Page To Screen | The Lost City of Z

Man, it’s been so long since I’ve written a series article for this website, yet alone the inaugural post of a new series. Looking back, the last series post I posted was my Old Man Movie Corner review of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms back in July of 2021, so yeah it’s been a minute. But I’m not here to talk about Old Man Movie Corner or Off the Beaten Path. As you can see from the title, this will be called Page to Screen, and to start off this series, I decided to cover James Gray’s 2016 biopic The Lost City of Z, based on David Grann’s 2009 novel of the same name.

What is The Lost City of Z?

For those who aren’t aware of either, The Lost City of Z recounts the life of early 20th-century British explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett, a military man and member of the Royal Geographic Society (aka the RGS), attained professional and scientific notoriety by leading numerous expeditions into the Amazon Rainforest when it was still unexplored and uncharted by Western societies. These expeditions started off as simple surveys to help chart and establish a land border between Bolivia and Brazil, but soon became more exploratory and archeological as he grew convinced of the existence of a lost city built by the native tribes he encountered, a city he dubbed Z (pronounced Zed), often to the derision of his colleagues. Fawcett would then pass into legend when in 1925 he went on another expedition, this time with his eldest son Jack and Jack’s best friend Raleigh Rimmel, and disappeared in the Brazilian jungle. To this day, no one knows for sure what happened to the three.   

Between the two, I watched the movie first. This was back in July of 2022. I was looking for inspiration for a sci-fi adventure feature script I was attempting to write and found the movie enjoyable, interesting, and well-made. Fast forward to the last week of 2022. I’m back in Michigan and reading books like a fiend after discovering the wonder that is Libby. After reading an avalanche of fiction – The Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, The Final Girl Support Group and The Southern Bookclub’s Guide to Vampire Slaying by Grady Hendrix, Exhalation: Other Stories by Ted Chiang, Gyo and Remina by Junji Ito, and The Crucible by Arthur Miller – within the span of a few weeks, I decided to read some non-fiction. At first, I looked at The Killers of The Flower Moon by David Grann but thought against it since I already own the novel but don’t have access to it (it’s sitting in my storage unit back in Chicago). So, looking into Grann, I learned, to my pleasant surprise, that he wrote The Lost City of Z, and that I could check it out immediately. Two days later, only a few hours into 2023, I had finished the novel. Safe to say, it was a highly interesting and entertaining read.

So, how do the two compare?

On Percy Fawcett

Charles Hunnam as Percy Fawcett

Well, seeing as this is a biopic, the best place to start off with is the subject of both the novel and the movie; Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam in the movie). On the whole, I think the movie and Hunnam did a fine job of translating the complex figure of the novel to the screen. Over both mediums, Fawcett is portrayed as a man who struggles against lower social standing – due to his father, a man of decent status, dying a destitute drunk and leaving Percy with nothing but a tarnished reputation to his name. They show that, while a man shaped by outdated Victorian morals regarding race and gender, he was a man ahead of his time, both with how he interacted with the native Amazonian tribes and also believing they were equally as capable and intelligent as the Victorian ideal. Most importantly though, they show a man who became consumed with his dream of discovering Z that eventually took not only his life but the life of his eldest son.

But this adaptation was not perfect – which is good for me since if the translation was perfect then this would be a very short piece. After reading the book and rewatching the movie, it’s clear the movie made some choices that in effect sanded away the rougher, weirder edges of real-life Fawcett (at least according to the novel) and Hollywood-ified him like so many subjects of biopics before. This was most apparent at the beginning of the movie, and near the end. 

Starting with the beginning, I think the movie made a mistake by not opening with Fawcett’s origins in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He met his future wife Nina shortly after he was stationed there. This was when he, through his older brother, first began studying theosophy. Most importantly, though, he explored an ancient city on the other side of the island. Finding this temple not only inspired him to join the Royal Geographic Society but also inspired his later belief in the existence of Z; he had seen a city recaptured by nature in Sri Lanka, so the idea it happened in the Amazon was not farfetched in his mind. As for why this was all glossed over in a single line of dialogue in the movie is beyond me, though maybe Gray thought the pacing would then be off. In my mind, it’s a missed opportunity.

