Every now and then, you happen upon a movie that really resonates with you. Sideways is such a film for me. There is a lot of myself that I see in Paul Giamatti‘s Miles, just as there’s tons of a certain friend of mine in the Jack character played by Thomas Haden Church. The tale of these two buddies embarking on a road trip through California’s wine county before Jack’s getting hitched is a funny one to be sure, but also very insightful and honest. It’s one of those movies I can watch time and time again and still be entertained.
The Rex Pickett novel it’s based on was an interesting read for a big fan of the film like myself. While the overall story arc remains the same, the set pieces and individual events often vary wildly. In particular, the two friends’ interactions with Maya and Tera (who oddly became Stephanie in the film) will provide some surprises for anyone who reads the novel after having gotten familiar with its adaptation. That’s certainly not all of it, though. The book takes more time to develope the bond between Miles and Jack, including a number of parts where the women are nowhere to be seen (including a very memorable boar-hunting episode). A bit more emphasis is put on the fact that the trip is something of an end-of-an-era for the two, as they’re both aware that they won’t have any chance to embark on week-long trips with just the two of them once Jack enters matrimony. There’s more melancholy to be had inbetween the comedy in the book’s pages.
The story in the novel is told from Miles’ perspective, and it shows. Since he’s a writer, an intellectual and a snob, Miles takes great delight in using big fancy words almost provocatively, both in and out of dialogue. If I were to follow countless English teacher’s suggestion to always underline and look up words I don’t quite understand, my copy of Sideways would look a mess. It’s all good, though. Most of the time it doesn’t matter as much what the word means as the fact that Miles uses the word does. There is also naturally a lot of talking about wines, the beverages often so vividly described that I almost feel like getting into the hobby myself (not that I will).
Perhaps what surprised me most was realizing how much of the movie is original. Some of the big important scenes of the film are either not in the novel at all or drastically different. Biggest example might be the conversation between Miles and Maya on the patio where they indirectly talk about themselves in terms of grapes, a discussion that is nowhere to be found in the book. A lot of the film’s best jokes and gags are its own as well. The chewing gum scene, for instance, and the faked traffic accident is different enough to warrant mention here as well. Director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor have done a superb job of altering things while still keeping true to the tone of the novel.
All these differences between the book and the movie means that they’re both worth experiencing. You’ll recognize the characters and the story, but you’ll get to see an alternate version of the events taking place, with new dialogue and fresh laughs. I do like the movie better. Maybe it’s because I saw it before reading the book, but a lot of things just seem to work better in visual form. Reading about Miles walking in on Jack mid-coitus or about Jack chasing after some golfers while swinging his club around is funny, but it can’t compare to actually seeing it happen on the screen. And then there’s the great performances from the four main players, with Giamatti in particular being perfectly cast. It’s a wonderful story to behold no matter which medium you choose, but it holds up well enough to warrant a double-dip.