that Lynch recognizes as important to the uniqueness of Gifford’s book and decides to retain wholesale.
He’s also incredibly faithful to the character of Bobby “Like the Country” Peru (Willem Defoe). Even though the “Fuck me” scene is a creation of Lynch’s imagination, it’s by no means a stretch from the presumptuous and ostentatious character of the novel. Peru is sinister and crass, and is truly the bringer of undoing for Sailor and Lula. Lynch merely dialed this up a bit. He didn’t change the character, per se, but gave us a more fleshed out version of him. A better actor than Defoe truly could not have been selected to bring Peru to life. Not only this, but Peru’s totally fucked up teeth—all three of them—are described, in detail, by Gifford (the words “round” and “brown” are thrown around), and believe me, Lynch gets that shit picture-perfect as well.
So if he’s going to stick so closely to certain details why, then, so many bizarre changes to the central structure of things? I don't think it's so much a matter of hubris on Lynch’s part—that he thought he could tell a better story—but rather he imagined the stories behind what was very obliquely alluded to by Gifford. He saw grand possibility in what was many times glossed over. Basically, and you'll have to bare with me here, Lynch turned the strongest points of technique in Gifford's novel on their heads to create a wonderfully nontraditional adaptation (though “interpretation” really seems like a better word).
Over all, Gifford’s novel is written in a very minimalist style. Imagery is kept spare, and characters’ backgrounds are abstractly defined, if referenced at all. Lynch, on the other hand, takes a decidedly maximalist approach to the film, creating complex backgrounds and side plots based wholly around instances in the novel that often times get no more than a sentence notice. For example, the ruthless mobster Marcellus Santos, who plays an important role in Lynch’s rendition, is mentioned once, in passing only, in a conversation between Marietta Fortune and her best friend Dal (who, curiously, is excised from Lynch’s version). It’s simply said that Santos stopped coming around after Clyde Fortune died. I wouldn’t even go as far as to call that mildly sinister, and yet Lynch creates a whole persona and series of fiery events around the character. And as for Clyde—whom Sailor supposedly witnessed getting burned alive by Santos, Perdita, and Marietta—well, all we get from Gifford is that he died cleaning lead paint without a mask. No murder plot, no conspiracy. Just a guy who should’ve worn a mask while chipping lead paint off his house.
As I said, the plot—in comparison to the film—is very barebones. It’s largely a series of conversations between Sailor and Lula in motel rooms across the country. Lynch takes these very bare conversations and creates bizarre side streets, like the episode with Lula’s cousin Del (a wonderfully edgy Crispin Glover). What is easily one of the most memorable moments in the film gets very little attention from Gifford. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of cockroaches on anuses anywhere in the source material. Also, the episode where Bob Ray Lemon is brutally beaten to death by Sailor is merely mentioned a couple of times in the book, and the circumstances behind Sailor’s act of “self defense” are left entirely up to the reader to determine. In fact the whole book functions without a single flashback, while the film relies pretty heavily on them. Basically, anywhere Lynch can find an unexplored avenue of weirdness in the novel, he takes the opportunity to see it through. Then, after a total pumping up of events and sequences, he begins to play connect the dots, insuring that everything is tied to something. The result is a web-like story that moves backwards and forwards, going off on tangents and then looping back over itself. It’s a far cry from the strictly linear sequence of events Gifford arranged. And let’s not even get into the uniquely Lynchian additions to the cast of characters—those that don’t even appear in the novel: Mr. Reindeer, Dropshadow, Juana, the car crash girl, and .00 Spool among them.
Strangely, where Gifford goes out of his way to develop characters into three-dimensional beings, Lynch often plays them back down. A really great example of this is the character of Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton). Farragut really comes alive in Gifford’s novel. We spend a good deal of time with him (second only to Sailor and Lula), and get to hear a lot of his thoughts on life and the world. He’s a surprisingly existential dude, and he writes weird little Twilight Zone-esque short stories throughout the novel—a couple of which we get excerpts of as brief asides from the main action of the book. Lynch’s Farragut, on the other hand, plays like more of a dopey, ambling detective, who sits in hotel rooms barking at nature shows on the television like a fucking dog for some reason. While Gifford’s Farragut is a strong, self-possessed character, Lynch’s variation always struck me as kind of pathetic in his mindless devotion to Marietta and her whims. A very strange decision, for sure, but it definitely works to build up the aesthetic of weirdness that D.L wants to cultivate.
In Lynch’s book Catching the Big Fish, which is mostly about Transcendental Meditation and the role it can play in the creative process, he says that you have to go to the deep waters to catch the big fish. So I suppose that in order to plumb the depths of Wild at Heart, Lynch had to go beyond even the boundaries of what was written to discover the story underneath the story. Not necessarily the straight story (ha, jokes!), but the story hidden in the shadows of Gifford’s prose. It’s like he read the book, thought, “But what really happened to the father?” and just went from there. Somewhere along the line, as he typically does, he decided to include a bunch of close-ups of fire and a character who speaks in nonsensical riddles. And so another David Lynch masterpiece was born. Even though I’m being a bit silly here, I truly believe that in order to make Wild at Heart, he had to deconstruct what was essentially a straightforward road novel and turn it into a mood piece: something that exudes a feeling rather than a traditional story. Because in the end, we don’t really care so much about what happened to Lynch’s Sailor and Lula. We care about the way in which we saw those events unfold. It’s truly an example of the storytelling taking precedent over the story. Like a really wild and fucked up painting of something like a tree or a rake. Trees and rakes aren’t all that interesting, but proper delivery of such an image can be mood altering. And, curiously, the more I try to explicate why this style of filmmaking is exceptional, the more the nature of the exception eludes me. However it was done, though, we’re certainly all better off for having seen Wild at Heart. If you haven’t lately, I suggest you throw on a snakeskin jacket and exercise your personal freedom to give it another go around.