Percy Fawcett circa 1911

It’s near the end of Fawcett’s story though the movie could have touched upon more. The movie portrays Fawcett, after his tour of duty in WWI and receiving the highest award offered by the RGS, as a man content to live his life with his family who ventures back to the jungle with Jack as one last grand adventure at the behest of an American newspaper consortium. 

But this is rather different from the novel. While the order of events is consistent, the tone is much different. Assuming the novel is accurate, Fawcett’s last days were ones of anxious desperation. Shortly after WWI, Fawcett embarked on his first truly failed expedition in an attempt to beat his longtime American rival and nearly went broke in the process. He and his family moved to LA for a brief time but moved back to Essex when they lost what little money they had left. Desperate for validation of his theories of Z, he turned to theosophy and spiritualism. Rather than the newspapers seeking him out, Fawcett, through a fellow RGS member, sought help from the American newspaper consortium and only got the funding after selling all the publication rights away, and even that was barely enough. Lastly, by the time he went on his fateful last expedition, while the chance of bonding with Jack was a joyful bonus, the key reason why he brought Jack along was that Jack would be an unquestioningly loyal companion. 

So yeah, not exactly the triumphant apex of his life the movie portrays this as. And while I understand the reasoning behind it from a storytelling and a cinematic standpoint, I kind of wish the movie hewed closer to the unvarnished look at the end of his life. I find it more interesting myself. But I also understand the movie is a movie, so as an introduction to Fawcett’s life, the movie is an effective introduction to the man and a good launching point for anyone who wants to dig deeper.

On the other parts of the story

Author David Grann

Now it should come as no surprise that the rest of the movie also features many aspects of the Fawcett story that have been combined and compressed. For the most part, these elements are expected and acceptable.

At the most basic level, the movie only adapts half the novel. While the novel goes into detail about Percy Fawcett’s life, Grann spends half the book following himself as he retraces Fawcett’s steps from his initial research at the RGS to his meeting the Kuikuro tribe (the purported last tribe to see the three alive) and with anthropologist Michael Heckenberger (the researcher who found the site Kuhikugu, the likely candidate for Z). It was a highly interesting side of the story, but not something that would play well cinematically, so I understand why it was cut.

But what about the actual players in the story on screen?   

Take Henry Costin (played by Robert Pattinson), Fawcett’s trusted partner when surveying the Amazon. The movie subtly expands his role in the Fawcett story by extending his tenure as Fawcett’s second to the very beginning of Fawcett’s career as an Amazonian explorer. In reality, Costin became the second during his next expedition. But this makes sense to me since it’s more expedient for a film narration. Plus, the film portrayal matches that of the book; a sensible man who acts as a buffer to some of Fawcett’s flaws. 

Tom Holland as Jack Fawcett

Speaking of the expeditions, the movie portrays Fawcett as embarking on three separate expeditions; the diplomatic survey to establish the border between Bolivia and Brazil, a scientific exploration with arctic explorer Jim Murray, and the last expedition with his son Jack. In reality, Fawcett went on at least 7 expeditions between 1906 and 1924. That said, those 3 expeditions were the most important to Fawcett’s story (barring the failed expedition I mentioned earlier) so I can’t fault the movie for this compression.

The only one I have some thoughts on is Fawcett’s son Jack (played by Tom Holland). Within the narrative of the movie, he is an amalgamation of his best friend Raleigh Rimmel and his younger brother Brian. Back on my first viewing of the movie, this characterization didn’t bother me too much; it makes sense to me that a child who never really sees his father first has some antipathy and then offers to join him on an adventure as a way to connect. After reading the book, that opinion changed. According to the book, Jack worshipped the ground his father walked on and made it his life’s mission to join him on an expedition. Rather, it was Brian who expressed antipathy towards Percy, largely due to feeling like the unfavorite of the sons. Once the expedition was underway, it was Rimmel who expressed doubts while Jack was always gung-ho, unlike in the movie where he expressed fear. On paper, I understand the changes made, if only for expediency. And like I said earlier, it was only after reading the book that I took issue, so take that what you will.  

In conclusion

So, all this said, my verdict is that the movie is a solid adaptation of the original novel. Personally, I’d start with the movie, as it’s a good if sanitized introduction to the life of Percy Fawcett, and then jump into the novel to get a clearer picture.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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