Back in 2005, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote a series of stories about a homeless man who turned out to possess orchestra-level talent on several stringed instruments.
Lopez turned his columns into The Soloist -- and now it's being turned into a movie (an early Oscar contender, no less, to be released Nov. 21) starring Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, the musician who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.
So why not just wait for the movie? Downey Jr. is a great actor, and Foxx, having played another gifted-but-disabled musician in Ray, just might pull off the mix of inspiration and delusion.
But scenes recorded for the movie won't capture the author's commentary. At one point, for example, Lopez decides to spend a night on the streets as a homeless person alongside Ayers, who demonstrates how he taps a stick on the sidewalk to scare off rodents. Lopez observes: "He's a classical musician who has taken a great fall and now finds himself fending off sewer rats, but when I look into his eyes, I find no hint of regret, no recognition of this nightly collision between beautiful thoughts and ugly reality."
Most important, the process of reading through the months and months of coordination it took among several people to get Ayers off the streets and into treatment (tentatively, provisionally) mimics the one-step-forward, three-steps-back hassles that Lopez endured just to make Ayers' life a little better. Movies accelerate problems, then "solve" them in two hours.
Director Joe Wright allowed us a glimpse, in Atonement, of a happily-ever-after ending that's severely undercut by stark realities. Reader-viewers of The Soloist will anticipate an ending that offers the hope of continued treatment for Ayers, not a cure. Lopez's book ends with the question of whether Ayers will be able to continue attending concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall, let alone performing in them. Wright knows that sentimentalized Hollywood endings aren't welcome here.
Otherwise, you can stroll out of a cineplex somewhere this Thanksgiving and justly say, "The book was better."