The Next Great Netflix Miniseries Should be Bonfire of the Vanities

Abe Beame wants justice for the bungled 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's debut novel.
By    March 26, 2020

Please support Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

Abe Beame is currently in the beginning stages of writing the screenplay for a Dipset biopic.

In 1987, Tom Wolfe, the greatest culture writer of his generation, released his first work of fiction. The Bonfire of the Vanities was a thick but addictive work giving its readers a panoramic, striated cross-section of New York society. No one walked away unsullied under Wolfe’s intense, withering gaze. The book was a generational, runaway hit. 

In 1990, Warner Brothers spent a year from hell developing the novel into a film, what was to be the event movie of that holiday season. An ascendant Tom Hanks along with Bruce Willis, fresh off his star making turn in Die Hard, freshly minted star Morgan Freeman and an in her prime Melanie Griffith, all filled key roles. The film was under the direction of the great Brian De Palma, taking his career to a new level following the success of The Untouchables. It was a perfect equation on paper. Of course, things didn’t work out exactly as the executives at Warner Brothers had envisioned. 

In 1991, Julie Salamon released her autopsy: The Devil’s Candy: ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ Goes to Hollywood. It’s a book as groundbreaking and clear-eyed in its ruthless assessment of late 80s/early 90s Hollywood as Wolfe’s novel was in its assessment of New York. Salamon captured an industry of strivers. Extras who want speaking roles, assistants who want to be producers, cinematographers who want to direct, an entire teeming ecosystem of below the line players jockeying for position. She found Warner Brothers to be a rudderless ship in transition, executives who didn’t understand their source material watching the bottom line as costs ballooned and dictating decisions that affected the storytelling, a director woefully mismatched to his subject, the general hilarious chaos that produced one of the most infamous bombs in the history of modern Hollywood. The book is a meta masterpiece. 

But nearly 30 years since the release of Warner’s Brother’s infamous fiasco it’s time to revisit the book, and perhaps, the film that tarnished its legacy. Sitting at the Carlyle before production went underway on the film adaptation of his novel, Wolfe told Salamon he wasn’t sure how Bonfire could be compressed into a two-hour movie. He envisioned it more as a 9-10 hour film. He didn’t realize it at the time, but what he was laying out was a future in which we could binge his brilliant serialized vision from the comfort of our couches. Here are three ways to tackle it. 

1. Adapt the Book the Right Way This Time 

This is Occam’s Razor. Bonfire is a work of anthropology that is just as relevant and resonant as it was when it was released 32 years ago. The clueless, destructive, self hatred-produced idiocy of the ruling class, the opportunism of charlatans who claim to represent the underserved and oppressed, the callous, stacked and inept criminal justice system, the entire soup of human misery and competing agendas are just as essential to the makeup of New York City, and America, today as they were in the 80s. By leaving it as a period piece it drives home just how ancient and inescapable these qualities are to this nation and its people.

Because of the feature’s epic fail, it’s tempting to view the property as spoiled goods, unfilmable somehow so let’s quickly debunk that notion. It was an absolute abomination of casting. Tom Hanks still hadn’t located his brand yet as America’s uncle and attempted to expand how we consider him, what he is and what he could be, with the roll of Sherman McCoy, a smarmy adulterous bond trader haplessly destroyed by a tabloid scandal with race and class at its core. Melanie Griffin is fucking cardboard as his flinty Southern mistress Maria Ruskin. Kim Catrall is surreal as his unhappy yoga warrior socialite wife. Bruce Willis was cast as Peter Fallow, an alcoholic, lecherous British smut peddling journalist, but with his divaness and lack of range he pushed the character towards a wisecracking oafish rogue with a heart of gold, or Bruce Willis. Morgan Freeman’s role was written in the book as a Jewish Bronx hardass Judge named Myron Kovitsky which was changed to Judge Leonard White when the studio went with the stern and dignified Freeman because it preferred the optics in a movie that dealt head on with race. It was a failure on every conceivable level.  

And you can’t consider that failure without De Palma. He and screenwriter Michael Cristofer badly misjudged the novel. They saw it as a cartoonish farce, a heavy handed satire. Wolfe’s novel is those things but it’s also engaging and spellbinding. It’s grounded in character and relatable emotion experienced by these deeply flawed people you invest in even as you find absurd humor in their respective plights. De Palma’s interpretation is simply to laugh at the pain they bring on themselves. It’s a deeply misanthropic film that has absolutely no feel for the novel’s tone or pace.

There’s more humanity in a single Wolfe sentence than the entire film De Palma would shit out. With 5x the hours to tell this story there would be ample opportunity to insert heart and perspective. You could actually put together a cast deserving of the story and iron out the tonal errors. (As a fun exercise, how about Miles Teller as Sherman Mccoy, Emma Watson as Judy, Chloe Grace Moretz as Maria Raskin, Jesse Eisenberg as D.A. Larry Kramer, Andrew Garfield as Peter Farrow, F. Murray Abraham as Myron Kovitsky, and Sterling K. Brown as Reverend Bacon. With one Netflix anthology already delivered it would be interesting to see what the Coen Brothers would make of this operaratic idiocy or see what the cerebral and empathic Jill Soloway would do with the material.)  

2. Update Bonfire for 2020

For all the reasons I just laid out to keep everything the same, updating Bonfire would be a no brainer. The great thing about greed, manipulation, racism and class warfare is they’re timeless qualities, core American values. Sherman McCoy could easily be plucked from the bond trade in 1986 and inserted into the subprime mortgage trade in 2006, or a baron of tech today. Reverend Bacon could be swapped out for a morally compromised, outraged woke attention seeking organizer. Peter Fallow could be translated from a bottom feeding British tabloid reporter to a TMZ muckraker or the manager of an influential social justice Twitter account. 

What if Sherman was black and the teens he hits with his car in the Bronx were white nationalist Trump supporters? What if Sherman’s mistress Maria Ruskin attempted to glom onto #Metoo to save her skin? The depraved possibilities are endless. All we need is a fat Netflix check for a talented writer and a talented director with ten hours to play with. 

3. Adapt The Devil’s Candy

By far, this is my favorite approach. A period piece Hollywood farce about a brilliant young reporter chronicling the making of a big budget disaster. Just imagine Colin Hanks playing his Dad making a terrible decision in attempting to expand his range. The lead would be Brian De Palma, the tragic, stern and aloof director, torn between commercial success and his abrasive, indie inclinations taking too big a bite, he’s a whore with the soul of a poet. Then there’s the temperamental, physically augmented, cripplingly insecure Melanie Griffith the men on the set interact with entirely too comfortably. 

The Devil’s Candy is an intensive filmmaking procedural rife with clashes between the business and creative sides of the industry alongside intimate sketches of the below the line personalities that make movies happen. As the filmmakers solve problems, work against crushing deadlines and enjoy small victories in their film within a film, we can watch as it’s ruined take by take, poorly pitched performance by poorly pitched performance. We can chart the disastrous decisions made by an entire flailing apparatus, with Julie Salamon serving as the audience surrogate, dropped into this world she’s investigating and documenting en route to writing a classic of stagecraft. It sounds exactly like something I’d crush in a weekend.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!