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Shakespeare, Thompson: Stick To The Print Versions.

The lives of writers drive two films opening this week: The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp, dramatizes a Hunter S. Thompson novel. Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, meanwhile, examines who wrote Shakespeare's plays. Critic David Edelstein says both films show how hard it is to write about writers.

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Other segments from the episode on October 28, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 28, 2011: Interview with Scott Spencer; Review of films "The Rum Diary" and "Anonymous"; Review of television miniseries "America in Primetime."

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SCOTT SPENCER: PLOT TWISTS, WHERE EVERYTHING CHANGES

DAVID BIANCULLI, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. Terry considers today's guest, Scott Spencer, to be one of her favorite writers. He's the author of the bestselling books "Endless Love" and "A Ship Made of Paper," and he's taught fiction writing at Columbia University and in prison.

Scott Spencer's latest novel, "Man in the Woods," has just come out in paperback. The main character, Paul Phillips, accidentally kills someone in the woods and has to decide whether to confess to the police or just continue his life.

He finds himself wishing there were a god to whom he could turn, a god that would understand what went wrong. But Paul doesn't believe. However, the woman he lives with does. She's a recovering alcoholic who's written a bestseller about recently finding Jesus and realizing, quote, that most of my old friends think I'm ready for the funny farm, especially my liberal progressive friends who fear that I've gone all Pat Robertson on them, unquote.

Terry Gross spoke with Scott Spencer last year, when "Man in the Woods" was originally published.

TERRY GROSS, host: Scott Spencer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I really love the book.

SCOTT SPENCER: Oh, thank you, Terry, it's great to be here.

GROSS: So I want you to do a reading. So let's set it up a little bit. So Paul is a carpenter who is driving and takes a detour from the highway to go into the woods to be alone. But soon he's not alone. A man joins him, a man who owes a gambling debt he can't repay.

And this man is paranoid because he thinks the guys he owes the money to are trying to hunt him down and that when they find him, they'll break his legs or kill him.

This man also has a dog, a dog that he stole from his now-ex-girlfriend, and he's kind of abusive to this dog. So would you explain what happens in the woods when he meets the main character, Paul the carpenter?

SPENCER: Paul sees him, sees this man, and he sees him yanking his dog around and hitting the dog. And it just is so deeply offensive to him that he wants to intervene. And he says: Hey, stop doing that. And one thing leads to another.

And the man is so fearful that he feels that the only way to protect himself is to actually become even more violent toward the dog. And that enrages Paul, and they have an altercation, an altercation that really is kind of pushing and shoving and futile hitting that people who don't really know how to fight engage in. But it does become very violent, and the man is accidentally killed.

GROSS: So I want you to read what happens after Paul, who's really the main character of the novel, accidentally kills this man who's been abusing the dog, and Paul has no idea what he's supposed to do now.

SPENCER: Well, he says: I'm not even innocent. I won't even be able to say it was self-defense because I was never in danger. I did it. I'm going to be arrested.

But what difference does the possibility of arrest make next to the overriding fact that a man's life has just ended? A man is dead. A heart has stopped. A future has been cancelled. A wife, children, friends, all of the pleasures of love, the sky, music, touch, food, wine, have just been taken away forever. A man is dead, no more able to share in the glories of the earth than if he had never been born.

Paul clutches his head. It is so difficult to think. This much he knows: His life is a coin. It has been flipped, and now, against a darkening sky, it turns over and over. From the morass, there rises a question: How can this be happening?

And he wishes suddenly, fervently, that there was a god looking on with his eye on the sparrow and everything else, knowing what we did, what we meant, what we did not mean, what was deliberate, what was accidental, what was so perplexing and mixed, you couldn't with any confidence say what was what.

GROSS: That's Scott Spencer, reading from his new novel "Man in the Woods." Your novels often have a turning point, a dividing line in which some dreadful, often unplanned and unintended horrible act has been committed, after which nothing will be the same.

This time, it's this accidental, totally unintended murder. Why did you choose murder this time to be the turning point?

