‘Less Than Zero’ at 35: The Great Debate of Unfaithful Adaptations

In 1985, at the tender age of twenty-one, an unknown writer named Bret Easton Ellis sold his first novel for five thousand dollars. Named after the Elvis Costello song, Less Than Zero follows the icy hearts of its over-privileged young characters in sunny Los Angeles. It paints a vivid picture of the disastrous effects of overindulgence in the decadent eighties. The premise follows Clay, a student who comes home from his Eastern College for Christmas break and re-enters a world of high dining, valet parking, and miles of cocaine. He attempts to define his feelings for his ex-girlfriend, Blair while exploring his bisexuality. He also numbly observes his best friend Julian, who’s spiraling into a world of heroin and prostitution. The novel’s dark and detached narrative leads Clay to situations in L.A.’s sordid underbelly that undoubtedly leave a mark on him. 

Upon release, the book became an overnight success, both critically and commercially. It was the catalyst that helped initiate a ‘literary brat pack’ movement joined with emerging authors like Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Tami Janowitz (Slaves of New York). Critics hailed Ellis as the voice of his generation, while producer Marvin Worth caught onto the buzz and optioned Less Than Zero with Twentieth Century Fox before it was even published.

In November 1987, exactly thirty-five years ago, Less Than Zero was released in movie theatres everywhere. As the credits open, Clay, portrayed by brat-packer Andrew McCarthy, rides a taxi through the most ostentatious parts of Beverly Hills on his way home from LAX. The bopping soundtrack of the Bangles’ Hazy Shade of Winter sets the vibrant scene. Next, we’re introduced to Robert Downey Jr. ‘s Julian, who’s hopped up and ready to party. His imitation-of-life performance as a drug addict earned the film one of the few rave reviews from Roger Ebert. He called Downy Jr. “so real, so subtle and so observant that it’s scary.” Then there’s Jami Gertz as Blair, the ultimate eighties it-girl. She tries to ensure her friends survive the decade of glamour and sex, all the while concealing a coke addiction. Rounding out the main cast is James Spader as Rip, the antagonistic dealer, who’s constantly after Julian to pay off his massive drug debt. 

Robert Downey Jr. in Less Than Zero
Image Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

But something is unmistakably upbeat in this cinematic version directed by Marek Kanievska. In Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No era, Clay has become the squeaky-clean moral compass, moving mountains to help Julian get sober. But his main goal appears to be matrimonial bliss with Blair, where they reign as the ultimate eighties power couple. Yet in the book, Clay is bisexual with an aimless nature and a penchant for cocaine. So, what’s with all the changes to a book beloved by both critics and the MTV generation?  After reading the first gritty adaptation, Twentieth Century Fox decided the original material was too dark to be a hit at the box office and asked producer Jon Avnet to give it the Hollywood treatment. Of the original story, Avnet told The New York Times, “I felt it was so depressing and so degrading. A crucial element of the American dream had gone haywire, and you had to put it in a recognizable form in a movie, not just shock people.”

Predictably, Ellis hated the film and its lack of resemblance to the book. “I don’t know anyone who was happy with it,” he told Movieline, “The director wasn’t happy with it, and it was this compromised movie for many, many reasons.”  When talking to The Hudson Union Society in 2012, Andrew McCarthy said of Ellis’ reaction, “Well, I don’t blame him. There’s not a word of his book in the movie, so it really isn’t his book… I would’ve been upset too.” (Also, the movie initially grossed only $12 million on an $8 million budget, which didn’t exactly make it a hit.)

Another troubling detail to fans of the book was that in an effort to commercialize the film, the studio re-invented the main character as heterosexual. Critics felt that it rewarded Clay and Blair for being a generic movie couple (as opposed to staying true to Clay’s literary persona as a bisexual man.) This didn’t help the problematic straight washing trend that had surfaced in other adaptations like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). Although things would later change with Oscar-nominated films like Brokeback Mountain (2005), Milk (2008), and A Single Man (2009), Hollywood’s hang-ups with mainstream gay love seemed painfully clear in the eighties. 

But as time passes, perception towards art and film can soften. One might assume as Ellis’ career went from strength to strength with works like American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction (each with its own successful adaptation), his contempt for Less Than Zero would grow stronger. But surprisingly, when he revisited the movie years later, he decided on second thought, the film had its redeeming qualities after all. The passage of time granted Ellis fresh eyes. He now appreciated it as a time capsule that authentically captured the eighties with its stunning views of Palm Springs and Beverly Hills.

Andrew McCarthy and Robert Downey Jr. in Less Than Zero
Image Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

In 2010 Ellis told Movieline the film had “gotten better as it’s gotten older.” “I suppose that if there was no novel, we’d probably be even fonder of it, but there’s that novel that keeps messing everything up,” he explained. “I think that movie is gorgeous, and the performances that I thought were shaky seem much better now. It’s something I can watch.” Ellis even added elements from the film to the storyline of the book’s sequel, Imperial Bedrooms in 2010. This story follows Clay as a middle-aged screenwriter who, once again returns to face his demons in Los Angeles. Even Hulu jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon, producing a pilot for a Less Than Zero series in 2019,which unfortunately wasn’t picked up. This has become the typical viewpoint for many “unwatchable” films years after their release. They go from being box office poison (if they don’t make money in the first three months of release) to cult favorites in a matter of twenty years or so. It’s a tale as old as time, dating back to box office flops like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), now beloved family classics. 

McCarthy, now a novelist in his own right (Just Fly Away), had an interesting take on Ellis’ change of heart. He and Ellis didn’t actually meet until McCarthy voiced the audiobook to Imperial Bedrooms and they discussed Less Than Zero over dinner afterward. “He was upset about it initially, but then he just came to have affection for it, because it sort of just became this stepchild that he really liked.” said McCarthy, “I also think he realized he made a lot of money off of it, and thought ‘ah, it can’t be that bad.’” 

On Less Than Zero’s thirty-fifth anniversary, it seems new life has been breathed into the film, putting it firmly in the category of ‘Cult Classic’ or in the case of GenXers who saw it on release, a ‘Forgotten Holiday Favorite.’ Perhaps the more time passes, the better able one is to separate a book from its adaptation, and enjoy each for its own merit. Combine this with the rose-tinted nostalgia of decades gone by, and suddenly, art can reframe itself. Whatever the exact formula is that causes this shift over time, the process is fascinating to watch. Whether you love or loathe Less Than Zero, the beauty is there’s no real answer. Everyone is free to decide in the debate of adaptations.