No Walter. Walter is the six-year-old boy that Sutter finds standing alone outside the convenience store after buying a 7UP to go with his 10 a.m. whiskey. Sutter buys Walter breakfast, and then offers him a ride to wherever he’s going. Turns out it’s Florida to visit his Dad, but since that’s “a good five states away” from Oklahoma where they live, Sutter drives him home instead. After a brief lesson on “stranger danger” and the differences between Southern and Canadian Whiskies, Sutter reveals that his Dad took off too and that maybe running away from home isn’t the best idea. But when they get back to Walter’s house, his mom is pissed that her son isn’t in school and is being driven home by a teenager with alcohol on his breath. Before he makes a quick exit, Sutter tells the mom, “Your son’s hurting. He misses his dad.” These scenes take up two short chapters (all the chapters in the book are short. The longest is 7 pages). We never see or hear about Walter again, so it makes sense why he was cut from the film. And opening with that scene would set up the expectation that this was a buddy or road trip movie. Books, by their more expansive nature, tend to offer up fewer expectations and conventions. Still, it’s a great couple of scenes that in only 10 pages tells us everything we need to know about the main character: Sutter’s a good guy who drinks too much and misses his dad.
In the absence of Walter, the movie opens with Sutter sitting in front of his computer, attempting to write what could only be a college application essay: “Describe a challenge, hardship or misfortune in your life. What have you learned from this and how has it prepared you for the future?” He takes one long swig of his beer and begins telling the dean of admissions (and us) about his breakup with the “best fucking girlfriend in the world.” Cut to a few slow-mo shots of Sutter and Co. having the time of their suburban high school lives. It’s an effective way to adapt the omniscient narrator of the book to the screen, and also nicely bookends the film later so it actually plays into the plot and isn’t just a device. It’s true that Book Sutter probably wouldn’t be sitting down to write a college application at all, but we can let that go since Movie Sutter clearly isn’t taking it all too seriously. This is also where casting is king, because as actor Miles Teller plays him, we like Sutter right off the bat.
The book has a great visual of the entire trunk of Sutter’s car being used as a beer cooler. I was surprised the movie decided to pass on that memorable detail and give us just a standard beer cooler in the trunk instead.
Aimee reads a series of sci-fi books called Bright Planet in the novel; in the movie it’s changed to Gleaming Planet. I think Ponsoldt just wanted a less generic sounding name to avoid any copyright disputes from similar titles, like this out-of-print 2004 book from Australia. He even commissioned an original six page Gleaming Planet story segment to use as a prop in the film.
In the novel, Sutter maintains the lie that his Dad is an office executive working in the Chase Building downtown, but in the movie his pretend job is changed to an airline pilot. It’s certainly more exciting and romantic, if slightly less believable. It also explains better why he wouldn’t be around a lot.
Aimee leaves Oklahoma for school in Philadelphia, not St. Louis like in the book. It’s usually easy to understand why big changes are made when a novel is translated to the screen (cutting out or compressing entire characters or scenes), and sometimes it’s the small changes like this that can leave you wondering. But in this case it might be just because writer Scott Neustadter went to school at the University of Pennsylvania. Write what you know, and all.
Sutter’s boss in the clothing store is named Bob Lewis in the book, but in the movie he becomes Dan. This is probably just to avoid confusion with the actor playing him, Bob Odenkirk.
Aimee goes with Sutter to his sister’s house. In the book, he goes by himself before he even meets Aimee and the visit is played for laughs. Sutter smokes weed in a closet, tries to steal some good Scotch, and almost burns the house down. In the film, it’s a more subdued scene that reveals more about Aimee’s character than it does Sutter’s. We learn that her Dad is dead, having overdosed on painkillers (his death was hinted about in book, but no reason is ever given), and that her dream is to live on a horse ranch and work for NASA (in the book, told to Sutter privately in her bedroom).
The biggest change from novel to film is in the relationship between Sutter and his mom. In the book, she’s a minor character without any real influence (or even a name). Sutter sees her as a shallow woman worried more about her second husband and trips to the beauty salon than she is to him. This may be an unfair portrait from an unreliable narrator (he’s either drunk or buzzed for most of the book), but we see her for only a few scant pages, so there’s not much else to go on. In the film, she gets a name (Sara), loses the second marriage, and emerges as the only character that can reach Sutter and save him from himself. In a poignant scene near the end of the film, Sutter arrives home after a night of heavy drinking. He’s disappointed and hurt by how the meeting with his father went south. Sara, played with subtle complexity by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is there to comfort him. She tells him know that he’s not the same as his deadbeat dad and that he is worthy of being loved. In the book, Cassidy says something along the same lines, but Sutter’s not buying it. He needs to hear it from him mother. It’s the strength of this exchange on which the movie pivots dramatically from the book.
And so we arrive at the ending. The film gives us the Hollywood ending that it thinks we must have been hoping for. Sutter hits rock bottom, but after a heart to heart with his mom, he gets his shit together, applies to college (again sitting in front his computer screen, but with new resolve), and even reconciles with Aimee. His future in the book, by contrast, is more bleak. Sutter is left alone with only his whisky and Seven for company, having been disappointed by, or driven away, the people closest to him. You often wonder, in young adult stories such as this, how different things could be if only our protagonist had received the love and reassurance he craved from a parent. The movie answers that, and it’s not unsatisfying (though I would have preferred it to end right before the post-script of his application essay takes him back to Aimee). Both novel and film compliment one another, examining the devastating and saving power of influence—that of alcohol and the people in your life.