SPENCER: I think that you're right that I am very interested in lives being changed very, very suddenly. I'm interested in how close our orderly lives are to utter chaos, just the way we see, you know, how savagery can break out in societies that a year before were orderly.

I so, you know, I've had people change their life by setting a fire, and I've had people changing their lives by what, by failing to prevent someone from leaving.

But this act of - and I don't really call it murder. I really call it manslaughter because there was no intention, but this act of violence, this expression of some inner rage and some inner beastliness is, you know, is compelling to me because I can identify with it.

I think that it's something that we all wonder about. I think it's something that we all wonder if we would be capable of an act of violence and under what circumstances would we be capable of it and what would the aftermath be.

I mean, I'm very interested in writing about conscience. And I wanted to test somebody's conscience. I wanted to really push somebody to the very edge of what they could accept about themselves.

GROSS: Do you think of this as your kind of cerebral version of a crime novel, a crime novel about someone who isn't a criminal type, someone who hasn't been in a fight since he was a teenager, someone who never intended to commit a crime?

SPENCER: Well, I'm not sure that I think of it that way. You know, it might be that without my having intended it to be. You know, I was really moved by something I read, and I think it was one of Camus' notebooks or diaries when he says, you know, a guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.

And I thought, gee, that's, you know, first of all so beautiful, and it just reminded me of something that I would have wanted to deal with in my own writing. I also wanted to deal with dogs because I live with so many dogs. So all these things sort of converged and I found myself with a book on my hands.

GROSS: Okay. So let's get to dogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, we've seen the man the main character, Paul, commit manslaughter in the woods. He accidentally kills this man who has been abusing his dog, and watching that abuse so upsets Paul that he gets into a fight with the man.

So, you know, after the murder, Paul has to decide what to do with the dog. Does he keep the dog? Does he get rid of the dog? Because the dog is, like, the witness and the dog is the evidence. So would you read that passage where Paul's wondering about the dog?

SPENCER: Yeah, he says: If I am going to have a chance at really walking away from this, I need to get rid of this dog. But he could not think it through. He couldn't figure it out, where he would bring the dog, where the dog would be safe. The dog had suffered enough. That much was clear.

That one fact was true north. Paul could not beat a man to death for kicking the dog in the ribs and then just open the door of his truck and let the dog fend for itself. The dog is his witness, his confessor. He has seen it all, and he can still sit next to Paul, breathing with him, trusting him.

The dog is the reason. The dog is what has been salvaged from the worst moment of Paul's life. The dog is the bridge which Paul walks upon as he inches his way over the abyss. The dog is God spelled backwards. Paul turns for another look at Shep(ph) but can't see him. The dog has drowned in the darkness of the truck's cabin.

GROSS: So yes, the dog is God spelled backwards. Do you believe in dog more than you believe in God?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: Well, I feel - I definitely believe in dog. There's no question - you can't have as much dog hair in your house as I do and not believe in dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: And about God, it was one of the things I was most interested in figuring out about myself when I was writing this book - and at one point, I thought, I'm really writing a religious book here. And then at another point in the writing of it, I said, I'm actually writing a very irreligious book or anti-religious book.

And then when I finally finished the book, I realized what I had written was something that was, this is not a contradiction in terms, something that was passionately agnostic, really as passionate about agnosticism as much as Graham Greene is passionate about his Catholicism because I could feel, I could feel the otherworldly intentions of fate hovering over my characters.

Yet, I could not ever really ever quite come to a true narrative understanding that this fate was really some sort of otherworldly intelligence that made sense enough that we could call it God.

GROSS: Is being passionate about agnosticism a position that you only recently arrived at?

SPENCER: Yes. I've really, before, have bounced between atheism and a desire to have some sort of - give some sort of religious meaning to my life.

You know, I was just talking to my mother last week, and she talked to me about when I was, like, a little kid, sometimes, she'd have to bring me to a church, not that we went to church because my parents were militantly atheistic, but she'd go to a church for some community meeting and then turn around and I'd be gone.

