The Underrated: Fierce People

Fierce People is a strange film. For the life of me, I cannot understand Lionsgate’s decision to bury it. It sports a stellar cast, is based on a simply fabulous and successful book (the author, Dirk Wittenborn,  adapted it for the screen) and it is directed by Griffin Dunne who’s previous films include such unmitigated trash as Practical Magic. It’s now seeing the light of day on a very limited and unheralded DVD release, but that’s probably in an attempt to cash in on the increased fame of the teenage actors (although Twilight fans are in for a hell of a shock).

Diane Lane plays Liz Earl, a drug addled masseuse. After her son, Finn (Anton Yelchin) is busted buying drugs for her she makes the decision to decamp to Vlyvalle, New Jersey to work for billionaire Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland). The film follows Finn’s summer as he befriends the Osborne family, falls in love with Maya (Kristen Stewart) and goes to war with Bryce (Chris Evans).

The teenage cast are superb. Yelchin gives a remarkably fresh performance as Finn, Stewart really can act, despite all evidence to the contrary, and Evans is a charismatic force as Bryce. Sutherland is good in a role that he can probably do in his sleep by now, and the other support is all tone perfect. However, the real plaudits go to Diane Lane, who is not only perfect casting for the role, but gives a nuanced and surprisingly unrelenting performance as the recovering junky. The scene where she discovers coke in Finn’s pocket is exquisite and heart-rending stuff.

The soundtrack is bang on- there’s another great use of Psycho Killer and all the music choices complement the action without overwhelming it. The script also sparkles- a lot of the pleasure of the novel was in the dialogue and  Finn’s internal monologues, and a lot of these make it unscathed to the film- the fortune-telling sequence is delivered with relish by Evans, and he does seem to get most of the best lines in the film.

The reason that this film is interesting is that ostensibly Finn is an anthropologist (in a depressing bid to be more like his absent father), and he has an obsessive interest in a remote South American tribe (the Fierce People of the title). Finn treats the Osborne family as an anthropological project, and the realisation that the tribe he’s studying is more savage than the alleged primitives. The film fairly unsubtly makes this point by cutting vast swathes of a fake documentary into the action, but it doesn’t feel intrusive. Rather it complements the on-screen action.

This really is a very, very good film.

However, Fierce People was, for me, not a complete success, but that’s because of how much I love the book, and it is significantly different. There’s huge chunks of the novel excised, and several key characters are missing or amalgamated into other characters. The film also doesn’t end on as bitter a note as the novel. In retrospect, the novel was probably impossible to adapt as I wanted, and experience suggests that a translation of the novel rather than an adaptation is a less than happy viewing experience. Nevertheless, there is one significant character change that I’m going to discuss, as it pissed me off something fierce, so spoiler ahead, but it’s so integral to the book that I’ll invisitext it.

Spoiler Time

If you’ve read the novel, then you know exactly what I’m about to refer to. Bryce is no moustache twirling cartoon villain. He’s a selfish bastard, and seriously damaged goods, but his motivation in tormenting Finn is essentially self-protection. However, in the film, the excise the entire incest sub-plot and therefore have to find another motivation for his barbaric actions. So they make it about petty jealousy. This pisses me off. I do appreciate that the incest sub-plot is messy and a real turn off on the screen, but by making this decision they oversimplify Bryce and they also neuter the real villain of the book- Pilar Langley his mother. She’s a debauched alcoholic here, but isn’t the malevolent force from the novel. Even worse, however, is that this removal dramatically changes the nature and tone of the ending. Bryce is exiled by Osborne to South America, but before he leaves he poisons Finn and Maya’s relationship. In the film, it ends with the hope of the relationship continuing. Pah.

I can see why they made this change, I really can, but as a fan of the book it did mar my enjoyment of the film. It’s still excellent, and I don’t mean to be all obsessive fanboy over it, but I do wish they’d found another motivation for Bryce.

Nevertheless, Fierce People is a truly excellent film, and where else are you going to see Kristen Stewart strip down and attempt to pop the cherry of a gauche teenager? In fact, watching her here almost makes me want to watch the evil Mormon propaganda that is Twilight. Except I’m not a 13-year-old girl experiencing a previously unknown tingle in her nether regions, so I won’t.

