Jumper, Steven Gould

<em class="BookTitle">Jumper</em>, Steven Gould

Tor, 1992 (2008 reprint), 344 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-7653-5769-4

One of the few good things about the big-screen Hollywwod JUMPER movie is how it brought back in wide circulation Steven Gould’s original Jumper, a much-lauded Young-Adult SF novel that long proved elusive to casual buyers.

Now that the novel is once more widely available in a tie-in edition, the usual games can begin:

  • How much of the novel was faithfully adapted? (Not much.)
  • Do the changes improve upon the original? (Sometimes, maybe.)
  • Do the changes betray the artistic intent of the original story? (Indeed.)
  • Is the book better than the movie? (Yup, but you already knew that.)

Little surprise here.

But while it’s fun and haughty for book-lovers to dismiss the movie adaptation and make of the original novel some kind of flawless gem, it’s more interesting to note that if the film is a piece of hard-to-like nonsense, the novel also has a number of significant flaws. Some of the movie’s most intriguing elements do work better than the book, at least in presenting a plot framework that avoids unforgivable coincidences.

(Also: while it’s unfair to the author to speak of his novel by looking at it through the lenses of the movie, that’s the only way it’s going to be read for a few years. These are the realities of the cultural marketplace, and they’re included in the royalties earned by the tie-in edition.)

But let’s start at the beginning: Seconds away from being beaten by his abusive father, teenage narrator David Rice discovers that he can teleport to locations he can picture in his mind. His first jump takes him back to the local public library (which is also the case in the film, but never explained as “the protagonist’s first thought of a safe haven”) where he immediately starts plotting his escape from a life that has nothing to offer him. It’s a rough process: Gould puts his protagonist through tough decisions and harrowing situations as he experiments in order to find the limits of his powers.

A major thematic deviation from the film takes place as David robs a bank to sustain himself: In the film, it’s a largely entertaining act with little moral consequences for the hedonistic protagonist; in the book, it’s an unpleasant but necessary action that causes even more trouble for David.

This widening ethical gap only grows larger when the main plots are set in motion. In the film, a secret group of anti-jumper “paladins” hunt down David, drawing him in an underworld of battling jumpers and paladins. In the movie, David gets a personal reason to hunt down airplane hijackers and fight terrorists.

Surprisingly, it’s tough to decide which plot-line is better: The book’s terrorist thread is precipitated by a coincidence so unlikely that it’s initially hard to accept that the author would use it to move forward the second half of the book. The gradual transformation of David into an anti-terrorist vigilante is equally hard to take seriously: at the rate airplane hijacking take place in the novel, few major airlines would be able to operate. Some of the pre-Internet details (such as using the services of a clipping agency) are now quaintly amusing, but there’s no denying that there are other reasons why this 1992 novel hasn’t aged so well in a post-9/11 world. The movie’s clichéd jumpers-versus-paladins storyline at least has the merit of moving the action along with family intrigue and a decent amount of mystery that is, alas, left to be revealed in an increasingly less-desirable sequel.

But if Gould’s original vision had one undeniable advantage, it’s in the thematic richness and maturity revealed by David’s quest for vengeance. There are some very nice portraits of anger and how it’s transferred over from covert to overt targets. David is not a happy young man and his gift for teleportation only papers over the problem for a time, until it grows so overwhelming that he’s tempted to go much too far. Despite the tortured plot points, the dramatic arc of the novel is completely satisfying, whereas the movie’s protagonist doesn’t even have morals or ethics to guide him. And there’s no comparison between the twin romantic plot threads in book versus movie, not when the protagonist of the film is such a repellent bastard.

Despite some of the film’s most hair-raising action sequences, the book definitely keeps an edge when comes the time to consider the smaller details of the action. Informed by the merciless standards of genre Science Fiction, the novel goes in intricate detail to describe the mechanics and consequences of teleportation: it helps that David is smart and able to improvise in order to put all chances on his side. Meanwhile, the film operates without consistency or elementary logic, contradicting and breaking its own rules. The two may not be closely related, but there are things in the movie that won’t make sense until you read the book. (And there are things that won’t make sense no matter what.)

But anyone who’s made it this far in the review without being interested by any book-to-movie comparison can take comfort in the fact that Jumper, even with its plotting flaws, is a truly enjoyable Young-Adult Science Fiction novel. Its heart is at the right place, the writing is instantly compelling from the very first page, and if aspects of it aren’t as credible now, it remains a small gem. Now that it’s not that hard to find a copy, do yourself a favor and have a look.

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