And she'd find me in one of the pews sort of praying fervently. And I always had this feeling that I wished that religion and a belief in God, and that ritual and that living metaphor in which I could explain my life was available to me.

And there would just be times when I would just feel such sort of withering contempt for the whole thing, and I was sort of glad that I hadn't entered into that sort of, that system of thought.

But, you know, novelists, I think, think a lot about God because, you know, they say doctors play God, and they do to an extent because, you know, they're always monkeying around or trying to fix things. But they're dealing with what's already there.

Novelists, you take that God thing one step further. We create whole worlds and then we people them. And, you know, then we tell the people what to do: We make them fall in love or jump out of windows. So there is that curiosity about God that I think all novelists have.

GROSS: So were you brought with a religion at all?

SPENCER: No, I was brought up militantly without a religion. My parents...

GROSS: And what was the religion you were not brought up with, if you know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: I was - let me list off all the religions I wasn't brought up with. But my parents' parents were Jews.

GROSS: But you mentioned going to church.

SPENCER: Well, it was a church that - my mother was not there for religious reasons. She was there for a community meeting. You know, they were civic-minded. They were always going to meetings. And so this one happened to be in a church.

And I was raised on the south side of Chicago in a working-class neighborhood. My father worked in a steel mill. And our neighbors were, by and large, either Polish or Irish Catholics.

And from time to time, like, one of their older sisters would get married or confirmation. I would go to church, and I would just be filled with not only awe but longing.

And really, it was only out of some sort of great love and respect for my parents that I kept it to myself because my feeling was that they would be just absolutely heartbroken and mortified if I ever confessed to them that I would like to give that churchgoing thing a crack.

GROSS: Right.

SPENCER: So much so that I would lie on our little lawn and stare up at the sky and wait and wait and wait for some sort of definitive sign that would give me the courage to go in and tell my parents that I'd had it with being an atheist, that it was time for me to go to church.

GROSS: But it had to be church, not a synagogue? It wasn't going to be Judaism?

SPENCER: I didn't even know about synagogues yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Okay, this was really...

SPENCER: This was before synagogues came to America.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: No, a few years later, some new houses were built in our area. The houses that we lived in were $11,000, and these new houses were kind of posh, $14,000 houses. And some Jewish families moved in, and suddenly, there was a temple in the area.

And so, that became another place where I would have liked to have gone, although maybe it's because my first taste of religion was in the Catholic Church, nothing really that I've ever seen since has had that kind of visceral impact on me.

BIANCULLI: Scott Spencer speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with author Scott Spencer. His latest novel, "Man in the Woods," has just come out in paperback. They spoke last year.

GROSS: Because there are so often some kind of crime that is usually unintentionally committed or is an act of passion gone wrong in your novels, I find it especially interesting that you've been teaching writing in prison as part of the Bard Prison Initiative, in which you can actually earn a degree in prison through these in-prison course.

So you are actually spending time teaching people, you know, working with people on their writing who have been convicted of a crime and who are living in that place in which you are, you know, put away to pay for your crime and theoretically to reflect on what you've done.

And I guess I'm really curious what that experience is like for you as somebody who's written about people who have transgressed, who've transgressed, who've crossed a line.

SPENCER: Yeah, it's the most amazing teaching experience I've ever had. The prison population I was working with were all guys, all men in a maximum-security prison. So they had all committed acts of, you know, grave - I mean, they were just, they had done really severely wrong things.

I mean, I had one man in my class who was there for armed robbery, and he was the only nonviolent, I mean relatively nonviolent criminal who I was teaching.

It was inspiring in so many ways because you could never find 15 men who read more carefully and more passionately and with, you know, with more eagerness and hunger than the guys in that class. I mean, they would read, you know, everything from, you know, Robert Stone to Edgar Allan Poe to Alice Munro, and they would always have the most complex and interesting and engaged response to the work.

