“High Fidelity” was a hugely popular novel, written by Nick Hornby and first published in 1995. The British author’s laddish tale of lost loves and list-making has sold over a million copies and, like many of his subsequent novels, was snapped up by Hollywood.
Such is the appeal of Hornby’s storytelling that major stars have taken roles in adaptations of his books and Johnny Depp reportedly purchased film rights to one novel before it was even published.
It was only a matter of time, therefore, before someone in the television industry had the bright idea of taking the essence of “High Fidelity” and stripping it of the self-pitying misogyny of its retrospectively loathsome lead character.
It’s worth remembering that Rob, the protagonist of Hornby’s novel, was self-obsessed, stunted and sexually insecure. His masculinity, while not toxic, was harmful and hugely unattractive.
How, then, to take Rob and recreate him for the streaming generation? According to Hulu, the answer is to make “him” a “her.”
More often than not, gender-reversal reboots are at best superfluous and gimmicky, driven more by box office than anything else. There was no good reason for remakes of “Ocean’s 8” and “Ghostbusters,” while plans for an all-female version of “Lord of the Flies” were fortunately shelved. Occasionally, however, the very act of reversing the gender of a protagonist – or changing their race, for that matter – can be part of the narrative.
Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka, creators of Hulu’s new, 10-part adaptation of “High Fidelity,” put their money on Zoë Kravitz to transform Rob into a character that people who weren’t born when the novel came out can relate to.
For the most part, they succeed. Kravitz is a likeable and capable actor and she duly delivers a passable performance. But she can’t carry the entire show, so “High Fidelity” provides a rich cast of supporting characters.
Unlike the original novel, these supporting characters are not merely extensions of Rob. In the book and the movie, Rob’s sidekicks – both straight, white men – have none of his redeeming qualities. This show saw those characters as an opportunity. Played by David H. Holmes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, the characters of Simon and Cherise add some much needed diversity.
Rob, now short for Robin, is also a different person. She’s far more likeable than her movie/book incarnation. When she joins Simon and Cherise mocking customers in the record shop she owns, she does so kindly. There’s none of the nastiness that the male Rob exhibited.
While male Rob guarded his encyclopedic knowledge of music jealously, the new Rob is far more generous and willingly shares her insights and her theories. Her geekiness is far more endearing than his ever was.
Rob’s musical obsessions are also more inclusive in the female version. Rather than using them as a barrier to communication – a central theme of the show is that we are what we consume culturally – they are used to bringing others inside the circle. Male Rob rejects people who don’t share his tastes and assumes that women are dilettantes; Kravitz’s musical snobbery is less aggressive.
The show does not rely solely on Rob’s reinvention as a woman, however. There’s only so far a gimmick like that will take you. Like the original, the show is full of music industry references – but they have been lovingly and carefully updated. There’s even a reference to Marie deSalle, the name of the character played by Lisa Bonet – Kravitz’s mother – in the movie version of “High Fidelity.”
Just as the musical references have been updated, so too have the cultural talking points. When a customer wants to buy a Michael Jackson album from Rob’s store, Cherise is indignant and can’t believe Rob would profit from the work of the disgraced artist.
This leads to an expletive-laden discussion about “cancel culture,” in which Rob argues that the real genius behind that particular album was, in fact, producer Quincy Jones. “How does it benefit society to hold Quincy’s genius hostage just because the dude that sang over his shit ended up being a full-blown child molester?” she asks. When Cherise snaps back, Rob shuts her down by reminding her that she “still listens to a dude who raps in a MAGA hat.”
Anyone who enjoyed the original novel or movie will find a lot of good things to say about this well-meaning, well-executed version of “High Fidelity.” Unfortunately, I fear that might not be enough for the new audience the show is aimed at. Sure, it’s woke and diverse enough for people who weren’t even born when the novel was published, but, at 10 half-hour episodes, the show is too long and too unevenly paced. Five hours is a long time to invest in a show that, ultimately, doesn’t go anywhere.
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