Becoming the Story

A few months ago I watched the Rum Diary, a movie loosely based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name. It stars Johnny Depp as Thompson, a writer who comes to Puerto Rico with the dubious goal of finding his voice. He has arrived as the sole hope of a failing San Juan newspaper. Thompson is a rogue, a drunkard, and somewhat surprisingly, a journalist.

During the course of the movie Thompson gets himself into various shenanigans involving high-proof alcohol, firebreathing, and real estate scams. He does save the paper at the end, although without seeming to do very much actual reporting. His manic sense of adventure and a somewhat suspect moral code are what carry the day.

In reality, Thompson was a journalist and a writer, chronicling some of the most important events of the 1960’s and 70’s through what he termed ‘Gonzo’ journalism. He favored a style of reporting which combined investigative reporting and elements of fiction in order to convey the emotions and impact of his personal experiences to the reader. Gonzo journalism was not hard news, it often varied from the truth and allowed for substantial recreation of quotes and characters. What it did however was allow the reader to experience stories vicariously. Instead of just hearing that a train crashed outside of Madison, the reader would hear the crash, smell the ammonia, and most importantly, find out how that affected the writer

There are obvious drawbacks to this form of journalism. Subjective experiences can be obtained through quotes, while allowing the journalist to remain objective. Getting close to a story draws the risk of getting too close and too involved. With these limitations in mind however, telling stories from a personal perspective allows the complete range of emotions to come through in the writing. Piecing together quotes and interviews is no match for someone who was actually there.

Given what we’ve been learning in class, Hunter S. Thompson seems a very bad role model indeed. We are taught to report nothing but the facts, never editorialize, never let yourself creep into a story. Thompson took an approach to journalism much closer to storytelling than to reporting. And yet he wrote some of the most influential and important pieces of the 1960’s and 70’s, such as his article about the Hell’s Angel’s in 1965, or Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, his novel about the 1972 presidential elections.

The power of his writing stems from his willingness to immerse himself completely in whatever story he was telling. We receive not only the facts but a visceral reaction to the events taking place. Thompson acts as a conduit for his stories-his reactions pour straight from the very real things which he is experiencing to us. This offers a level of engagement with the story that interviews and fact-gathering can never convey.

There will always be a place for straight news in society. We need to be informed of events in a way which allows us to form our own opinions and view an issue from all sides. The world is full of stories however, rich with detail and raw with emotion, that hard news can never hope to get at. As a public, I think that we need these stories. Far more than entertainment, they bring us close to issues in a way we could never do by ourselves.

As a journalist, as a writer, Thompson accomplished this. He brought the public face to face with people and places far away and out of reach. He did so by giving his all to a story and letting his experiences communicate through to us. This is why I admire Hunter S. Thompson. He jumped into whatever he was doing, be it riding with the Hell’s Angels or saving a struggling newspaper in Puerto Rico. More than reporting a story, he became the story.

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