A lot of them were men whose formal schooling in the schools outside of the prison was patchy at best. And so, you know, one of the things that you sort of despair about when you're teaching in MFA programs is you have writers who actually have a lot of talent and have chops, that have a great deal of desire to write, but they just really haven't, they just haven't had that much happen to them yet in life.

So their stories tend to either be, you know, notional or sort of too youthfully observed or just about things that are basically about their families. And in the case of the people in the prison writing program, they had a lot to write about. They had a lot of stuff that you sort of eagerly go to writers to find out because they've seen something of the world that you haven't seen.

Just the way, you know, people would read, like, Melville's early novels to find out what life was like in the South Seas, you would want to read these guys' stories to find out what life was like in some of those communities.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're getting insights into the kind of life and the kind of mind and the kind of conscience or lack of conscience that you want to understand more about as a novelist?

SPENCER: One of the things that I learned from working with these guys is how alike we all are. There's, for the most part, most of these men, if I would have met them somehow under different circumstances, I would probably not have been able to guess that these guys had killed anybody or, you know, had been part of some, you know, vast criminal undertaking.

The commonality that we have just as human beings is, for me, the most - the most moving and the most instructive part of working with them.

BIANCULLI: Author Scott Spencer, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. His latest novel, "Man in the Woods," is now out in a paperback edition, which features a reprint of the FRESH AIR interview we're listening to today. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, that with more of Terry's 2010 interview with Scott Spencer. He's the author of "Endless Love," "A Ship Made of Paper" and "Willing." His latest novel, "Man in the Woods," has just come out in paperback.

Scott Spencer has taught fiction writing at Columbia University, the University of Iowa and Williams College. But says his most amazing teaching experience was when he talked writing at a maximum security prison in New York.

GROSS: What's it like for you the moment you walk into the prison and what's the moment like when you leave the prison? It must feel pretty overwhelming.

SPENCER: Yeah. It is overwhelming. That's a great question, because between my car, which I pulled into the prison parking lot, and the classroom where I meet with the students, I go through I would say at least 12 locked gates, you know, all of them just, you know, big, thick cast iron gates with these gigantic jailhouse keys. And it's - you go through a maze. The first, you're always escorted. You can never go anywhere alone, of course. Although, in the classroom I am alone, there's not a guard there. It's just me and the students. And so you are going deeper and deeper and deeper into the kind of cavern of this prison and you're passing guys, some of them being marched by guards with their hands handcuffed behind their back and some of them are pushing mops and some of them, you know, getting ready to work in the cafeteria, some of them looking at you, most of them not looking at you, everyone's sort of locked in their own personal space, and you do feel this tremendous despair.

I think you would have to be anesthetized. Whatever you think about criminal justice, whether you think these guys have gotten the right deal, whether you think their life could've been different if they'd been given different breaks in life, whether you think their sentences could've been different if they'd had better representation, whatever your feeling is about crime and punishment, you'd have to be deeply anesthetized not to feel this great sinking sense of sadness to be in an environment where there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men locked up in cages. It's really - its nightmarish and overwhelming. And, you know, it's a terrible thing to see but it does make you very, very appreciative of your own life.

You know, you asked me what it was like going in and just going deeper and deeper into this environment where everybody is in a cage. The opposite is when you walk out and suddenly there's the sky and there's your car and you're going to get in your car and you're going to drive home and in 45 minutes you're going to be in your own house and your girlfriend's going to be there and you're going to - you can eat whatever you want and drink whatever you want and do whatever you want. It's stuff that we take for granted but it feels just absolutely almost like you've won the lottery every time you leave that place.

GROSS: So your novel is called "Man in the Woods" and one the character says, guys get into the woods. We go back to our elemental selves and stuff happens. And then he says, men do what men do. We're just part of the scheme of things. We're just nature. And after reading that, I read a piece that you wrote for O Magazine - Oprah's magazine in May of 2008, and you wrote in that, the simple truth is that men are somewhat violent, even those of us who abhor violence. Even if we are cerebral, out of shape, blind in one eye, many of us expect of ourselves levels of daring and aggression that would quite frankly horrify most women, if it didn't reduce them to helpless laughter.

