A prolific poet and an adaptation that misses the point of misspent youth.

"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.


“I just want to be pure.”

- Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries

In September 2009, Jim Carroll reportedly died of a heart attack while sitting at his writing desk. The former athlete and junkie turned poet and punk rocker was sixty years old.

Having read Jim Carroll’s memoir, The Basketball Diaries, it’s conceivable to think that this man, who spent his lifetime conserving his every thought and experience in prose, would spend his final moments writing. In 1963, at the age of twelve, Carroll developed the habit of keeping a journal and for three years scribbled stream of consciousness entries chronicling a double life spent shooting hoops and heroin. Published in 1978, his real-time ramblings of misspent youth on the streets of New York City conjure unthinkable images for anyone who would never consider shooting dope at the age of twelve, stealing handbags from old ladies, or hustling businessmen in the bathroom at Grand Central Station. In retrospect, Carroll’s commitment to writing everything down may have been what saved him. A romanticized theory that nevertheless became the thesis of the 1995 film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Before the film as we know it came about, it’s interesting to note that Carroll had already sold the option to The Basketball Diaries numerous times. In the ’80s, Matt Dillon was attached to star with John Cassavetes directing, followed by Anthony Michael Hall who, interestingly enough, came closest to playing the part in an adaptation penned by Jeffrey Fiskin (Cutter’s Way). For over a decade the project continued to fall through the cracks with every talented young actor from Eric Stoltz to River Phoenix vying for the role of Jim Carroll. In the end, it fell to Leonardo DiCaprio to portray Carroll’s transformation from jock to junkie. With an Academy Award nomination under his belt for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Leo certainly had the chops and the physicality to portray the young poet, but what he didn’t have was a strong enough script.

At the time, director Scott Kalvert was popular with the MTV generation for his work in music videos. A talent he exhibits the moment “People Who Died” by The Jim Carroll Band kicks in as the boys mourn their friend Bobby (Michael Imperioli) with a game of basketball in the rain. In fairness, Kalvert and screenwriter Bryan Goluboff were tasked with creating a feature length narrative based solely on a collection of diary entries, leaving them with a lot of gaps to fill. Although the author was brought on as a consultant and has a cameo, the strongest scenes are those that incorporate voiceover, using text lifted directly from the memoir or Carroll’s poetry to enhance the narrative. In some instances, filling in the gaps resulted in the filmmakers taking a few too many liberties with Carroll’s life and reputation. In the book, Jim's extensive drug use never leads to him quitting school or the basketball team – he graduated from Trinity High School in 1968. The film, on the other hand, inserts these events to act as consequences for Jim and Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) when they get busted for playing on downers. This portrayal suggests that Carroll was the type of person who would squander the athletic scholarship he earned to the prestigious Catholic school, not to mention his reputation as a star basketball player. What’s fascinating about the book that is missing from the film is that Carroll’s drug use rarely hinders his talents on the court or on the page. He never stopped trying to be pure.

The most unfortunate departure from the source material is the film’s depiction of a particular dream sequence. In the book, Carroll eludes a couple of times to a fantasy he has of entering his English class with a machine gun and shooting up the place, specifically stating that he wouldn’t shoot “at anyone or anything unless they got in the way but that wouldn't matter much because I would aim fairly high." In the film, Jim enters the school like a rock star in a cloud of smoke dressed in a black leather trench coat and armed with a shotgun. He proceeds to murder at least six students before turning the gun on the priest while his friends laugh and cheer him on. In April 1999, The Basketball Diaries was cited as a favorite movie of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the individuals responsible for the Columbine shooting. The controversy that the film’s depiction of violence had inspired the massacre led to a series of frustrating interviews for Carroll, who spent the rest of his life defending his art and answering for the over-the-top portrayal of the scene.

Other embellishments are more palatable, such as the scenes between Jim and his mother (played by the brilliant Lorraine Bracco). While Carroll speaks of his mother in the book, as well as his father and brother, there are very few instances where he records interactions with his family. While her role is small, the moments between mother and son are there to remind us that the character is still a teenager. The now iconic scene in which Jim breaks down in desperate sobs outside his mother’s door may be the internet’s favorite Leo GIF, but it’s also the film’s most heartbreaking moment. Likewise, the fictionalized “savior” character, Reggie (Ernie Hudson), is incorporated to depict Carroll’s painful withdrawal and to provide praise for his writing. Since the writing in the memoir speaks for itself, the film often struggles to find ways to put Jim’s literary talents in the spotlight.

While Carroll was a fan of the film's performances, he disapproved of the tidy ending and felt the adaptation was too preachy with its anti-drug message. On the bright side, it did spark a curiosity about the author that inspired a younger generation to seek out his work, putting the memoir on the bestseller list. As a writer, Carroll gained serious attention while still in his teens, publishing his first collection of poetry, Organic Trains, when he was only sixteen. Praised by literary icons such as Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, he went on to release several collections of poetry (Living at the Movies, The Book of Nods, Void of Course) and a second memoir documenting his recovery from heroin addiction in the ’70s (Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries). At the time of his death he was putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Petting Zoo, which was released posthumously. He dabbled in music for a while, forming The Jim Carroll Band at the suggestion of his good friend Patti Smith, but poetry remained his true calling.

Later in life Carroll would often refer to the boy in The Basketball Diaries in the third person, having disconnected from the version of himself who had written the words. What resonates is how present and prolific the young Carroll was during the years he spent wandering the streets of New York City, wasted and writing everything down. The point of his story, which the film completely missed, is that it was never meant to be a cautionary tale, it was meant to be an honest one.