One of the most promising debut features of the year so far has been playwright Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, which coldly (and comically!) examines ruthlessness & sociopathy among the wealthy. Watching the film, there was something about its studied emotional distance and trilling tribal drum soundtrack that reminded me of the 2002 novel Fierce People in a way I couldn’t shake. A distastefully fun read, Fierce People is a work of outright pop fiction in which a young son of a cultural anthropologist studies the wealthy people in his immediate social circle as if he were a National Geographic reporter researching a third world tribe. One of the most significant aspects of Thoroughbreds is its featured performance of the late Anton Yelchin, a surprise delight that made its connection to Fierce People even more apparent. In 2005, a baby-faced Yelchin starred in a feature film adaptation of Fierce People, a movie I’ve been putting off watching for years because of its . . . muted reputation. Directed by Griffin Dunne—a prestigious auteur who has been involved in such celebrated projects as Practical Magic, Movie 43, and the Rear Window-riffing romcom Addicted to Love—Fierce People is an ill-conceived adaptation of a deeply #problematic novel that could only get more glaringly awkward in its translation to the screen. If considered in direct comparison to Thoroughbreds, it can only be understood as the lesser work on both a narrative & technical level, lacking both the latter film’s attention to dialogue and its thrilling sense of visual craft. Still, much like with the novel, I found myself enjoying Fierce People despite myself, if not only for the strength of its before-they-were-stars cast. Besides Yelchin (and old-timers Donald Sutherland & Diane Lane), the film also features performances from Kristen Stewart, Chris Evans, and Paz de la Huerta. I find the novelty of that crew near impossible to resist.
With an adapted screenplay from the novel’s own author, Dirk Wittenborn, Fierce People largely retains its original story, with only a few details excised for brevity. Because his mother (Lane) is detoxing from a cocaine habit on a rich man (Sutherland)’s dime, Yelchin’s impossibly smug protagonist misses an opportunity to study the fictional Ishkanani tribe in South America for a summer with his estranged father. He instead pours all his frustrated anthropological energy into studying the rich people around him for the primal racists, rapists and murders that the they truly are beneath their mask of civilization. Caught between the worlds of the wealthy (Stewart, Evans) and their exploited staff (de la Huerta), Yelchin’s coming of age story is a dangerous game of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll in a violently inhospitable environment. Besides Dunne’s awkwardly cheesy visualizations of his psychedelic drug trips and pubescent sexual awakening, the movie stumbles in a couple major ways that are likely to be instant turnoffs for most audiences. They’re both problems inherent to adapting the source material in the first place: 1) Part of Yelchin’s internal transformation requires him to dress like a South American tribesman and become a savage warrior. Again, the Ishkanani are a fictional people, but still. 2) The story takes a violent left turn in its second act with a plot-derailing male on male rape, which completely shifts its tone from dark comedy to sexual assault whodunit. It’s a turn that’s not entirely earned either onscreen or on the page, if not only because it values mystery over trauma. Even the film’s marketing is unsure how to deal with it, addressing only the more humorous opening half with inappropriate taglines like “Every family tree has its nuts.” It’s possible that someone who’s masterfully adept at uneven tones could’ve navigated these two issues in an expert adaptation, but Dunne & Wittenborn were probably not team to do so. Fierce People remains just as politically awkward (yet oddly compelling) as its source material.
I can’t recommend Fierce People, the book or the movie, in good conscience without a litany of cautionary warnings about its attitudes towards colonization & sexual assault (the latter of which is at least taken seriously, if not thoughtfully). However, I do think the strength of its cast, which only gets more unbelievable every year, is enough of a draw to overcome some of that awkwardness. This is especially true in Yelchin’s case, considering the rarity of seeing him command a lead role and the film’s thematic overlap with Thoroughbreds, which might prove to be one of his most significant performances. If you’re looking to supplant your Thoroughbreds experience with some extratextual materials, Fierce People would not at all be a terrible place to start; the connections are there. I’d just prepare yourself for an occasional cringe before taking the plunge. It’s far from the most self-aware of modern narratives, even if its ultimate target is the 1%.