So do you believe that, that somewhere deep inside most men there's this level of violence and that that's the kind of thing that can be unleashed in the woods?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: I do believe that. I do also want to say that I'm not terribly out of shape or blind in one eye, so I just want to make that clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Okay.

SPENCER: But I think that men have an acceptance of violence - acceptance of the validity of violence. I think that, I mean I believe that if a man is walking down the street and some stranger comes up and smacks him in the back of the head, and if the man who is smacked in the back of the head just, you know, says ow, and, you know, continues to walk on and doesn't do something about it, his greatest grudge will be against himself at that point. He won't say what was wrong with that crazy guy who just came up to me for no reason and smacked me in the back of the head. He'll ask, what was wrong with me that I didn't respond in kind? And I do think that that is gender specific.

GROSS: And in this article you wrote: From the beginning of organized society, boys have been raised to accept the idea that one day they might be called upon to either kill or be killed, to be ready to defend their home, their villages, their tribes against harm.

Have you ever felt that pressure to physically defend somebody or a home against harm?

SPENCER: I've always felt that that is a responsibility that I was born to because I'm male. I mean when I was 10 years old, my father said, you know, men don't sleep as deeply as women because we need to be ready if somebody comes. In my life as I've actually led it, I've always felt that it's up to me to step in if somebody who is sort of in my circle who I, just because of my relationship to them, I am sort of duty-bound to protect it, it is up to me to step in. You know, I have not been in some situation like that Dustin Hoffman character in "Straw Dogs" who...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I hope not.

SPENCER: ...who's there with his little wire-rimmed glasses and his sort of porn-starry-looking wife while all these kind of cretin-ish locals pound on the windows and try to get in, but there have been a couple of instances when I've had to sort of man up, as we say, and step between someone who I feel was mine to protect somehow and someone who was going to do them some harm.

GROSS: Would you share one of those instances?

SPENCER: I'll share a funny and somewhat banal one that - my mother got out of a taxicab and she was having this huge argument with the cab driver because in her view, he had taken her way out of her way as a way of running up the fare. And I'm not sure that that was really true, but she was very, very irritated at the idea that this guy was cheating her. And they - when she got out of the cab, she said this guy cheated me on my fare. And the cab driver, who was a guy about my size, maybe a few years younger than me at the time, you know, got out and just, you know, wagged his finger in my mother's face and called her a name and, you know, a pretty bad name. And I thought to myself, oh no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: Now I have to do something. This guy is probably, in the full scheme of things, he's probably in the right, because I was looking at the fare on the meter. It didn't seem unreasonable. She had come in from La Guardia, it was all the way to the Village. It seemed like a normal fare. But on the other hand, he had crossed the line. He had called my mother a name. So I hit him.

GROSS: Wow.

SPENCER: I hit him. Not that hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: On the face?

SPENCER: No. I hit him in the stomach.

GROSS: Oh, you punched him.

SPENCER: Yeah. I punched him.

GROSS: Ah, and he did what?

SPENCER: He called me a name and he just looked at us like we were just...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: You two deserve each other. I'm getting out of here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now this whole idea that deep inside men is this kind of like almost genetic impulse to be prepared to defend friends, family, home, cities, villages against harm. And I'm wondering...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...if you think that that's a philosophy you maybe created to explain this - these occasional impulses that you have.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: You know, it's very hard to say what anyone is genetically because you can never see anybody outside of society, because people don't exist outside of society. You cannot - you can't find a person who isn't culturally determined to one extent or another.

GROSS: True.

SPENCER: We all are.

GROSS: Yeah.

SPENCER: So I don't know. I mean until we start making people in test tubes and keeping...

GROSS: I thought we were doing that. Okay, go ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: But then we send them off some place and then we have to keep them in the lab and study them. But even then, they'll be victims of some sort of depravation. So it's very hard to say what people are in essence. I think its one of the jobs that novels have, really. I mean it's one of the things that keeps people reading, I believe, is that we are endlessly sort of amazed and curious and perplexed about what is our nature.