Instead, I am going to purchase Fierce People, and it will be getting many a rewatching once I remove my head from my ass and stop obsessing about the novel. It’s polished, enjoyable and intelligent film-making and was an excellent way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday.

Track it down- you won’t be disappointed.

Until next time,


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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

29 responses to “The Underrated: Fierce People”

  1. Jarv says :

    That poster and tagline are wholly misleading, It’ s nothing like that.

  2. xiphos0311 says :

    I’ve been meaning to read Fierce People for a while now, maybe I should get off my lazy ass and do so.

    By the why I watched Outpost Friday night good call I enjoyed the hell out of it.

    • Jarv says :

      Glad you liked it. A really pleasant surprise.

      Fierce people is a storming book. They took out a lot of the drugs and sex for the film, but aside from the major change I mentioned it’s pretty much intact here.

  3. xiphos0311 says :

    BTW good review, it made me want to find the movie and watch it.

  4. xiphos0311 says :

    Who is the black actress in that picture above? She’s smoking hot.

  5. M. Blitz says :

    Will definitely be watching this. Assuming I can d/l it, that is….

  6. Droid says :

    Good review. Reading it, I remember reading an article in the NY Times about this. Or maybe it was the review. Haven’t read the book. Do you recommend reading it before watching the movie?

    I like Evans. Pretty decent actor. Just tends to be in a few too many turkeys.

    I don’t get Stewarts appeal. She’s so dull. And Adventureland was completely and utterly meh.

    • Jarv says :


      The bit I invisitexted is actually a major plot point in the novel- I think the book is better, but they both stand by side, and they handle some sequences of the book in the film brilliantly. The trip to Maya’s island leaping to mind, or Finn’s initial encounter with Osborne.

  7. Jarv says :

    Twilight is shit. And it’s evil shit as well.

  8. xiphos0311 says :

    Adventureland was horrible but paradoxically Kristen Steward was good in it. It was the first time she ever registered for me on any level.

    • koutchboom says :

      Yeah Adventureland blew balls. But Twilight girl was still acting with her hair in the fucking thing. It was weird because its sort of a love story but Michael Cera is the bitch and she’s the man in the relationship.

  9. jarv says :

    Blitz. No- there are huge chunks of the novel excised (generally for the better) such as boarding school.

    The changes to characters are also big.

    I prefer the book, but they do both stand apart

  10. koutchboom says :

    Hahaha until I read this I kept thinking you were talking about Fierce Creatures.

  11. koutchboom says :

    Ummmmm Griffin Dunne…..An American Werewolf in London anyone?

  12. koutchboom says :

    This sounds like these others in a string of new age coming of age sort of tales, that all seem to take place with rich white people at private schools, some are based on a novel some aren’t. All are trying to be that next Catcher In the Rye

    Igby does down (my favorite)
    The Chumscrubber
    Assassination of a High School President
    Charlie Bartlett
    Pretty Persuasion
    Rocket Science

    There are some more but I can’t think of them right at the moment.

  13. xiphos0311 says :



  14. Jarv says :

    You know. If I wasn’t at work I’d photoshop Stewart’s head onto some porn and post it in that weekend bit. Call it Kristen Stewart Twilight or something like that.

  15. lubię placki says :

    Kristen Stewart was very good at Fierce People, such as in Speak (under-rated, great movie!). Twilight is just a piece of crap but enjoyable and mindlessly fun to watch.

    Great review! Fierce People is one of my all-time favourite movies, but I watched it… yesterday. Most of the people don’t get this specific humour and atmosphere – somehow similar to Running With Scissors and The Royal Tanenbaums. Performances are great (Yelchin, Stewart, Evans) and I can’t understand why the hell this movie wasn’t properly handled by producers. It was spying on performances of Kristen Stewart (great habit of a bored film-watcher) that led me into some really interesting movies like Speak, In the Land of Women, Welcome to the Rileys, The Runaways (one of my favourites too – you should watch it) and Fierce People itself.

    I cannot wait to read the book!

    – Jack

    • Jarv says :

      OK- I have to warn you now that the book is much more hardcore than the film- seriously, it’s much, much darker. I’ll be reviewing it soon. I was surprised at how good Stewart is here, even though she’s wrong for it.

      Thanks for the comment.

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