When you buy a ticket to see “Spider-Man,” you probably don’t believe that a guy in tights is battling a superpowered octopus-man somewhere in New York. But if you choose to drop your 10 bucks on a movie billed as a true story, you expect your entertainment to be sweetened by the belief that someone really was that brave or that remarkable.
You can imagine, then, the strange gray area occupied by “Running With Scissors.” The memoir spent two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list and has been adapted into a film that comes out Friday (October 20). With dozens of discrepancies between the written account and the new movie starring Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin and Brian Cox, it’s hard not to wonder: How can two different versions of someone’s life both bill themselves as true?
“I wasn’t really concerned that every single line be exactly the same in the movie as in the book,” author Augusten Burroughs said recently, trying to set the record straight on the bizarre childhood that birthed both “Scissors” stories. “What I wanted was the heart, the soul and the spirit of the book to translate into film. I wanted it to be the same sort of experience.”
Buyer beware: What you’re getting might not be as much of a memoir as you think. If you choose to read this article further, you should also beware — because what follows is a spoiler-heavy dissection of the details that got blurred in translation.
One of the first inconsistencies that fans of the book will notice is Burroughs’ missing family members, including brother Troy and quasi-sisters Vickie and Anne Finch, two of the daughters of the psychiatrist young Augusten is sent to live with after his family implodes.
“They did lose some of the sisters,” said Evan Rachel Wood, whose Natalie Finch not only went from chubby to slender but also absorbed Vickie’s desire to play doctor with her father’s electroshock-therapy machine. “I’m kind of a combination, and [Gwyneth Paltrow’s Hope] is a combination — we [each] picked up a little bit of it.” Similarly missing in action is Anne’s free-pooping kid Poo Bear, who instead shows up in the movie as a visiting patient’s child.
In a story that many have praised for depicting a child overcoming a difficult upbringing, one of the many potentially life-scarring moments in Burroughs’ young life was when he walked in on his naked mother with a woman named Fern.
In the “Scissors” movie, however, the revelation of his mother’s bisexuality has the decidedly more PG-friendly shot of two actresses fully clothed and kissing. “I think it’s a question of taste,” said Bening, who plays Burroughs’ mother, adding that the switch happened in the script, not for post-production rating concerns. “That’s up to the director and the actors who are involved. In movies, when you’re showing something graphically, it’s very different than reading it in a book, anything sexual particularly. It’s a very different thing when you’re actually seeing it in front of you.”
Such taste concerns may also explain the portrayal of Burroughs’ sexual awakening via Neil Bookman (played by Joseph Fiennes), a 30-something man who deflowers the 13-year-old. While the memoir’s pages have Burroughs graphically recalling every thrust and throb, the film has the two characters falling back on the bed after a far-less-specific encounter. Also played down is the borderline rape that Bookman inflicted upon young Augusten.
“I’m not privy to the whole editorial situation, but I know it’s very honest to the book and the tone,” Fiennes said of the scene, addressing the concern that the film sidestepped both the controversy of pedophilia and an honest depiction of gay sex. “Them suddenly being very intimate together is shocking, riveting. For these guys, it’s a very real love, but for the audience it will be kind of different in terms of the age difference. So how do you tackle these very interesting subject matters without alienating the audience? I think they’ve done that very successfully. You keep it in the interpretation of the viewer, and you lead them through that without being too alienating.”
To some, watering down such sexually explicit moments may be understandable. To others, however, the two most stunning inconsistencies will be harder to explain.
The first that arrives in the film version of “Scissors” is a tense scene that finds a crazed Bookman kneeling over Dr. Finch (Cox) while he sleeps. Holding a pair of scissors over his head, Bookman nearly stabs the eccentric family patriarch, but he is stopped when Agnes Finch (Jill Clayburgh) discovers him. The moment not only establishes the kind of dramatic tension any good film needs, but it also explains Bookman’s immediate, embarrassed departure from Burroughs’ life. There’s only one problem, however: It never happened.
“No, but he came very, very close,” Burroughs said. “The night before he left, he told me, ’I feel like I’m going crazy, like I’m either going to kill you or your mother or Finch.’ So [director] Ryan Murphy took that bit of dialogue from the book, and he visualized it, because he’s Ryan Murphy and it’s just great. It’s very sexy, you know. It’s actually probably exactly what was in the guy’s head.”
A second scene that Murphy “visualized” was another Hollywood necessity: the closing moment of a film when a character finally escapes his problems. In “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon drives off to California. In “Midnight Cowboy,” Jon Voight flees to Florida. In “Scissors,” a better tomorrow comes via a bus ticket to New York and a secret stash of money given to young Augusten to help pave his way.
“No,” Clayburgh said when asked if Mrs. Finch really gave Augusten a box of cash. “I think it was lots of discussions between Ryan and Augusten talking about other things. Of course, a lot of Augusten’s life isn’t in the book, so Ryan was searching. But I think Ryan was trying to create a sort of parallel, generous, giving mother in her own insane way. He wanted Agnes to be sort of a counterpoint to Annette’s character, and that generosity at the end, thematically for the script, gave Augusten a jumping-off point that his mother was unable to give him.”
“There was actually no tin box,” Burroughs explained. “Agnes did give me money from time to time to pick up my photographs at the drug store or to go to the mall. She was like that — she had that glint of sort of nurturing, of caring, of mothering.”
In the book, there is not only no tin box, but the trip to New York is a half-day search for his lost lover, Bookman. Accompanied by Hope (Burroughs travels alone in the movie), the heartbroken teen searches Greenwich Village in vain, then returns home. At the end of the “Scissors” tome, Burroughs discusses a return to New York, but it never actually happens on the written page. In real life, Burroughs did eventually move to New York, but as those fans who’ve read the “Scissors” follow-up “Dry” know, alcoholism and other struggles kept his happy ending at bay.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Running With Scissors.”
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