Why a screenwriting team adapted ‘The Spectacular Now’

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We wrote “(500) Days of Summer” because we loved the romantic comedy — and feared for its survival. What used to be “The Graduate” and “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” had become the home of the unrealistic, the unrelatable and the insincere. The genre was in free-fall, and “500” was our attempt to breathe a little life back in.

When looking for a follow-up, we turned our attention to the other genre we loved and missed: the teen movie. The ‘80s of our youth were chock-full of smart, sensitive, sometimes funny, sometimes heartfelt, always identifiable films about young people. They didn’t preach, they didn’t judge, they didn’t talk down to their audience. What happened to those, we wondered?

Enter Tim Tharp’s “The Spectacular Now.” Tim’s novel had been nominated for the National Book Award but was flying pretty far under the radar when we first laid eyes on it. Immediately we knew it was perfect. Two reasons: One, it was a beautifully written, take-no-prisoners account of being a teenager. And two, there was a whole buncha drinking in it — which meant an automatic R. (Kids can maim each other, stab each other, kill each other — but anyone sips a beer and it’s deplorable. Don’t ask.)


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Let’s face it, being young is not a PG-13 experience. If you’ve been there, you know. We wanted to capture not just the experience of being young but also the feeling. It had to sound real, it had to look real, it had to feel real. We saw that automatic R as a plus, not a minus.

Not many other people did, to be sure. So it was only natural “The Spectacular Now” became an independent film. Gone were notes like, “Let’s make sure the car scene feels like a trailer moment” and “Can there be a wet T-shirt contest at the house party?” In fact, gone were any notes at all. We could write the best version of the movie, the most honest version, the version the two of us would most want to see.

Being honest about these aspects of young adulthood was the easiest part of the adaptation. Much trickier was taking a book that’s largely internal and making it external and cinematic. The book is told from its main character Sutter Keely’s point-of-view, a POV clouded by booze and a somewhat inflated sense of self. To capture that sensibility (without an over-reliance on intrusive voice-over) was an exciting challenge and one we never would have achieved without the exceedingly gifted creative partners we found along the way.

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Initially, one of the most appealing aspects of “Spectacular Now” to us was how different it would be from “(500) Days.” But the truth is, there’s a lot more connective tissue there than meets the eye. “500” is a coming-of-age movie masquerading as a love story. And “Spectacular Now” is a love story masquerading as a coming-of-age movie. Both films are about a time in your life when, for better or maybe for worse, someone else has the power to change who you are. The central question is whether you let them.

Turns out, no matter what we do, we wind up writing about these things. God only knows what that says about us. That we’re incredibly immature, probably. No, definitely. But also, that the elements that define these stories — flawed characters, emotional honesty, love, loss and loneliness — are the very things that attract us most as storytellers.