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Literature / High Fidelity

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What came first, the music or the misery?

High Fidelity is a 1995 British novel by Nick Hornby (also known for About a Boy). It was adapted into a 2000 film directed by Stephen Frears and starring John Cusack. It also served as the basis for a 2006 Broadway musical of the same name.

All incarnations follow Rob Fleming (Gordon in the film), a London (Chicago in the film) record store owner in his 30s whose girlfriend, Laura, has just left him. At the record shop, Championship Vinyl, Rob and his employees Dick and Barry spend their free moments discussing mix-tape aesthetics and constructing "top-five" lists of anything that demonstrates their knowledge of music, movies and pop culture.

Rob, recalling his five most memorable breakups, sets about getting in touch with the former girlfriends. Eventually, Rob's re-examination of his failed relationships and the death of Laura's father bring the two of them back together just as Rob revives his disc jockey career. Realizing that his fear of commitment being a result of his fear of death of those around him, and his tendency to act on emotion are responsible for his continuing desires to pursue new women, Rob makes a symbolic commitment to Laura.


Tropes associated with this work:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The Kinky Wizards were not in the book (though Rob at one point muses upon the idea of starting a label).
    • Adaptation Distillation: In the book, we learn Rob stole Jackie from his friend when they were dating, Jackie got married to his friend, Rob meets up with them during his tour of his romantic history, and they bore him to tears with all the talk about their kids, but in the movie, Rob simply says her their breakup didn't mean anything.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Marie LaSalle in the novel becomes Marie deSalle in the film, probably for euphony more than anything else.
    • The protagonist himself, Rob Fleming in the novel, was renamed Rob Gordon for the film. The latter is the name of a Real Life musician, so perhaps it's more "rock'n'roll" sounding.
      • Rob's exes Allison Ashworth and Jackie Allen were renamed as Allison Ashmore and Jackie Alden.
      • Barry's band name is also changed: both in the book and film, they are called Sonic Death Monkey, but in the book they start out as Barrytown (which Rob ridicules Barry for), something that is never mentioned in the film. At the night of the gig, Barry mentions the names Kathleen Turner Overdrive and Barry Jive and the Uptown Five in the film, and the names the Futuristics and Breakbeat in the book, for no apparent reason.
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  • Alliterative Name: Allison Ashworth and Laura Lydon.
  • Aside Glance: In the movie, Rob talks to the audience frequently.
    • This happened in the book, too in a sense; occasionally, Rob would take a moment to personally address the reader.
  • Basement-Dweller: In the novel, Rob is going to the cinema with his parents and sees one of these (whom he dubs The Most Pathetic Man in the World or TMPMITW), and is terrified when he seems to offer Rob a nod suggesting he recognizes a kindred spirit.
  • Beta Couple : Dick and Anna.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Played with near the end of the novel; after Rob spending much of the novel worrying about whether Ray is better in bed than him, Laura finally tells him that it doesn't really matter who was better in bed and he should stop making such a big deal out of it - but then appends that she wishes Rob's penis was as big as Ray's.
  • Butt-Monkey: Rob. Although he brings most of his abuse on himself by acting like an ass. Dick is more often Barry's Butt-Monkey.
  • The Cameo: Bruce Springsteen appears as an apparition to Rob in the movie.
  • Celebrity Paradox : Barry points out Rob's "Cosby sweater," so The Cosby Show exists, yet no one comments on Marie La Salle's resemblance to a certain Cosby daughter.
  • Chicago: In the movie.
  • Chekhov's Gun : Laura's dad's angina, which her mother mentions on the answering machine message at the beginning, and sets off the last act of the movie.
  • Comical Overreacting: Barry does this a lot to opinions on music he disagrees with.
    • He insults a customer repeatedly for "offending [him] with his terrible taste."
    • He calls it "bullshit" when Dick says he prefers the Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels cover of "Little Latin Lupe Lu" to the original by the Righteous Brothers. When Rob defends Dick's opinion as a subjective preference, Barry calls the record store a fascist regime.
    • He called Rob's top five track one side ones "pussy" for only including one relatively new song among a list of more well-known classics and asked how someone with no interest in music could run a record store.
  • Commitment Issues: Rob, for fear that he will commit to someone and they will die, leaving him alone.
