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'High Fidelity’ gender-flips its lead character to high success

Valdy Wiratama
Valdy Wiratama

Active learner with a penchant for cultural observation

Jakarta  /  Sat, March 14, 2020  /  01:35 pm
'High Fidelity’ gender-flips its lead character to high success

Zoë Kravitz takes on a predominantly male role in Hulu’s adaptation of 'High Fidelity'. (Hulu/File)

In 1995, Nick Hornby received widespread attention for the release of his third novel High Fidelity. It centers around Rob Fleming’s most memorable heartbreaks and was an immediate success thanks to its relatability. Disney took notice and, through its subsidiary Touchstone Pictures, commissioned a movie adaptation starring John Cusack as Rob.

The 2000 movie adaptation made several changes, most notably to its setting where the action takes place in Chicago instead of London. Twenty years later, the setting is moved once again – this time to Brooklyn – as the second on-screen adaptation makes an even bigger change: Rob is a woman.

Released as a miniseries on Valentine’s Day, the 2020 adaptation of High Fidelity finds Zoë Kravitz portraying Rob as she traces her past relationships for closure. As she struggles to move on from her last break up, she continues to address the audience and reassure us that it was never her fault to begin with. This ego is faithful to the original, but the story updates the character’s journey by telling it from a female perspective.

In the first episode, viewers get to empathize with Rob as she experiences her first post-break up date with a guy named Clyde (Jake Lacy). She is skeptical at first – attempting to ditch Clyde, but decides to stay after a circumstance forces her to return. They eventually bond over their shared appreciation for Fleetwood Mac and Rob ends up inviting Clyde to spend the night. When she wakes up, Rob is disappointed, but not surprised, to find out that Clyde has left her apartment despite promising to take her out for breakfast. “Of course it was the nice guy. It’s always the nice guy,” she says as she breaks the fourth wall.

Clyde returns in the evening with a takeaway of the promised breakfast and explains why he had to leave early. Rob accepts his apology as viewers witness her ability to sympathize and understand the misfortune of others. This exchange bills Rob as a compassionate character, something that the previous male iterations fail to offer.

Rob also faces misogynistic treatment, albeit not in her romantic arc. In episode five, she is accompanied by Clyde to spy on a fellow music enthusiast named Tim Parker (Jeffrey Nordling) whose record collection was offered up for sale by his vengeful ex-wife (Parker Posey). They eventually engage in a conversation where Tim’s sole interest is to talk about music with Clyde. He ignores Rob’s opinion even when she corrects him on Paul McCartney and Wings’ album Wings Over America. Tim labels her well-informed knowledge as patronizing, alluding to a prejudice that women cannot be superior in music.

Despite the experience, Rob decides to be the bigger person and rejects the offer to buy out Tim’s “unicorn” collection for US$20. She argues that, despite being a total misogynist, Tim does not deserve to have his one love be taken away from him. “Music has saved my life so many times. I think it should be for everyone. It should be for good people and for bad people,” Rob explains.

Race and sexuality are also part of the huge change as the miniseries rewrites Rob as biracial and sexually fluid. She has had her heart broken by a woman named Kat (Ivanna Sakhno) - a typical Caucasian cool girl who Rob acknowledges as someone beyond her reach. Aside from the obvious mismatch in lifestyles, the relationship ended because Kat has a specific preference that she could not overlook. “Kat had a type: tall, blonde, white,” as Rob addresses the audience.

Cherise (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) - one of Rob’s two employees - also faces some form of discrimination. She is a plus-sized woman of African descent looking for band members to boost her music career. When Cherise puts up a pamphlet within the store, a Caucasian male becomes interested to join after reading about her musical influences. He asks Rob’s other employee (David H. Holmes) to point out where Cherise is, but immediately exits the store upon seeing her, leaving Cherise devastated.

Apart from the discrimination she faces, there is not much to Cherise’s arc. But while Rob leads the narrative with her charm, it is Cherise who keeps audiences tuning in. She is not afraid to speak her mind and becomes the much needed comic relief in doing so. Her character is also equally-flawed with a tendency to complain for doing the bare minimum. It is an intriguing trait to expand upon, yet her character is not given a deeper focus for development.

Furthermore, the second half of the show vastly deviates from the source material, which raises a question surrounding its identity. The 2000 movie was able to create a distinct tone while maintaining a faithful word-to-word adaptation of the book’s dialogue. Said dialogues are almost absent within the TV iteration and a lot of plot points, including the outcome, were significantly changed. It no longer feels like an adaptation; rather, an original that happens to share some similar themes with Nick Hornby’s book.

Deviating from the source material is not always bad as long as the changes serve a proper purpose. In the case of High Fidelity, the female iteration works because fans no longer have to sit through a 245-page read or a two-hour movie of Rob latching onto his male entitlement. Instead, they get an improved character study of a 20-something biracial woman struggling with her relationships because she is just as flawed as everyone else. Unlike the male Robs, she acknowledges this and genuinely tries to better herself.

Critics seem to agree with this direction as they honor the miniseries as a success. The show is currently certified fresh at 85 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and has a weighted average score of 70 out of 100 on Metacritic. You can turn up the volume and stream all 10 episodes of High Fidelity on Hulu.

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Valdy Wiratama is a cultural economics enthusiast who previously worked in research and business development. When he’s not writing, he likes to catch up on the latest global news, analyze films and read stories about personhood.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.