From Novel to Film pt. 26: Neighbors

Well, here's a first for the Omnibus - a From Novel to Film entry for a book I despised and a movie I at best disliked. Why bother, you might ask? Basically because I don't want the time I spent on either to be wasted.


Okay, so Thomas Berger. This is the first thing I've ever read by him. His most famous work seems to be Little Big Man, which I only know because of the movie. (Which I never saw.)

Essentially, it's the story of wacky neighbors (Harry and Ramona) whose motives are never made sensible that move in next door to a repressed guy and his wife (Earl and Enid) whose rationale for what they do, say, and think is likewise never made sensible. (Because "farce" or something.) Highly improbable and thoroughly uninteresting "hi-jinks" proceed apace.

I think it's meant to be an Ionesco-sort of thing, with ridiculous situations and unrealistic interactions to serve some metaphorical point about... conformity? Or something? Ionesco at least had the good sense to make his metaphors absurd enough where they were interesting. Maybe I just didn't get it.

But: I really don't think so. 

It's a long exercise in reading about people who do not resemble any people you have ever met or read about, with our protagonist (Earl) pointlessly (and boringly) abused. This goes on for 275 pages, never once approaching a traditional arc of any kind. I mean, there must be one in there somewhere; it doesn't appear to have been meant as a Naked Lunch or Finnegan's Wake of any kind. But the only thing I saw happening was Earl thinking ridiculous things that made no sense for anyone to think, acting in ridiculous ways that made no sense for anyone to act, compounding said ridiculous with his reactions, and so on and so on. Then at the end he dies, after... learning something? Somehow? 

"Keese was in fact defenseless against any form of revenge that a demented adversary might choose."

As was this reader!

A case can made that it's all meant to be some kind of grand allegory of how novels make no sense and readers are idiots who will believe anything. Why anyone would set out to make this kind of point, I don't know, and if so, it could have been considerably shorter. Nothing is earned, nothing is of interest, and nothing was worth reading or writing about. 

Let's see what critics had to say when the novel was released. (From the novel's wiki:)

"In his study of Berger, writer Stanley Trachtenberg describes Neighbors as an existentialist parable in which 'the loss of coherence between various aspects of self comically fragments the notion of identity and thus fictionalizes the existential concept of authenticity as a shaping condition of it.'"

Seriously, Stan Trachtenberg. Get a real fucking job.

"In a 1980 newspaper interview, Berger said of Neighbors, "As my 10th novel, begun at the close of my 20th year as a published novelist, it is appropriately a bizarre celebration of whatever gift I have, the strangest of all my narratives . . . the morality of this work, like that of all my other volumes, will be in doubt until the end of the narrative – and perhaps to the end of eternity, now that I think about it." 

Yeah, you got that right. At the end of the narrative, Earl has a fatal stroke as he escapes with Harry and Ramona (nonsensically) after realizing his wife is a "distrustful alcoholic" and his daughter is "an underachiever and petty thief." But - they've spent 275 pages abusing him, and this is a revelation of some kind? And are Harry and Ramona redeemed by this, in any fashion? 



I remember the sudden appearance of the cable channel Encore in the early 90s. We received it for free as a promotion for a few months - I want to say in 1991 or thereabouts. I was fascinated with this channel, as it played movies - Tora Tora Tora, Valley of the Dolls, Joe, Bedazzled, The Sand Pebbles, to name a few - I'd never seen or (at that time) ever even heard of. My unfamiliarity with them was more just the result of my ignorance rather than any obscurity of the films themselves (with the possible exception of Joe, which is a brilliant slice of American New Wave that no one ever seems to have heard of when I bring it up), but these were all, in their own ways, revelations to me that significantly widened the world of cinema for me. 

Another film was Neighbors (1981) directed by John G. Avildsen (who also directed Joe, as well as Rocky and The Karate Kid and more) and written by Larry Gelbart and starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. 