  • Cringe Comedy: Features a fair amount of it, especially in the book.
  • Cuckold: How a lot of Rob break ups end up. He developed a paranoia over it.
  • Cultural Translation: The adaptation, relocating from London to Chicago.
  • Date Rape: Penny says that her having sex with Chris Thomson when she was sixteen (immediately after Rob had broken up with her) wasn't too far from this trope.
  • Delayed Reaction: Rob is on the phone, talking to Liz, who casually mentions she doesn't think much of of Laura and this 'Ian guy' when Marie LaSalle walks into his shop. Rob puts down the phone, walks out to greet Marie, walks back to his office, clenches his fists and says:
    WHAT?! FUCKING?! 'IAN GUY'?! [proceeds to freak out]
  • Establishing Character Moment: In both novel and film, Barry chewing out a middle-aged customer for daring to ask if the shop has a copy of "I Just Called to Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder really sets out what an obnoxious superior Jerkass he is. What makes it worse is that the customer clearly establishes that he's buying the record for someone else.
  • Fan Hater: In-Universe, the protagonists treat people who enjoy music they don't like with disdain, and sincerely believe that a person's tastes in books, films, music etc. is actually more important than their personality. Rob is forced to eat his words in the novel when Laura introduces Rob to a colleague of hers whom he likes very much, and then shows him the colleague's record collection, which is uniformly terrible.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Flat Character: Barry is a much shallower character in the film than in the book. In the book he's an obnoxious tosspot, but also extremely lonely, and bitter as a consequence. In the film he's played by Jack Black.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted; Laura gets an abortion, but it's handled very realistically and if anything makes her more, rather than less, sympathetic.
  • A Good Name for a Rock Band: Sonic Death Monkey, Barry Jive and the Uptown Five and Kathleen Turner Overdrive.
    • Also Kinky Wizards (the band of the punks who shoplifted in Rob's shop earlier).
  • Heel Realization: Early on, Laura's friend Liz storms into the shop, calls Rob a "fucking asshole" and storms out again, following which Rob realizes that Laura must have told Liz all of the nasty things Rob did to her during their relationship. He then admits that Liz is absolutely right.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Though they never feature directly in the narrative, several Real Life musicians pop up in passing (Marie LaSalle slept with a famous American singer-songwriter whose name isn't specifically mentioned, the bands Suede, The Auteurs and Saint Etienne wanted to put up posters in the shop etc.).
  • I'm Standing Right Here: At Laura's dad's funeral, Liz commiserates with Laura's sister, and tells her Laura was already dealing with a part of her life that was going badly. Rob, who's standing nearby, immediately guesses Liz is talking about him, and tells them to pretend he isn't there.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Despite his Heel Realization above, immediately afterwards Rob goes right back to rationalizing away his actions and becomes, if anything, even more self-absorbed and inconsiderate than he was previously, not less.
  • In Love with Love: Rob, who openly speculates that spending more or less his entire life listening to pop songs about love and relationships inspired this mindset in him, constantly seeking out new, exciting relationships rather than simply learning to be contented with the perfectly good, stable relationship he already has.
  • Indulgent Fantasy Segue: Three in a row, dealing with how Rob wants to deal with Ian when the latter shows up at the store to talk about Laura man-to-man. The first time he loudly tells Ian off; the second time, he threatens him with violence and sends him running from the store like a coward. It culminates with a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown where Rob, Dick and Barry lay him out and crush his head with an air conditioner unit. What actually happens is Rob reacts like a sensible person and says he'll consider Ian's suggestion to drop the matter.
  • Informed Ability: Barry and Rob (two characters who spend their entire lives listening to records) both observe that the Kinky Wizards are exceptionally talented. The audience might disagree on the strength of the brief snippet from their demo that Barry plays in the shop.
  • Insecure Love Interest: Rob especially towards Charlie. It turns out to be the reason she dumps him too.
  • Intimate Marks: In an Imagine Spot after Rob finds out Laura's living with Ian, he imagines them in bed together, with a tattoo of Ian's name on Laura's ass at the panty line.
  • In-Universe Soundtrack: Most of the songs in the film soundtrack are played In-Universe by Rob and his employees in the record store. This includes a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" performed by Jack Black, whose character Barry sings it in the film.
