BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Paul tries to help his younger, troubled brother Don, who is being followed by an alien, clean up his act.
PROS: A near-exact translation of the Jonathan Lethem story on which it is based.
CONS: Suffers from the same lack of explanation as the story.
BOTTOM LINE: I can’t help but think that there are better Lethem stories out there that could have been adapted to the screen.
Jonathan Lethem’s 1995 novelette “Light and the Sufferer” (which appears in his collection The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye) is about two brothers and an alien. The older brother, Paul, is trying to help his drug-addict younger brother, Don (nicknamed “Light”), start a new life. But before they leave for California, Don tries to score some cash by ripping off his dealer. Soon, the brothers are pursued not only by the dealer and his gang, but also by a Sufferer, one of the Sphinx-like aliens that follow troubled people around for some unknown purpose. Are they Guardian Angels? Or are they angels of death?
Lethem’s story is at once fantastical and contemplative as he draws the picture of these two troubled siblings. The Sufferer serves no purpose, plot-wise, but instead serves to symbolize something. What it symbolizes is never quite clear, but I would venture to guess that it represents Paul’s need to help his brother. But that’s just a guess. And without being altogether clear what the Sufferer symbolizes, the impact of Lethem’s story is weakened.
And so it is with the film adaptation. Light and the Sufferer is a near-exact translation of the Jonathan Lethem story on which it is based. This is something that you don’t often find in adaptations, sometimes with good reason (some things work better on paper than on celluloid and vice versa) and sometimes with no good reason (like some studio executive tries to make the story more “marketable”). In the case of Light and Sufferer, the film is nearly identical to the story, even cribbing most, if not all, of its dialogue. Amazing attention to detail was translated as well, including one scene in which Don kicks the drug dealer’s weapon towards the wall. (Although in the book, I never imagined Don motioning for the dealer to move to that very same wall afterward.)
But therein lies the problem: because this is a verbatim translation to film, the film suffers from the same inexplicable plot element as the story: namely, the Sufferer. Why is it there? It has to be symbolism, of course. But what does it symbolize? Without any handle on that symbol, the Sufferer is relegated some CGI overlay that seemed altogether unnecessary. This was, of course, the only element in the film that was fantastical, so take that away, and you have the touching but ultimately mediocre story of the two brothers. The actors (Paul Dano as Don and Michael Esper as Paul) do a decent job with the material, but even that can’t hide the low budget of the production. This is not a bad thing, just a noticeable thing. As for the plot, I can’t help but think that there are better Lethem stories out there that could have been chosen.