I was a huge fan (thanks to Nick at Nite) of the original SNL, and the 80s were Aykroyd and other original-Not-Ready-for-Primetime-Players' cinema playground, so I was highly motivated to watch anything involving them. But I was baffled by the movie at the time. Watching it again over the past week, I was baffled anew.  

But before I get to that, some background on the production:

a) Originally, Belushi was cast as the wild man and Aykroyd the uptight straight man. But they switched roles in pre-production to act against type. 
b) Both Belushi and Aykroyd wanted Avildsen off the picture.
c) Aykroyd made significant revisions to Gelbart's script.
d) Belushi lobbied unsuccessfully for the score by Bill Conti (or at least the end credits) to be replaced by the punk band he loved Fear, probably most famous now for once having Flea in their line-up. (Which is unfair to their legacy as progenitors of the California Hardcore scene.)
e) Belushi was a huge drugged-out mess in 1981.

I mention these specific things because:

a) the most interesting thing about the film is this playing against type from the leads; this might be Aykroyd's oddest performance on celluloid. (Not counting Doctor Detroit, which while certainly odd is just a big fucking mess. Pardon all the f-bombs. Sorry, Mom.)  
b) I don't know what Avildsen thought he was making here, but it's so at odds with the rest of his filmography that you can't help but wonder if Belushi and Aykroyd weren't correct. There are also an awful lot of crane shots and other camera moves that are equally out of place. 
c) Not sure what the original script was, but anything is an improvement over the novel.  
d) I like a lot of the old punk/ hardcore stuff. But the Bill Conti score is at such odds with the material, though, that the effect is pleasantly jarring. I'm not saying it was right for the picture, but I enjoyed (both back in the day and now) the sensation of my brain trying to tie the score to the events onscreen. It's the wrong score for the film, but how it's wrong intrigues me. Anyway, Belushi did manage to get "Holiday in Cambodia" by the Dead Kennedys (a personal favorite) in one scene, and that's appreciated.  
And  e) Belushi would be dead within 4 months of the movie's premiere. (His drug intake was just staggering. Roger Ebert wrote a sad essay about it after the appearance of Wired by Bob Woodward.

I remember watching the instantly-forgotten film they made from the Woodward book at a friend's house. At the time, SNL and its cast members, past and present, were my demigods. My friend's father, watching us watch the movie, dismissed the importance of Belushi entirely. "He was just an asshole." I hated him for saying that. Now that I'm older and have known addicts and the sadness and tragedy of it all, I can understand dismissive reactions like that. But addiction is a disease, and addicts aren't assholes or even tragic; they're just carriers of an often fatal disease. It's a sad business all around.

Anyway - to the film. Neighbors is better than the book, but that's not saying much. There are numerous little changes - "frozen succotash" in the book is changed to "frozen waffles," "he tried to rape me" is changed to "he tried to pork me", "Harry" is changed to "Vic," etc. - but since the details of the book serve little purpose, I can't see how it matters. 

At least the film has something of an arc - we can see Earl's character change, and his reactions make a certain amount of sense. Not hearing the inner monologue Berger gives him in the book is the key, there. As for everybody else:

Kathryn Walker plays Enid; Lauren-Marie Taylor plays their daughter.
Difficult to gauge their performances since the characters are designed to just be grating.
Aykroyd does his best with the part. The metal tooth, blonde dye job, and blue contacts help.

In these sort of Suburban Man is, Like, Wicked Repressed fantasies, there's always the liberated, seductive girl who toys with him. 

That role here is played by Cathy Moriarty.
Her character is awful in the novel, but she's more nuanced in the film.
Moreover, she and Belushi have something resembling chemistry.

The best I can say for it is that it's a film that warped my brain at a time when such a warping aided my evolution in how I viewed cinema. But as mentioned here: "it has no style whatsoever — comedic, horrific, or otherwise. It’s just a string of awkward moments, though we don’t feel embarrassed by any of it because nobody behaves in a way that makes sense. It’s very plastic satire, grounded not in real life or genuine observation but in easy, tired ideas of suburban life."

That review pretty much nails it; you should read it in its entirety. I'll close this entry with one further quote from it:

"There’s a retrospectively touching moment when Vic seems to be leaving town and he shakes Earl’s hand goodbye. If the movie ended there, we’d have no choice but to think that Aykroyd was unknowingly saying farewell to his friend and to their brief but intense collaboration. But the movie goes on a bit longer and continues to be stupid and brings Vic back. For poetry’s sake, at least, if you find yourself watching Neighbors, turn it off after that handshake."

Final Verdict: The book is abysmal; the film's better and I admit I still rather enjoy it, thanks to the earlier experience of having seen it the way I did. But: not a coherent work.



  1. I first found out about this film from a vlog review of it. At the time, I believe my thoughts (then and now) could best be summed up as follows:...Huh...That sounds vaguely interesting.

    That's about it as far as exposure goes. Other than that I have nothing to go on.

    I can say a few things about Belushi, however. I tend to be more or less forgiving (I guess?) when it comes to the drug use. I remember reading a Neil Gaiman short story called "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories" where the subject of the comedian's death is given this final verdict: "He died alone...It don't matters a rats - whether there was anyone with him or not. He died alone".

    I wonder if Gaiman was onto something there. Maybe it also explained the drugs.

    Onto more cheerful topics, who else thinks the SNL/Nat. Lampoon style of comedy should make a comeback?


    1. America is in desperate need of a SNL/Lampoon style of comedy, absolutely. SNL hasn't been "SNL" in forever. I love the late 80s/ early 90s era, but even that was a different animal than the 70s stuff.

      Belushi's is a sad story, to be sure. Gaiman wrote a story for Sandman called "Prez" (I think that was the name of it without looking it up) where, thanks to the personal intervention of the Prez character in his life, Belushi kicks his demons and has a long and lovely career.

      It's a nice what-is. I celebrate his legacy and wish it had been different. But what can you do? I do feel it's a waste of time judging or hating addicts (as my friend's Dad did) but I can understand a hardening of the arteries, so to speak, once you've seen it up close and personal and been damaged by it. I don't condone it, just saying I try to see as many sides as I can. Like Burroughs (William S) once wrote, addiction is a matter of personal chemistry and proximity, like malaria or something. I don't know if he's right or wrong, just passing it along.

    2. What I find most amazing is just how taken for granted this particular style of humor is these days.

      I've seen like only three or so books that deal with it's development. Gerald Nachman's "Seriously Funny" traces things to their start in the 50s-60s, Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad's "Saturday Night" still seems the bst overview of the show. At the center of the latter is, of course, Lorne Michaels, and his slow acquiescence to executive meddling.

      The one item that gets left out, I'm starting to think, is the Lampoon. It's important to remember that before this type of humor had it's make on TV, it was a surprisingly literary phenomena.

      I think a case can be made that without Lampoon, there would have been no SNL. The two best sources I've found are "That's not Funny, That's Sick" by Ellin Stein, and a documentary, ""Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead":


      As for the 80s, if I had to nominate an "heir" to that particular style, I think it would have to be John Hughes. I don't know how, but he seems to have taken whatever kernel that gave SNL/Lampoon their spark and turned it into his best filmography.

      The last time I ever saw this style being put to good use can be found here, and yes, almost all the original participants are back:



  2. "A case can made that it's all meant to be some kind of grand allegory of how novels make no sense and readers are idiots who will believe anything." -- Just reading that sentence made me grumpy about the idea of having to read a novel of that nature. So I feel your pain! And I agree: if that's the idea, why would anyone want to write it or (worse) read it? Not me, that's for sure.

    I remember seeing the movie long ago, probably in much the same manner you saw it. I don't think I liked it at all; all I remember is being confused by it. I was fairly young, though, so it's no surprise; I was not at that time built for confusion leading to appreciation.

    I can't vouch for the novel, which I've never read, but I love the movie "Little Big Man." Berger sounds like a stuffy, pretentious bore, though, so eff him.

    1. I've got to figure Neighbors has to be some kind on anomaly from Berger. I really hated it, though.