  • It's All About Me: Rob can be very self-obsessed. He even admits that going over bad relationships won't be good for the women but will at least help him. Laura calls him out on this repeatedly at the end of the novel.
  • It's Popular, Now It Sucks!: In-Universe. This is the guys' standard; Barry calls Rob's picks for Top Five "Track Ones/Side Ones" "very pussy" for only including one semi-obscure Massive Attack song amongst "a bunch of old safe ones". Barry's probably the worst of them in this regard.
  • Kavorka Man: Downplayed in Rob's case: he fully expects the reader to be baffled as to how, in spite of the fact that he is grumpy, moody, runs a failing business, hangs out with his two employees who are even more pathetic than him and spends his life obsessing about vinyl records, he has nevertheless had sex with seventeen women in the course of his thirty-odd years, including a moderately famous American singer-songwriter.
    • In the book, Rob notes that the reason he lands women is his utter average-ness.
  • Large Ham: Jack Black as Barry. "A COSBY SWEATAHHH!"
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: At one point, Liz accuses Rob of being so self-absorbed that he thinks of himself like the protagonist of a story in which everyone else is a supporting character. Rob muses that surely everyone thinks of their lives this way.
  • Lighter and Softer: The film is much more overtly comedic and less mean-spirited than the novel.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: In the book, Rob worries about this happening immediately prior to having sex with Marie (it doesn't). He seems to be periodically afflicted with it shortly after getting back together with Laura, owing to his insecurity about how he compares to Ray.
  • Loser Protagonist: Rob, by his own admission.
  • Love Revelation Epiphany: Discussed. Rob thinks about how he tends to look at someone differently after finding out they're interested in him.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Played with:
    • In the book, Rob admits that he often imagines that future girlfriends will "save" him and help him to fix all his problems, although this is never the case.
    • Subverted in the case of Charlie. When he was going out with her Rob thought she was an example of this trope, an exotic, free-spirited intellectual who would bring Rob out of himself and who "ruined" him by breaking up with him, but when he meets her years later he realizes that she is in fact incredibly shallow, pretentious and narcissistic.
    Rob: She's in the phone book! She's in the fucking phone book! She should be living on Neptune! She's an extra terrestrial, a ghost, a myth, not a person in a phone book!
    Rob (narrating): And then it dawns on me. Charlie's awful. She doesn't listen to anyone, she says terrible, stupid things, she apparently has no sense of humor at all, and talks shit all night long. Maybe she's been like this all along. How did I manage to edit all this out? How had I made this girl the answer to all the world's problems?
  • Manly Tears : Rob cries a couple of times in the film.
  • Minor Flaw, Major Breakup: Mostly regarding disagreements of musical opinion. Taken one step further by Barry, who compiles a questionnaire about music, films etc. to present to women he's interested in going out with, to make sure they are suitably compatible beforehand. Naturally, none of the women in question take kindly to this. Ultimately subverted in the novel, when Rob eventually learns that it's possible to like someone (either romantically or platonically) even if they like music that he hates.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: When Rob calls Charlie in her window so they can work things out and she steps out wearing only a sheet... but her lover soon appears behind her also wearing only a sheet and pulls her away.
  • Mood Whiplash: In the space of a single sentence. "I go for a drink with Liz and she bitches about Ray the whole evening, which is great; and then Laura's dad dies, and everything changes."
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Penny, the ex-girlfriend whom he broke up with when she wouldn't sleep with him or let him feel her up, is now a professional movie critic. Which he thinks is cool, other than the fact that she's working on their date night at the movies and occasionally flashes him in the eye with her flashlight-pen while making notes.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Charlie played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. So much Rob feels insecure about dating her.
  • Never My Fault: Rob is very quick to tell us about mitigating circumstances in breakups and why he isn't to blame. This makes his admission about his failings with Laura all the more poignant at the end of the film.
    Rob: I can see now I never really committed to Laura. I always had one foot out the door, and that prevented me from doing a lot of things, like thinking about my future. I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing. Keep my options open. And that's suicide.
  • No Fourth Wall: Rob continuously addresses the camera in the film. This was the way that Stephen Frears and John Cusack decided to include the massive amounts of very important and integral narration of the book.