GROSS: The first real - I mean your biggest hit in terms of your books, is "Endless Love," which was a bestseller and was adapted into a film that, as we've talked about before on FRESH AIR, had so little to do with the book that it's based on. It's a wonderful, wonderful book.

But then it was that hit with Diana Ross. Who did she do it with on that? Lionel Richie. Lionel Richie.

SPENCER: That was Lionel Richie.

GROSS: Okay. And...

SPENCER: Who I think wrote it.

GROSS: Okay. So, I've just been thinking about - now, I've been thinking about how the title of your new book is "Man in the Woods." And its not a man in the woods. Its not the man in the woods. Its about man in the woods. And so the lack of like an a or a the in the title is significant. So I was thinking of like the song, the title song from the movie adaptation of your book "Endless Love." It's like my endless love. And like you can't, like the lyric is, and your eyes, your eyes, your eyes, they tell me how much you care. Oh yes, you will always be my endless love. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Like, a person isn't your endless - and the endless love in your title is about this kind of like this love that won't stop. This kind of obsessive, dangerous love that force - that gets this person to transgress all ethical boundaries and become this like horrible stalker and commit horrible acts. I mean, how did you feel about the word my in there - my endless love?

SPENCER: Well, it was actually the least of my worries.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: And who knows what's going to happen next because I just - I learned a couple of months ago that Universal Pictures, which owns the rights to that book, is planning now to do a remake.

GROSS: No. Really.

SPENCER: Yeah. It makes you want to quote William Burroughs.

GROSS: Who said?

SPENCER: Pack your ermines, Mary. We're getting out of here right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Scott Spencer, it's always great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

SPENCER: Thank you, Terry. It was wonderful to talk to you.

BIANCULLI: Author Scott Spencer speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. His latest novel, "Man in the Woods," has just come out in paperback.

Coming up, two new movies about writers. One about Hunter S. Thompson, the other about Shakespeare. David Edelstein reviews "The Rum Diary and "Anonymous." This is FRESH AIR.

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SHAKESPEARE, THOMPSON: STICK TO THE PRINT VERSIONS

DAVID BIANCULLI, host: Writers and writing are the central focus of two different films opening this week. "The Rum Diary" dramatizes the crazy creative development of Hunter S. Thompson, played by Johnny Depp. And Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous" says that the 17th Earl of Oxford deserves credit for writing the works attributed to Williams Shakespeare. Our film critic David Edelstein did write this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Two new films show how tough it is to do justice to good writers on-screen. Johnny Depp certainly means to do right by his pal Hunter S. Thompson in "The Rum Diary." He played Thompson in Terry Gilliam's rollicking but not especially watchable "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and narrated a documentary about him.

I understand his commitment. All my life I've hoped a filmmaker could capture the joy of Thompson in that short but so sweet era when his prose was as exhilarating as rock 'n' roll and a damn sight funnier, before drugs and booze made it hard for him to string together two sentences. I hoped this would be the great Thompson film - and kept hoping as it staggered along, failing to engage me on even the most basic level.

It's based on a novel Thompson started in 1959 but didn't publish until 1998 about a failed writer hired to work at a Puerto Rican English-language newspaper - around the time Cuba is falling to Castro and developers have their sights on other rum-soaked Caribbean islands with beachfront property.

Depp's Paul Kemp wakes up on his first day in San Juan with a vicious hangover, stumbles past a violent picket line into a newspaper run by Richard Jenkins with a garish toupee, and attracts the interest of a wealthy slickster, played by Aaron Eckhart, looking for a journalist to write favorable stories about a massive development.

The adapter, Bruce Robinson, has taken a novel that's more like notes for a novel and come up with a narrative depicting the birth of Thompson's voice, with its mix of political outrage and Hemingway-esque attraction to dissolution. And Robinson would seem the man for the job, having created the memorably dissolute Withnail in "Withnail & I."

