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Literature / The Bonfire of the Vanities

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"If you're going to live in a whorehouse, there's only one thing you can do: be the best damn whore around."
Peter Fallow

The Bonfire of the Vanities, written by Tom Wolfe, was originally serialized in Rolling Stone in 27 installments starting in 1984. It was then heavily revised and published in novel form in 1987.

Sherman McCoy is a married Wall Street investment banker and self-proclaimed "Master of the Universe" who carries on an affair with socialite Maria Ruskin. One night, they take a wrong turn in the Bronx and encounter two (supposedly) threatening black youths. In their panic and confusion Ruskin, who is driving, accidentally runs over one of them; he is left in a coma. When word of this breaks out, all hell breaks loose for McCoy. Meanwhile, an Amoral Attorney, a boozy tabloid reporter, a Strawman Political religious leader from the Bronx, an ambitious district attorney, and... well, the bulk of characters that the book follows decide to use the racially- and socially-charged case to further their own agendas.

In 1990 The Film of the Book was released. Directed by Brian De Palma and starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith, it was a critical and commercial disaster. Film critic Julie Salamon was granted full access during the Troubled Production and her 1991 nonfiction book, The Devil's Candy, explains what went wrong. 30 years later, this became the basis for the second season of Turner Classic Movies' documentary podcast The Plot Thickens.

The novel and film feature examples of:

  • Adaptational Nationality: Peter Fallow was changed from English to American.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Sherman McCoy, the vapid yuppie scumbag protagonist of the novel, was made more sympathetic for the film to accomodate Tom Hanks.
  • Adaptational Ugliness: In the novel, Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer is described as a vain bodybuilder obsessed with his physique. In the film, his name is changed to Jed Kramer, and he's played by the rather schlubby-looking Saul Rubinek.
  • Big Applesauce
  • The Big Rotten Apple: 1980s New York at its most dysfunctional on every level of society.
  • Caught in the Bad Part of Town: Bond trader Sherman McCoy and his mistress Maria Ruskin accidentally enter the Bronx while driving to Manhattan from Kennedy airport. Finding the ramp back to the highway blocked by trash cans and a tire, McCoy exits the car to clear the way. Approached by two black men whom they perceive - uncertainly, in Sherman's case - as predators, McCoy and Ruskin flee. Having taken the wheel of the car, which fishtails as they race away, Ruskin apparently strikes one of the two.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: The way Kramer and his fellow prosecutors talk in the novel, which Wolfe allows to infect the narrative after one run of salty dialogue after he gets to work one morning: "Another fucking day at the Bronix Fucking District Attorney's Office was off to a fucking start."
  • Creator Cameo: In the opening tracking shot, when Peter Fallow gets in the elevator, Brian De Palma can be seen, dressed up as a waiter. It was technically impossible for the camera crew and the director to stay off camera in that shot, so De Palma chose to do a cameo there. To be unrecognizable, he shaved off his trademark beard.
  • Door Stopper
  • The '80s
  • Epic Movie: The movie was intended as this — huge budget, A-list cast and director, based on a bestselling and award-winning book, lots of characters, some posh settings.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: A journalist, Fallow, is the narrator in the film adaptation, whereas Sherman McCoy is clearly the protagonist of the story.
  • For Want Of A Nail: A missed turn sets the entire plot in motion.
  • Hidden Wire: Sherman wears one and tries to get Maria to admit that she was actually driving the hit-and-run vehicle. Things don't go as planned in the book.
  • How We Got Here: The film starts with Fallow arriving to a cerenomy made to honor him as the author of a successful book about the McCoy case. Then most of the film is a Flashback which tells what happened to Sherman McCoy.
  • Irishman and a Jew: Detective Martin and his partner Detective Goldberg; like most of the homicide bureau, Goldberg has assimilated to the prevailing Irish-American cultural ethos.
  • It Tastes Like Feet: A character says that Chinese wine tastes like "Dead Feet," which is the nickname for his boss.
  • The Mistress: Maria to Sherman, and the juror with brown lipstick to Assistant District Attorney Kramer.
  • Most Writers Are Writers:
    • In the original Rolling Stone version, Sherman is a writer. Averted in the book version, where Wolfe decided it would be more interesting to make him an investment banker.
    • In the film adaptation, the narrator, Fallow, is a journalist and a writer.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Averted with Sherman McCoy who snubs the parking garage attendant the night of the accident and comes to regret it when the police start asking questions.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • "Reverend" Reginald Bacon was modeled after Al Sharpton.
    • Peter Fallow is partly based on Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Haden-Guest.note 
  • Officer O'Hara: Deconstructed by prosecutor Larry Kramer's observations as to how all NYPD officers eventually adopt the Irish persona regardless of their ethnic background, and how he, too, had learned to be "as Irish as they come" when visiting crime scenes.
  • The Oner: The opening sequence of the film, tracking Peter Fallow as he arrives for an awards presentation, takes the viewer from a parking garage to a hotel ballroom in one long shot. It lasts four minutes and fifty seconds.
  • Pretty in Mink: Maria in the movie wears a long sable coat.
  • Quote Mine: Fallow successfully paints the victim of the accident as an honor student based on an interview with one of his teachers, who explains that anyone who shows up to classes and doesn't cause trouble at that particular school might as well be one.
  • Race Lift: Alan Arkin was originally cast as the Judge, but when the producers decided to change the character from Jewish to African-American, he was replaced by Morgan Freeman. The change was due to complaints led by Spike Lee that, as it was, the story was racist.
  • Revised Ending: The original script ended cynically with the supposed victim of the hit-and-run walking out of the hospital, suggesting that the whole scenario was concocted. (in reality, the director and writer wanted to show that the man who was at the center of the entire mess ends up being forgotten in the end). That ending did not test well with audiences and was dropped.
  • Scary Black Man: Played with. This is how Sherman and Maria see the victim and his friend when they approach them after they have car trouble. The friend had merely asked them if they needed helped but later admits that he and the victim were going to rob them.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!!: Very much Sherman McCoy's attitude until he's arrested.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The film version attempts this by changing the ending.
  • Shout-Out: In the film, McCoy's sees a performance of the opera Don Giovanni, which is about the damnation of a pleasure-seeker.
  • Tabloid Melodrama: What the hit-and-run becomes.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Most of the McCoys' friends and acquaintances.
  • World of Jerkass:
    • Most of the characters in the book aren't supposed to be likable.
    • They're even less likable in the movie where the few sympathetic characters such as Sherman McCoy's wife and the victim's mother are presented as completely self-serving.
  • Writers Suck: In the film, Fallow is a writer and an alcoholic.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: In the novel, while the characters ride in real car brands like Mercedes and BMW, they also eat at "Texas Fried Chicken" and use their "Global Express" card to buy things.

Alternative Title(s): The Bonfire Of The Vanities