  • Panty Shot : We get a quick one when Penny (the nice girl who won't let Rob touch her bra) rolls away from him on the bed.
  • Poster-Gallery Bedroom: Both the shop and Rob's flat are both decorated as such. The first thing Rob thinks about after Laura breaks up with him is getting the emblem of a record label painted on a wall in his flat.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "WHAT FUCKING IAN GUY?!!"
  • Race Lift: Marie in the film; she was said to resemble Susan Dey in the book, but is played by Lisa Bonet in the film. What's particularly amusing is that Dick's description of what she looks like in the film is identical to his description in the book, except that he appends "except, you know, black" to the end of it in the former case.
    • Frears has explained that the reasoning behind this is that Marie is supposed to be an exotic character: for a novel set in England, a white American woman is exotic; for a film set in America...
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Downplayed in the novel. After getting back together with Rob, Laura repeatedly tells Rob all of the things that are wrong with how he's living his life, but it's because she loves him and hates to see him squandering his potential.
    • Done by Rob to himself in the film where he admits that he never really commits, always has one foot out the door, and is obsessed with living the fantasy of a new exciting relationship forever and not facing the hard work that goes into a real long term relationship.
    • Penny does deliver an awesome one to Rob:
      Penny: I... I was crazy about you. I wanted to sleep with you, one day, but not when I was 16. When you broke up with me - YOU broke up with ME - because I was, to use your charming expression, "tight," I cried, and I cried, and I hated you, and when that little shitbag asked me out and I was too tired to fight him off, it wasn't rape, because I said "OK," but it wasn't far off! Do you know I couldn't have sex until after college because I hated it so much? That's when you're supposed to have sex, Rob - in college! And now you want to have a little chat about rejection, well fuck you, Rob!
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: About half of the dialogue in the shop, especially between Dick and Barry.
  • Shout-Out: Several when Rob, Dick, and Barry discuss music (since they work at a record store, this is rather frequent).
    • The book is laden with music shout-outs from start to finish. It includes many of Rob's music-related top five lists, with titles like "Top Five Elvis Costello Songs," "Top Five Best Side One Track Ones," and "Top Five Floor-fillers at The Groucho."
  • Stealth Pun: The title obviously refers to high fidelity sound systems. However, there is also 'infidelity' in the book, with Rob cheating on Laura. Also counts as Fridge Brilliance once you realise.
  • Straw Feminist:
    • Liz isn't too far off this in the book (but then, Rob is an Unreliable Narrator to some extent).
    • Averted in the film where Liz behaves reasonably and tries to keep Rob from going off the deep end and later justifiably calls him out on the awful things he did to Laura.
  • Take That, Audience!: In the book, after listing the four worst things he'd done to Laura, Rob challenges the reader, before judging him, to list the worst things they've done to their partners, especially if the partners don't know about them:
    Finished? OK, who's the arsehole now?
  • Tech Marches On: Although CDs were present in the novel (published in 1995), the film features them much more prominently. In spite of this, however, both novel and film are essentially about vinyl purists, so vinyl occupy pride of place irrespective of technological advances.
  • Textual Celebrity Resemblance: Several examples in the book. A woman once said that Rob looked a bit like Peter Gabriel, while Marie LaSalle is described as resembling Susan Dey (see Race Lift above).
  • Toplessness from the Back / Sideboob: Charlie is shown like this post sex with Rob as she putting her shirt on
  • Top Five List
  • Unreliable Narrator: Rob's memories of his exes are very skewed and biased, most especially in the case of Charlie. He eventually realizes this himself.
  • Wham Line: "Dad died."
  • You Need to Get Laid: Rob thinks this about Barry, and he's not far wrong.
  • Your Cheating Heart:
    • In the book, Rob thinks Laura tricked him into admitting he was interested in someone else.
    • In the film, one of the things that led to their breakup was:
      1. him cheating on her...
      2. while she was pregnant (she knew but hadn't told him yet)...
      3. which led her to get an abortion, which he only found out about way later after making what was intended to be a bad joke about having kids and reducing her to tears (and he promptly flew into "an ill-advised bout of self-righteousness" about it and only made things worse).


Example of: