Limitless aka The Dark Fields, Alan Glynn

Picador, 2011 movie tie-in reprint of 2001 original, 336 pages, $15.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-312-42887-7

Something very strange happened in early April 2011 at the local movie multiplex: After years of meagre offerings, you could watch three relatively original –and good!- Science-Fiction movies back-to-back-to-back in a first-run theater.  In-between The Adjustment Bureau, Limitless and Source Code, SF fans were treated to three decent SF movies, none of them based on big “intellectual property franchises”.  It’s not entirely fair, however, to call those movies entirely original: Source Code may have been an original screenplay, but The Adjustment Bureau took its premise (and nothing else) from a Philip K. Dick short story, whereas Limitless is a halfway-faithful adaptation of Alan Glynn’s techno-thriller originally published as The Dark Fields.

The distinction between “Science Fiction” and “techno-thriller” here is a thin one: The premise of Limitless/The Dark Fields has an underachieving thirty-something protagonist discovering a secret miracle drug dramatically boosting his intelligence.  Stuck with a limited supply of pills and in-between business rivals, Russian mobsters and shadowy government operatives, our hero gulps down his drugs, performs amazing feats of cognition and discovers that the world is his… if he can first take care of his biggest problems, and if the drug’s after-effects don’t kill him first.

Much as the movie is a zippy, often exhilarating portray of a mind boosted to its theoretical limits, Glynn’s novel has a snappy forward rhythm that makes it difficult to stop reading.  Our narrator isn’t just endearingly flawed, he’s also smart enough to know how to use his newfound capabilities.  The prose of the book is pleasant, and The Dark Fields more than provides that sometimes elusive “reading pleasure” so desired of genre thrillers.  The first-person narration portrays extreme intelligence with wit and well-chosen details: the capabilities of the protagonist are almost always credible in the context in which they are presented.

The novel, set in 2001, has also aged relatively well.  Now that we’re in a post-post-9/11 world, the exuberant nature of the story’s New York setting feels once again natural.  Some of the technology has aged a bit during the past decade, but most of the financial lingo still holds up to a casual reading, and there are few things to immediately date the setting.

But as in most of my reviews of books adapted to the movies, I’m more interested in the differences between both interpretations of the story.  For about two-third of Limitless, both the book and the novel are significantly the same.  There may be a few tweaks here and there regarding the relationships of the protagonist and the presence of mysterious operatives, but the story beats remain in-sync.  Amusingly enough, the film’s two big plot-holes (never borrow from Russian mobsters; always secure your source of drugs) are also softly reflected in the novel.  Then the interpretations diverge: The novel takes a far darker turn, whereas the film manages to end on a triumphant note.  (Before blaming Hollywood, consider this interview with both writers and their shared camaraderie.)

Many Science Fiction fans will prefer the film’s take on the subject.  The topic of intelligence enhancement has often been done in SF, but usually following the Icarus plot template: That there is inevitably an accounting for artificially-obtained superpowers.  That idea, at this point, is trite puritanical moralizing; isn’t it more interesting to wonder what if, indeed, you could have it all?  The movie eventually chooses this path, and it feels considerably more satisfying than the increasingly paranoid descent to hell that becomes the book’s conclusion.  Genre prejudice may influence readers, though: technophiles coming from SF may have no trouble with the idea of an artificial intelligence-booster leading to a better life; readers coming from the more pessimistic thriller genre may feel that the dark ending feels more natural.  In either case, comparing film to novel show how a simple last-act spin can radically change the impact of a work.  After seeing the fulfilling film, the novel seems to run out of ideas toward the end, ending with a whimper rather than making the most out of the elements in its possession.

But that’s the great thing about interpretations.  You get to pick and choose whether you liked the original or the adaptation best.  It doesn’t take super-human intelligence to create a composite story in your head that incorporates the best of both versions.  In my case: The novel’s backstory and fully-researched details, with the film’s casting, pacing and triumphant ending.  You may prefer different results.

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