Not long after reclusive author Thomas Pynchon published his latest novel, Inherent Vice, it was noted that the book rights were being handled by agency CAA. That seemed like a preemptive move to develop the story for film, and now we’re seeing the very unlikely, but potentially wonderful results. Paul Thomas Anderson seeks to adapt the novel into script form. That sentence alone will quite possibly send fans of the author and director into minor fits. And there’s word that Robert Downey Jr. may be sought for the lead.

Vulture reports that, unsurprisingly for anything related to Thomas Pynchon, the status of the project is a bit murky. ‘Insiders’ are paraphrased saying that a treatment has been written and a script may be underway.

And what of the Robert Downey, Jr. mention? Vulture says CAA wants to attach him, so it’s basically a wishlist deal on the agency’s part. The notion of RDJ working with Paul Thomas Anderson on a Thomas Pynchon adaptation is wild, but don’t get too set on that aspect just yet. The actor’s schedule is so booked that he’s not free to shoot anything until this time next year… but then again, adapting Pynchon might take some time. Interesting notion, at the very least.

So Inherent Vice isn’t quite Gravity’s Rainbow –it’s a detective story set in drugged-out ’60s LA. Simple stuff, as far as Pynchon goes. Some commentary pegs it as not unlike The Big Lebowski. But as fodder for a film adaptation, it’s better that Inherent Vice is being targeted, rather than the big classic of Gravity’s Rainbow. Even a director as ambitious as PTA should leave Pynchon’s sprawling post-WWII industrial history / social commentary / twisted fantasty very well enough alone. Of all the author’s novels, this is easily the one that lends itself most directly to the screen. And with PTA’s recent project The Master shelved for now, turning from a socio-religious tale to Pynchon makes a weird sort of sense.

Here’s the recap of the novel:

Part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon— private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog. It’s been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that “love” is another of those words going around at the moment, like “trip” or “groovy,” except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.

When I commented last year on the idea of a film based on the novel I was resistant to the idea of anyone putting Pynchon on the screen. I still feel that way, because the virtues of his novels aren’t merely in the labyrinthine plots and webs of ideas. It’s his particular use of language and the way he can layer images and memories in a way that, to me, really captures the way the mind works.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who loves language — visual as well as verbal, obviously — and he’s one of the few names that could be attached to this that seems fitting. In a way it might actually be perfect — faithfully adapting the book would lead to a film very much unlike anything else the director has done. And turning it into a film that isn’t a faithful adaptation could lead to quite unpredictable results — I almost hope for the latter.

Here’s Thomas Pynchon narrating a promo video for the novel:

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