But there's no gonzo motor here. Depp's Kemp gives Eckhart and his cronies no indication he's the man to carry their water. He sits there bleary and apathetic, making eyes at Eckhart's fiancee, played by Amber Heard, like an android fashioned to resemble Scarlett Johansson.

Although Michael Rispoli gets laughs as a cruddy photographer and Giovanni Ribisi has agreeably weird bits as a journalist who's the embodiment of the D.T.'s - like a flash-forward to the older Thompson -there's nothing but Depp's star-power holding the ramshackle thing together.

At least "The Rum Diary" isn't a desecration, like "Anonymous," an outgrowth of the Shakespeare-skeptic cottage industry. These are people who think William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon had nothing to do with the plays carrying his name because, A, there's hardly a scrap of writing in Shakespeare's own hand, and B, no one so meagerly schooled, untraveled and unacquainted with court life could have written so discerningly about kings, queens, thanes and Danes. Whereas Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the makers of "Anonymous" claim, had every reason to conceal his authorship. He's played by Rhys Ifans, who trudges through a maze on his estate with playwright Ben Johnson, to whom his servant hands a manuscript.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")

SEBASTIAN ARMESTOP: (as Ben Johnson) A play, my Lord.

RHYS IFANS: (as Earl of Oxford) One you shall stage. Thanks (unintelligible).

ARMESTOP: (as Ben Johnson) Stage?

IFANS: (as Earl of Oxford) Under your name.

ARMESTOP: (as Ben Johnson) My name, my Lord?

IFANS: (as Earl of Oxford) Well, I can't very well use my name, can I? I'm the 17th Earl of Oxford, the Lord Great Chamberlin of England, Viscount Bulbeck, Lord of Escales, Sandford, and Badlesmere etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. No. I have a reputation to protect. In my world, one does not write plays, Johnson. People like you do.

EDELSTEIN: Regardless of its plausibility, it's a promising premise, a way to explore the connection in an exceedingly repressive era between political drama on and off the stage. But "Anonymous" is a poor piece of storytelling, likely to confuse those who know nothing about Shakespeare and incense those who know anything.

Director Roland Emmerich skips back and forth between Ifans' middle-aged de Vere and his younger self, played by Jamie Campbell Bower, although the actors neither look nor sound like each other, and transitions are nonexistent. I found myself hating venerable actors like Derek Jacobi, who narrates, and Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the elderly Queen Elizabeth, for appearing in a film in which the author of "Hamlet" sleeps with his own mother, and Shakespeare is an illiterate thug and murderer.

Apart from its ineptitude, "Anonymous" is beside the point: It's improbable any human could have written those plays. But someone did, and books like Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World" make splendid sense of Shakespeare's religion, politics and sympathetic imagination. Moreover, Shakespeare spent enough time on and backstage to know what plays and what lays, something beyond the powers of Roland Emmerich.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, in my role here as television critic, I review a new PBS documentary series about television, "America in Primetime," which premieres Sunday. This is FRESH AIR.

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'PRIMETIME' TV, LIKE YOU'VE NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE

DAVID BIANCULLI, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Almost every time TV takes a look at itself and tries to explore or explain what it does as a medium, the result is a major disappointment - at least to me. I want TV to take itself seriously, but it almost never does. Every show about TV is either one of those dumb top 100 lists that networks like E! and VH1 crank out every month, or it's a show that's built entirely around the guests it can book, the clips it can afford, and the shows on its own network it wants to promote.

I'm happy to say - actually, I'm thrilled to say - that we're about to be treated to a glorious exception. A new four-part documentary series called "America in Primetime" premieres this Sunday on PBS, and it's the smartest TV show about television I've seen in about 20 years.

Each one-hour installment looks at a different type of TV character - independent women, the man of the house, the misfit and the crusader - and examines them very thoughtfully and very entertainingly. One of the things "America in Primetime" does that's so smart and so refreshing is that it gathers together many of the stars and writer-producers who have made the very best television, from classic shows to programs still in production today, and has them talk not only about their shows, but those created by others.

Another neat trick - and I've never seen this done before - is that it doesn't divide between comedy and drama. So in a segment on the man of the house, you get Norman Lear, the creator of "All in the Family," talking about that show's characters, and Rob Reiner, who starred as Archie Bunker's son-in-law Meathead, talking about a moment of improvisation with co-star Carroll O'Connor. But you also get Tom Fontana, the producer of such dark dramas as "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Oz" raving about the results of that improv as an appreciative viewer and as a gifted TV writer himself. The first voice you hear is that of Norman Lear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIMETIME IN AMERICA")

NORMAN LEAR: The fact that the show had been successful freed us to let these people be themselves. You know, so we were able to write them from the inside-out, not from the outside-in.

CARROLL O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) Hey, hold it. Hold it. Hold it. What are you doing here?

ROB REINER: (as Michael) What?

O'CONNOR: What about the other foot? There ain't no sock on it.

REINER: (as Michael) I'll get to it.

He stopped me in the middle of rehearsal and said, what are you doing? I said, what do you mean what am I doing?

O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) Don't you know that the whole world puts on a sock and a sock and a shoe?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIMETIME IN AMERICA")

REINER: When we got into this improvised discussion about it.

(as Michael) I like to take care of one foot at a time.

The directors and writers were writing it down and making it fit.

O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIMETIME IN AMERICA")

LEAR: I mean, that had nothing to do with anything that was going on at the time. That's just human behavior. It still holds up, because that's just rich character stuff.

BIANCULLI: In this documentary, directed by Lloyd Kramer and executive-produced by Kramer, Tom Yellin and others, there's no narration and no writing, as such - just people interviewed about their craft, making observations about TV, and lots and lots of clips from television to make and probe each point. That's why PBS is the perfect home for this kind of program. Public television gets special dispensation to show these clips without having to pay the normal rights fees.

So we see a lot of television, here, and for once, the right clips. We see the connection between Larry David's writing on "Seinfeld" and his performing on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." We see how Mary Tyler Moore led to "Murphy Brown," and how they, in turn, led to "Nurse Jackie."

And when these people talk about TV, they don't feel the need to play nice and agree. While most writer-producers in this show talk about television drama series as a novel, allowing an examination of characters over dozens of hours instead of just a movie-length drama, "Sopranos" creator David Chase asks: What's so great about that? Who needs a "Casablanca" II, III or IV? And when it comes to the idea of having a serial killer as your central character in Showtime's "Dexter," you'd be surprised who doesn't approve of that concept. At least I was surprised, because right along with Michael C. Hall, the star of "Dexter," talking about his vengeful character, you have Tom Fontana and then David Simon, creator of "The Wire," talking about why they think "Dexter" goes too far. In this clip, you hear Fontana first, then Michael C. Hall, then Fontana again, and finally David Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIMETIME IN AMERICA")

TOM FONTANA: You know, a very, very intriguing television series, but it is one of those shows you go, like, eek.

MICHAEL C. HALL: I know early on in the show, people who were watching it would approach me and say that they kind of felt guilty about the fact that they liked the show.

FONTANA: God knows, I've written a lot of serial killers in my time, but I've never asked the audience to believe in the triumph of a serial killer.

DAVID SIMON: There's nothing wrong with depicting violence. Violence is part of the human condition. I understand that their tongue is in their cheek, in a way, and I understand it's sort of an inside-out show. But frankly, as well a show as it maybe made, I don't want to be part of any show that would suggest that there is a catharsis in violence and in serial killing.

BIANCULLI: I love the debate that ensues from that, just as much as I love "Dexter" and "The Wire" and "Homicide." I love "America in Primetime," too. When you watch it, you're likely to be excited by the examples they choose: The hour on "Misfits" covers everything from "The Addams Family" and "Freaks and Geeks" to "Taxi" and "True Blood." And every example they show is a TV program you should seek out and enjoy. And the same goes for "America in Primetime."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BLOOD THEME")

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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