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The Basketball Diaries: Problems with Scott Kalvert's Film

Disclaimer: I wrote this analysis for the Jim Carroll Website and not for the Leonardo DiCaprio Fan Club or the Filmic Technique Appreciation Society. I don't like this film, and I have no obligation to say anything nice about it, so please do not send me e-mail protesting my critique based on your appreciation for DiCaprio's performance or the stylistic merits of the film. Neither of these are my concern in the present context. Maybe someday I will create a separate page dealing with such matters; for now, my concern is that the film misrepresents Jim Carroll's book and his life. --Cassie Carter, Webmaster

Scott Kalvert's The Basketball Diaries, starring LeonardoDiCaprio, opened Friday, April 21, 1995, in selected cities. The film is supposedly an adaptation of Jim Carroll's autobiographical book The Basketball Diaries, which records his experiences as a teenager in early1960s New York City.

I attended a free "sneak preview" of The Basketball Diaries atthe University of Michigan on Tuesday, April 18. When I arrived an hour before the doors opened, a long line had already formed, and by tenminutes before showtime, the line stretched outside the building. Afterthe doors opened, the theater was completely filled, and many people wereturned away at the door. Apparently the audience was expecting somethinggreat from this film, but I went into it with a lot of fears which thefilm confirmed as well-founded.

I am writing this review in order to point out some of the serious problems I see in the film--a film which claims to be "based upon a true story." As a fan and scholar of Jim Carroll, I feel the film takes liberties withCarroll's biography that it simply cannot justify. Overall, the film bears little if any resemblance to the life Carroll describes in his diary, but I'm just going to list some of the worst misrepresentations.

If you want to read Carroll's opinion of the film, click here.

1. Jim Carroll was born in 1950 and wrote his Basketball Diaries between 1962 and 1966. The film seems to be set in the present, which would mean that Carroll was born in 1980 or so. (Ironically, that's the year he released the songs "Catholic Boy" and "People Who Died," both of which appear on the soundtrack for the film!)

2. The 1960s time frame is crucial in Carroll's real-life experience. Some events he records in his diaries are the Cold War, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of Malcolm X, the Harlem Riots, protest marches, etc. He is terrified by the threat of the bomb, and his fearthat the bomb could get him at any time gives him a sense of urgency:"will I have time to finish the poems breaking loose in my head? Time tofind out if I'm the writer I know I can be? How about these diaries? Orwill Vietnam beat me to the button? Because it's poetry now . . . and thebutton is still there, waiting . . ." But since the film is set in thepresent, ALL of this is erased. Instead, we get Leonardo DiCaprio muttering something about being afraid of getting shot by a rooftop terrorist. (I will have to devote a new page to that alone!)

3. Jim Carroll IS NOT the only child of a single mother, as the film indicates. He has a brother and father. PAGE 114: "I remember my brother enticing me on to panic during the Cuban crisis saying they were coming any minute." His father plays a significant role in the diary:

"I went home and told my old man how the government suppresses the proletariat from his due. 'I am the proletariat, you dumb bastard,' he said, 'and I think those motherfuckers are off their rockers. Now get the hell inside and do your homework.'"

"Lately my scene at home has dissolved to total bullshit. What to say? My old man gets home at six every day, eats, takes off his shoes and sits in his chair with his pants rolled up and his varicose veins sticking outwith his feet up on the stool and he bitches. He bitches about how myhair's too long, that the protesters suck, about nigger this and spic that. . ."

4. Jim Carroll DID NOT drop out of high school. He graduated right onschedule, in 1968, from Trinity High School, a posh private Catholic school, which he attended on a combination academic/athletic scholarship. The film keeps him in the poorer grammar school he attended, ignores the scholarship, and has him drop out after gettingcaught taking downers during a basketball game. He did take the downers,but he didn't quit school.

5. Jim Carroll DID play in the National High School All-Star Basketballgame in 1966. THIS IS A FACT. Since DiCaprio's Carroll dropped out of high school, though, he must endure watching his friend Neutron play the game on TV.

6. Speaking of Neutron, the "secondary" characters in the film are, for the most part, inventions of the screenwriter. The characters closest to their originals in the book are Swifty (Lefty in the book)and Bobby (who died of leukemia), but "Swifty" is more of a composite of several coaches and scouts in the diary, and Bobby is not developed as a character in the diary (he just . . . dies). (I asked Carroll how he felt about the "Swifty" character; I remarked that it must have been difficult because of the composite nature of the character. Carroll said he thought Bruno Kirby did a great job, but that it was very difficult for Kirby.)Other characters are based even less on the real people in the diary. Diane the strung-out whore does not "get even" with Jim at the end, nor does she play a particularly important role in the book. In fact, she appears only once near theend of the diary. Neutron and Pedro also appear in the diary, but both--especially Pedro--are relatively minor players in the book, so it's strange that Bryan Goluboff (the screenwriter) selected them as Jim's "best friends" for the film. These two are equally Goluboff's original creations and composites of about ten real people in Carroll's diary. I have no idea where Mickey ("Marky Mark" Wahlberg) or Reggie (Ernie Hudson) came from. . . . However, it would have been nice if Carroll had had a "Reggie" in his life, and both Hudson's and Wahlberg's performances are surprisingly good (but then I have no characters from Carroll's diaryagainst which to measure their performances).

7. I consider the "leap into the Harlem River" entry (pp. 47-50) to be one of the "key" entries in Carroll's diary, but of course Kalvert screwed it up. The film uses this scene to emblemize the inseparable friendship of Jim, Mickey, Neutron, and Pedro. Well, for starters, Mickey is a made-up character, and Neutron and Pedro are nowhere in sight in the diary--it is Jim, Johnny, and Danny who make the leap--and they leap from "Hell's Angel," not "Devil's Toe." (The names of the cliffs are "Suicide," "Hell's Gate," Angel's Toe," and "Hell's Angel.") But these are minor points. What bothers me most about the film's interpretation of this scene is that, after Pedro blows it on his jump, the three "cool" boys jump together. In the diary, it is a contest, a test "to prove if you're punk or not." Danny jumps first: he is a veteran of Hell's Angel, and his jump epitomizes the goal of all aspiring punks. Johnny, like Jim, is "a rookie at the top," and his performance is pitiful; he does not prove himself punk. (In the film, by the way, