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Adaptations: The Wolf of Wall Street
Matthew O’Donoghue continues his series on big screen adaptations with a look at The Wolf of Wall Street and (a)morality tales - there's also an extract from the book itself to enjoy...
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Martin Scorsese has a film as funny, disgraceful and darkly urgent as The Wolf of Wall Street in him, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s made a crime thriller/drug comedy/economic sermon/masterpiece out of Jordan Belfort’s book of the same name, but to some extent it is a surprise. Not just surprising that he made a film with this much energy, pace and stamina (three hours goes by like ninety minutes) but that he can manage the tone and themes of a story that is so clearly excessive and about excess. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. Before films got him Scorsese was looking towards the seminary. He understands the value of confession. He understands the value of pageantry. He understands the value of a tale well told. Cinematically Martin Scorsese knows how to have his cake and eat it.
The Dirt, the Mötley Crüe autobiography, was the first one I read. Last year it was Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen. No Regrets by Ace Frehley was 2012’s. There was Keith Richard’s Life the year before, but the first, the one that set me down this path, was The Dirt. I have absolutely no taste for Mötley Crüe or their music. When I hear about a musician I like playing with Tommy Lee it hurts a bit, I don’t care how good a drummer he is. I couldn’t tell you more than a handful of their songs and I’d struggle to sing even the chorus of three, but I read every page of their autobiography and I’ve done it more than once. The behaviour in the book was atrocious, by their own admission straying into sexual assault, and went far, far beyond what even seemed fun. I consider myself a feminist, I abhor the actions of these idiots, but I’ve read (and I will continue to read) so many true stories of men (it’s men, it’s always men, although I guess You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by Julia Phillips come close), the books above being the tip of the iceberg, who have done terrible things to other human beings. So how do I correct this cognitive dissonance, what negotiation goes on in my head to allow myself to enjoy reading these books? None, really. I’m not alone in enjoying these salacious books and being repelled by the idea of the behaviour I’m reading about so something has to be done prior to the reader’s engagement. The negotiation occurs on the page. These autobiographies (they must be autobiographies, albeit ghost-written, for the magic to work) form part of a specific subsection of autobiographies that are constructed as a delicate balance between a confession, a boast, an examination of solipsism and an attempt to understand the systems in place to have allowed the behaviour of the protagonist. These books are concerned, at some level, with allowing us to have our cakes and eat them.
In many ways these books, let’s call them (a)morality tales, are closer to true crime books, and The Wolf of Wall Street certainly could sit in the true crime section. It contains any number of crimes, some of which the writer was caught red handed committing and was punished for, but this book is usually kept in the business section (there’s an essay to be written about this somewhere, and the film certainly has a thing or two to say about how and who the story is enjoyed by), a section many of us consider a home to the how to guide, to the inspirational. Musicians are supposed to be louche, business leaders less so. There’s a tacit agreement that people employed in the entertainment industry have leeway to behave differently than people in the legal professions. I suppose this was why I hadn’t read The Wolf of Wall Street before seeing the film. I had no wish to read a how to guide from an alpha male that dealt with instructions in taking as much money from your fellow man as possible before you get caught. I had no idea that this book was in the same ballpark as Miles by Miles Davis, a litany of bad behaviour moulded into something adjacent to a morality tale. Indeed, I was convinced that the film must be virtually unrelated to the story in the book after seeing it, closer to the relationship the Inside Llewyn Davis has to The Mayor of MacDougal Street. The excerpt from the book below should put paid to anyone else who has the same damn fool idea I had. Scenes are recreated incredibly faithfully, many with the exact same dialogue. A large part of the genius I had attributed to Scorsese is in this book. It is, with no small amount of hyperbole, every bit as a much a masterpiece of its genre as the film is, and the film should probably take home the Oscar for best picture. The film, and the book, show the repetition and steady amplification of the actions of Jordan Belfort with absolutely no negative impact to him. This is the first key to how these books negotiate the problems listed above. Yes, the protagonist is shown as a first rate, amoral scumbag, but they are contextualised by a world that not only lets them be but rewards them for it/despite it. The first key to having your cake and eating it in the (a)morality tale: make it a mirror to the reader’s own avarice and let it show them how the world privileges, how the world almost worships the people like the protagonist.
Worship, is that too strong a word? The rich, the famous, the people who live without consequence, do we worship them? Maybe not, we worship deities; we do not wish to be them. Maybe worship is the wrong word; maybe it is something closer to coveting, to jealousy. The celebrity culture we live in clearly demonstrates this curious mixture of wish-fulfilment and jealousy with celebrity magazines and the Mail Online’s sidebar of shame damning and praising celebrities in equal measure. Here is an opportunity to revel in the worst of celebrity behaviour and to condemn the world that allows it in the same breath. The second element, that also occurs in increments of horrid behaviour (although is usually given a grandstanding opening example. Always start in media res), is behaviour so bad it simply has to be true. Honesty has to be proven, verisimilitude requires a sacrifice and the protagonist has to take a hit to their humanity. In The Dirt it is in the story of two of the members colluding in the rape of a woman. Al Jourgensen talks about bestiality. Mike Tyson had no shortage of spousal abuse in his book, neither did Richard Pryor. These are some pretty horrific examples of behaviour to put front and centre in your autobiography, and some odd things to read about for pleasure. But we need our pound of flesh and the tale is told, with some inference of regret, about someone now out of reach. An element of these narratives can be taken from the frankness of the regret memoir, especially someone who has been through the twelve step programme, someone who has to catalogue their misdeeds and make amends. The context of this level of confession is, culturally, about a wrongdoer admitting their wrongdoing and coming for forgiveness. We confuse these stories between an (a)morality tale and a genuine confession. So, show the protagonist to be refused (REFUSED!) recriminations for their actions and make these actions rise to a pitch that works as a simulacra of a classical, mea culpa, church confession.
When all is said and done, though, these are stories, these are tales, and they need to zing, they need to pop. We need to have a relatable narrator to take us through the events and we love a confident storyteller. So the storyteller shares how they were drunk on their power, on their newfound opportunities, girded by the lack of pushback for their ill-doings they move to ever greater heights. Here is the real entertainment, as they offer examples of their “classically” bad behaviour in the same language as they talk about their “classically” good. Stories rely on challenges and rewards. With these stories the rewards are the opportunity for more bad behaviour and after you make all the money in the world through selling millions of albums or ripping off the gullible there is a snowballing effect where the protagonist seem to run out of challenges. Avoiding censure for your bad behaviour when you are surrounded by people whose only job is to protect you from that censure isn’t all that hard. It gets big, cartoonish big, and it is fun as hell to read about. The Wolf of Wall Street is maybe the funniest film I’ve seen in ten years and the book is equally as enjoyable. It’s hilarious. My face ached from smiling at the end of it. But it still registered as a serious film about greed and capitalism and it’s because of the last part of the construction of these stories. There is a freedom in the size of these tales that is infectious and we read along, enthralled, drunk on the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink.
But we know we should know better. Somehow there needs to be a disconnect between the story teller and the audience allowing us to believe we wouldn’t do the same that they have done. The trick that facilitates this is that the narrators of all the above books are shown as clearly not quite understanding that this behaviour is anything other than completely correct and natural. The solipsistic autobiography zenith is surely Klaus Kinski’s Kinski Uncut, the book seems to be the ravings of a satyr, a book where every differing opinion to the authors own is an affront to his notion of how the world exists. It’s an incredible book. It doesn’t quite fit in with the (a)morality tales as his rage filled prose completely bypasses the possibility of the book being a confession. But The Wolf of Wall Street (the book) is clearly the work of a man who believes that to some extent his actions were just and right and that we would all do the same if we were simply the man he is. The genius of these books is in them selling this idea while at the same time selling us the idea that it’s a confession (although we know it isn’t), while at the same time selling us the idea that it’s a thrilling adventure ride, while at the same time selling us the idea that these people did some things that are so horrible that by dint of them admitting them the thrilling adventure is also true. Each idea interplays with the other in such a way as to often be simultaneously completely contradictory and totally complimentary. These books are all miracles of the engineering involved in writing. Crucially, however, this last section is where The Wolf of Wall Street (the film) differs by being a comment on the book and these ideas while being a fairly faithful representation of them. Scorsese takes this chimerical mixture and adds another dimension.
The friend who I saw The Wolf of Wall Street with was as convinced as I was that there is a morality play at the heart of the film and that anyone who misses the signposts telling the audience that Jordan Belfort did some unforgivable things isn’t capable of reading films. The film punishes Jordan to the extent that the real world did and no more. That’s just honest. What the film does is forced the indignities that Jordan and his friends force others to suffer consistently in our faces. This is in many ways a sister film to La Grande Bouffe, a film mixing the explicitness of Salo and the creation of audience complicity of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. We don’t get films of this calibre very often, nor do we get books of such apparent simplicity with such complexity necessary to make them work. I’m glad that The Wolf of Wall Street is selling as well as it is, in a fair world the next edition of this book comes with a shout line detailing the film’s success at the Oscars, but I’m equally glad that Jordan Belfort is not someone I’m ever likely to meet, as much as I enjoyed the time in his mind the book affords.
Matthew O'Donoghue, for Waterstones.com/blog
Read an extract from the book...
“After all, there were Quaaludes and there were Quaaludes. Each company’s brand was of a slightly different formulation and, likewise, a slightly different potency. And no one had ever gotten it more right than the geniuses over at Lemmon Pharmaceuticals, which had marketed its Quaaludes under the brand name Lemmon 714. Lemmons, as they were called, were legendary, not only for their strength but for their ability to turn Catholic-school virgins into blow-job queens. In consequence, they had earned the nickname leg openers. “I’ll take ’em all!” I snapped. “In fact, tell the guy if he’ll sell me forty I’ll give him a thousand bucks a pill, and if he’ll sell me a hundred I’ll make it fifteen hundred. That’s a hundred fifty thousand dollars, Alan.” Good God, I thought, the Wolf was a rich man! Real Lemmons! Palladins were considered real Ludes, because they were manufactured by a legitimate drug company in Spain, so if Palladins were Reals, then Lemmons were . . . Real Reals!
Chemical-tob replied, “He only has twenty.”
“Shit! Are you sure? You’re not glomming any for yourself, are you?”
“Of course not,” replied Chemical-tob. “I consider you a friend, and I would never do that to a friend, right?”
What a fucking loser, I thought. But my response was slightly different: “I couldn’t agree with you more, my friend. When can you be here?”
“The guy won’t be home ’til four. I can be in Old Brookville around five.” Then he added, “But make sure you don’t eat.”
“Oh, please, Chemical-tob! I resent the fact that you’d even suggest that.” With that, I bid him safe passage. Then I hung up the phone and rolled around on my $12,000 white silk comforter like a kid who’d just won a shopping spree at FAO Schwarz.
I went to the bathroom and opened up the medicine cabinet and took out a box labeled Fleet Enema. I ripped it open, then pulled my boxers down to my kneecaps and rammed the bottle’s pointed nozzle up my asshole with such ferocity that I felt it scrape the top of my sigmoid colon. Three minutes later, the entire contents of my lower digestive tract came pouring out. Deep down I was pretty sure that this wouldn’t increase the intensity of my high, but, nonetheless, it still seemed like a prudent measure. Then I stuck my finger down my throat and vomited up the last of this morning’s breakfast.
Yes, I thought, I had done what any sensible man would do under such extraordinary circumstances, perhaps with the exception of giving myself the enema before I’d made myself vomit. But I had washed my hands thoroughly with scalding hot water, so I redeemed myself for that tiny faux pax.
Then I called Danny and urged him to do the same, which, of course, he did.
At five p.m., Danny and I were playing pool in my basement, waiting impatiently for Alan Chemical-tob. The game was eight ball, and Danny had been kicking my ass for almost thirty minutes. As the balls clicked and clacked, Danny bashed the Chinaman: “I’m a hundred percent sure the stock is coming from the Chinaman. No one else has that much.”
The stock Danny was referring to was Stratton’s most recent new issue, M. H. Meyerson. The problem was that as part of my quid pro quo with Kenny, I had agreed to give Victor large blocks of it. Of course, the stock had been given with the explicit instructions that he wasn’t to sell it back—and, of course, Victor had completely disregarded those instructions and was now selling back every share. The truly frustrating part was that by the very nature of the NASDAQ stock market, it was impossible to prove this transgression. It was all supposition.
Nevertheless, by process of elimination it wasn’t too difficult to put two and two together: The Chinaman was fucking us. “Why do you seem so surprised?” I asked cynically. “The Chinaman’s a depraved maniac. He’d sell the stock back even if he didn’t have to, just to spite us. Anyway, now you see why I told you to stay short an extra hundred thousand shares. He’s sold all he can sell, and you’re still in perfect shape.”
Danny nodded glumly.
I smiled and said, “Don’t worry, buddy. How much of that other stock have you sold him so far?”
“About a million shares.”
“Good. When you get to a million-five, I’m gonna turn the Chinaman’s lights out, and—”
I was interrupted by the doorbell. Danny and I turned to each other and froze in place, our mouths agape. A few moments later, Alan Chemical-tob came thumping down the basement stairs and started in with the personal crap, asking, “How’s Chandler doing?”
Oh, Jesus! I thought. Why couldn’t he just be like any other drug dealer and hang out on street corners and sell drugs to schoolchildren? Why did he feel the need to be liked? “Oh, she’s doing great,” I replied warmly, and can you hand over the fucking Lemmons? “How are Marsha and the kids?”
“Oh, Marsha’s Marsha,” he replied, grinding his jaw like the true coke fiend that he was, “but the kids are doing fine.” He did some more jaw-grinding. “You know, I’d really love to open up an account for the kids, if that’s okay. Maybe a college fund or something?”
“Yeah, sure.” Just hand over the Ludes, you fat fuck! “Call Danny’s assistant and she’ll take care of it, right, Dan?”
“Absolutely,” replied Danny through clenched teeth. On his face was a look that said, “Hand over the fucking Lemmons or suffer the consequences!”
Fifteen minutes later, Alan finally handed over the Ludes. I took one out and examined it. It was perfectly round, just larger than a dime, and it had the thickness of a Honey Nut Cheerio. It was snow-white . . . very clean-looking . . . and had a magnificent sheen, which served as visible reminder that in spite of it resembling a Bayer aspirin, it was the furthest thing from it. On one side of the pill, the brand name, Lemmon 714, was etched in thick grooves. On the other side was a thin line that ran the full diameter of the pill. Around the pill’s circumference were the trademark bevelled edges.
Chemical-tob said, “They’re the real deal, Jordan. Whatever you do, don’t take more than one. They’re not like the Palladins; they’re much stronger.”
I assured him I wouldn’t . . . and, ten minutes later, Danny and I were well on the road to paradise. Each of us had swallowed one Real Real, and we were now in my basement gym, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The gym was packed with state-of-the art Cybex equipment and enough dumbbells and barbells and benches and squat racks to impress Arnold Schwarzenegger. Danny was walking on a motorized treadmill at a brisk pace; I was on the Stair Master, climbing, as if Agent Coleman were chasing me.
I said to Danny, “Nothing kicks in a Quaalude better than exercise, right?”
“Absa-fuckin-lutely!” exclaimed Danny. “It’s all in the metabolism; the faster, the better.” He reached over and picked up a white porcelain sake cup. “And this is genius, by the way. Drinking hot sake after consuming a real Lemmon is inspirational. Like pouring gasoline on a raging fire.”
I grabbed my own sake cup and reached over to clink cups with Danny. Danny tried too, but the two pieces of equipment were six feet apart, and we found ourselves just out of reach.
“Nice try,” said Danny, giggling.
“At least I get an A for effort!” I giggled back.
The two giggling idiots toasted each other in the air and downed the sake.
Just then the door swung open, and there she was: the Duchess of Bay Ridge, in her lime-green riding ensemble. She took one aggressive step forward and struck a pose, with her head cocked to one side and her arms folded beneath her breasts and her legs crossed at the ankles and her back slightly arched. Then she narrowed her eyes suspiciously, and she said, “What are you two retards doing?”
Christ! An unexpected complication! “I thought you were going out with Hope tonight?” I asked accusingly.
“Ahhh . . . ahhh . . . chooo!” sneezed my aspiring horseback rider, giving up her pose. “My allergies were so bad I had . . . had . . . ahhhh chooo!” sneezed the Duchess once more. “I had to cancel on Hope.”
“Bless you, young Duchess!” said Danny, using my wife’s pet name.
The Duchess’s reply: “Call me Duchess again, Danny, and I’ll pour that fucking sake over your head.” Then, to me: “Come inside, I want to talk to you about something.” With that, she spun on her heel and headed to the other side of the basement, to a wraparound couch. It was just across from the indoor racquetball court, which had recently been converted into a clothing showroom in support of her latest aspiration: maternity designer.
Danny and I followed dutifully. I whispered in his ear: “You feel anything yet?”
“Nothing,” he whispered back.
The Duchess said, “I was speaking to Heather Gold today, and she thinks it’s the perfect time to get Chandler started horseback riding. So I want to buy her a pony.” She nodded a single time, to emphasize her point. “Anyway, they have one there that’s so cute, and it’s not too expensive either.”
“How much?” I asked, taking a seat beside the Duchess and wondering how Chandler was going to ride a pony when she hadn’t even started walking yet.
“Only seventy thousand dollars!” answered a smiling Duchess. “Not bad, right?”
Well, I thought, if you’ll agree to have sex with me while I’m getting off on my Real Real, then I’ll gladly purchase this overpriced pony for you, but all I said was, “Sounds like a real fucking bargain. I didn’t even know they made ponies that expensive.” I rolled my eyes.
The Duchess assured me that they did, and then to reinforce her point she nuzzled up next to me so I could smell her perfume. “Please?” she said in an irresistible tone. “I’ll be your best friend.”
At that very moment, Janet came walking down the stairs with a great smile on her face. “Hey, everybody! What’s going on down here?”
I looked up at Janet and said, “Come downstairs and join the fucking party!” Obviously, she missed the sarcasm, and a moment later the Duchess had recruited Janet into her camp, and the two of them were now talking about how fine Chandler would look on horseback, in a cute little English riding ensemble, which the Duchess could have custom-made for God only knew how much.
Sensing an opportunity, I whispered to the Duchess that if she would come into the bathroom with me and allow me to bend her over the sink, I would be more than happy to make a special trip to Gold Coast Stables tomorrow and purchase the pony, just as soon as the eleven o’clock showing of Gilligan’s Island was finished, to which she whispered, “Now?” to which I nodded yes and said, “Please,” three times fast, at which point the Duchess smiled and agreed. The two of us excused ourselves for a moment.
With little fanfare, I bent her over the sink and plunged inside her without even the slightest bit of lubrication, to which she said, “OW!” and then she sneezed and coughed again. I said, “Bless you, my love!” then I pumped in and out, twelve times fast, and came inside her like a rocket. Soup to nuts, the whole thing had taken about nine seconds.
The Duchess turned her pretty little head around and said, “That’s it? You’re done?”
“Uh-huh,” I replied, rubbing my fingertips together and still feeling no tingles. “Why don’t you go upstairs and use your vibrator?”
Still bent over the sink, the Duchess said, “Why are you so anxious to get rid of me? I know you and Danny are up to something. What is it?”
“Nothing; it’s just business talk, sweetie. That’s it.” “Fuck you!” replied an angry Duchess. “You’re lying, and I know it!” And with one swift move, she pushed off the sink with her elbows and I went flying backward and smashed into the bathroom door with a tremendous force. Then she pulled up her riding pants, sneezed, looked in the mirror for a second, fixed her hair, pushed me off to the side, and walked out.
Ten minutes later Danny and I were alone in the basement, still stone-cold sober. I shook my head gravely and said, “They’re so old they must’ve lost their potency. I think we should take another.”
We did, and thirty minutes later: nothing. Not even one fucking tingle!
“Can you imagine this shit?” said Danny. “Five hundred bucks a pill, and they’re duds! It’s criminal! Let me check the expiration date on the bottle.”
I tossed the bottle to him.
He looked at the label. “December ’81!” he exclaimed. “They’re expired!” He unscrewed the top and took out two more Lemmons.
“They must’ve lost their potency. Let’s each take one more.” Thirty minutes later we were devastated. We’d each taken three vintage Lemmons and hadn’t gotten so much as a tingle.
“Well, that’s about all she wrote!” I sputtered. “They’re officially duds.”
“Yeah,” agreed Danny. “Such is life, my friend.”
Just then, over the intercom, came the voice of Gwynne: “Mr. Belfort, it’s”—iz—“Bo Dietl on the phone.”
I picked up the receiver. “Hey, Bo, what’s going on?”
His reply startled me. “I need to speak to you right now,” he snapped, “but not on this phone. Go to a pay phone and call me at this number. You got something to write with?”
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Did you speak to Bar—”
Bo cut me off: “Not on this phone, Bo. But the short answer is yes, and I have some info for you. Now go grab a pen.”
A minute later I was inside my little white Mercedes, freezing my ass off. In my haste I had forgotten to put a coat on. It was absolutely frigid outside—couldn’t have been more than five degrees— and at seven p.m. at this time of winter, it was already dark out. I started the car and headed for the front gates. I made a left turn onto Pin Oak Court, surprised to see a long row of cars parked on either side of the street. Apparently someone on my block was having a party. Wonderful! I thought. I just spent $10,000 on the worst Ludes in history, and someone is having a fucking celebration!
My destination was the pay phone at Brookville Country Club. It was only a few hundred yards up the road, and thirty seconds later I was pulling into the driveway. I parked in front of the clubhouse and walked up a half dozen red-brick steps, passing through a set of white Corinthian columns.
Inside the clubhouse were a row of pay phones against a wall. I picked one up, dialed the number Bo had given me, then punched in my credit-card number. After a few rings came the terrible news.
“Listen,” said Bo, from another pay phone, “I just got a call from Barsini, and he told me you’re the target of a full-blown money-laundering investigation. Apparently this guy Coleman thinks you got twenty million bucks over in Switzerland. He has an inside source over there that’s feeding him information. Barsini wouldn’t get specific, but he made it sound like you got caught up in someone else’s deal, like you didn’t start off as the main target but now Coleman’s made you the main target. Your home phone’s probably tapped, and so is your beach house. Talk to me, what’s going on?”
Taken from The Wolf of Wall Street, by Jordan Belfort
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