Claire Denis’ new romantic thriller Stars at Noon is not only the first film adaptation of the late American author Denis Johnson in 23 years, it’s also a moving tribute to the man himself. While some viewers and critics might look askance at the notion that anyone could find the film—which has received decidedly mixed reviews owing mostly to the spine of coldness that runs through it—“moving,” but as someone who counts Johnson as his favorite writer, I was deeply affected by it.
Johnson was the great scribe of American misfits: junkies, drunks, dopers, bums, burnouts, petty crooks, whores, hermits, and lost dreamers. He had such clear and deep insight into their lives because it was, for a long time, his own. After graduating from college and publishing a couple critically-acclaimed volumes of poetry in the late ‘60s, Johnson dropped off the literary radar for the next decade, giving himself over to booze and dope. In the late ‘70s, he moved back home to Arizona and set about getting clean. In 1983, he published his first novel, the masterful Angels.
This was followed by two more novels over the next three years, including The Stars at Noon, his sexually-charged update on the classic Graham Greene ex-pat espionage story (Johnson liked to remark “I think I actually am Graham Greene”), in which a young American would-be journalist turned prostitute and a reserved, secretive English oil representative carry on an intense affair in wartorn Nicuraga while being pursued by various shadowy entities.
In 1992, Johnson would publish his most well-known and widely read work, Jesus’ Son, a brutal but beautiful picaresque in the (tapped) vein of Candide, which chronicles the tragicomic misadventures of a heroin addict known only as Fuckhead. An instant and fiercely beloved cult classic, the book would spawn the first and, prior to Stars, only, movie to be made from one of his books: Alison McClean’s 1999 adaptation of the same name, which starred Billy Crudup as Fuckhead.
McClean, a passionate fan of the novel (she cited “Johnson’s vision and language and the way he transformed the bleak and the ordinary into little epiphanies that are beautiful, poetic and really funny”) did as good a job bringing the story to screen as could be expected. That’s no faint praise: while Jesus’ Son is, like almost all of Johnson’s work, readily adaptable on a surface level, filled as it is with colorful characters, memorable set pieces, earworm dialog and no shortage of drama and action, there is a harshness to the material—particularly its unrelenting depiction of drug addiction, as well as a few scenes of abuse—that make it tough sell.
(Indeed, one frightening moment of implied sexual violence undertaken by Fuckhead early on in the book is removed entirely from the film, probably because it would have felt too jarring given the sense of innocence Crudup brings to the character.)
Still, McClean was able to capture the core spirit of the book, producing a film that successfully vacillates between the grungy and the sublime. In this, she’s greatly helped by her cast, especially Crudup and Jack Black—each a year away from their respective mainstream breakouts in Almost Famous and High Fidelity—who share the most memorable episode in the film, a darkly funny hospital set-piece which sees Johnson himself show up as a patient who’s had a giant hunting knife jammed hilt-deep into one of his eyes by his wife after she caught him peeping on the next door neighbor.
Like the book, McClean’s film took on instant cult status, becoming an indie favorite and one of the last definitive works of Gen-X art before the culture moved in a new direction post-millennium. Unfortunately, her movie has fallen through the cracks in the years since, a casualty of deceptively limited streaming services and the death of physical media.
Jesus’ Son may have been the first adaptation of one of Johnson’s works, but it wasn’t his first foray into cinema. That came seven years earlier, by way of the 50-minute short The Prom, which he co-wrote with a young Steven Shalberg (Secretary), about a romance between a peep show dancer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a high school student (Andras Jones) with a rare skin disease. Tonally, it’s a bit more austere and sentimental than his readers might expect, although it does contain many of his favorite subjects: sex work, voyeurism, physical defomity, redemption through love, and the feeling of being an outcast.
Johnson would reteam with Shalberg in 1996 for a feature much more obviously up his shambolic alley: the hotel-set neo-noir Hit Me, one of several Jim Thompson adaptations (from the 1951 novel A Swell Looking Babe) of that same period. It’s a perfect melding of voices: like Johnson, Thompson was one of the literary patron saints of the American fringe, and the two have a lot in common as writers, particularly their penchant for the hardboiled, grotesque and surreal.
These elements are all evident in Hit Me, and if the film isn’t the lost masterpiece one would hope for given its pedigree (which includes a fantastic cast comprised of character actors extraordinaire Elliot Koteas, William H. Macy, Kevin Connelly, and Philip Baker Hall) it still makes for an effectively queasy gem, the type of small, unnerving psychodrama best stumbled upon late at night on cable.
Post-’90s, Johnson would continue to publish novels, plays and stories to great acclaim, winning the 2007 National Book Award for his Vietnam opus Tree of Smoke and being twice shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize (which he absolutely should have won in 2011 for his perfect novella Train Dreams). And yet, there were no movies made from his published work or screenplays. There was at least one in the works, though.
After coming to his work via Jesus’ Son, French director Clair Denis discovered The Stars at Noon and set about purchasing the rights to it (after first befriending the author and his wife). Denis and Johnson might not immediately seem like natural collaborators—his style is so uniquely American, hers so European. But once you start looking for the threads running through their work, the connections become glaringly obvious, particularly their shared interest in postcolonial misadventure undertaken by westerners in “developing” regions such as Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s a theme Johnson explored in close detail in his novels Tree of Smoke and The Laughing Monsters, as well as his book of collected journalism, Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond, and which Denis examines in the films Beau Travail, White Material and Chocalat.
(Nor is this the first time that Denis has turned to a work of American literature: her aforementioned masterpiece, Beau Travail, is an imaginative adaptation of the Herman Melville—very much one of Johnson’s spiritual forebears—novel Billy Budd.)
Stars proves the perfect nexus point between the two’s visions, especially given its sense of existential dread and emphasis on transgressive sexuality (both regular features in Denis’s oeuvre). In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Denis explained that she’d intended to make Stars for years, but it was only after she received news of Johnson’s passing in 2017 that she decided the time was right. Luckily, prior to that, she had spoke to him in great detail about the novel, learning that much of it was based on his own dire experiences as a young, would-be journalist in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua in the ‘60s, during the first decade that nation’s long civil war (he would update the story to the ‘80s, when the rightwing Contras waged guerilla warfare with the backing of the U.S., for the novel).
Johnson’s time in Managua was so painful for for him to recall—when asked what she’s doing there, his fictional counterpart answers: “I wanted to know the exact dimensions of Hell,” an answer that could well describe the plots of most of Johnson’s stories—that he told Denis he wanted no part in bringing it to screen, although he gave her his blessing to make it as she saw fit.
Aside from once again updating the setting to bring the story up-to-date, a change made partially out of necessity—Denis shot the film in Panama, which has such strict COVID protocols that it was simpler to document them than try to work around them—and removing the novel’s short coda, her script (co-written with Lea Mysius and Andrew Litvack) is exceedingly faithful to the novel, save for one other small change: in the novel, the lead characters (played in the movie by a very solid Joe Alwyn and a blisteringly raw Margeret Qually) are nameless, on account of Johnson theorizing that people in hell wouldn’t have names. They’re given names in the movie though: Daniel and Trish. This becomes interesting towards the end of the film, when it’s revealed that Trish’s last name is Johnson.
It’s at this point that Stars at Noon transcends simple adaptation and becomes a movie about its author. As different as the burly, squared-jawed Johnson and the lithe, beautiful Qualley are physically, the actress captures the essence of the writer, at least as he presented himself in his own journalism—in which he would bravely expose the often ugly, entitled, bigoted, and ever-addictive side of himself—and through many of his fictional characters, which clearly had their basis in his real life experienced. This tribute extends to the end credits of the film, with the last image to appear on screen being a lovely photo of the author.
It’s been damn hard to accept the fact that we’ll never get another book from Johnson, and it’s no hyperbole to say that the world is worse off without his harrowing, at times apocalyptic, but also always deeply humane, funny, and transcendent vision. However, as Stars at Noon reminds us, there is no shortage of opportunities for filmmakers to bring that vision to screen, where we can experience it anew.
“Stars at Noon” is now streaming on Hulu.