I watched the 1972 film adaptation of Play It As It Lays the other day; the whole movie is streaming on YouTube for free now. I wanted to reject it outright because its mood was not exactly the same as the novel’s—the quality of the bleakness was different. But, I mean, when you think about it, what would you want a movie of Play It As It Lays to look like?
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne cowrote the screenplay, and the film is well cast, with Tuesday Weld as Maria Wyeth Lang and Anthony Perkins as B. Z.; Frank Perry—who had a few years earlier presided over a bizarre adaptation of Cheever’s “The Swimmer”—directed. It’s chic and slick, with high production values and assured photography. It is, in short, a pretty faithful tribute to the novel, and in the line “Existentially, I’m getting a hamburger” it has at least one piece of Grade A dialogue absent from the book. And yet I couldn’t escape the reader’s prejudice that it’s a period piece in a way the book is not. What feels, in Didion’s prose, like a glimpse into a full-fledged world manages to feel painfully dated on celluloid; it simply can’t be as up-to-the-minute as it wants to be. Or maybe, watching the film, you just can’t suspend your disbelief as easily, or give the author(s) certain credit you desperately want to.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that people really were as different in 1972 as Play It As It Lays makes them seem. Maybe they really did go around saying “Christ!” all the time, in spirit if not in fact. Yes, maybe that’s it. It’s good to be reminded that something—or someone—doesn’t really belong to us at all. That we can’t just project onto them, no matter how many tote bags we carry or how many Pinterest boards we make. Well, maybe we can.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.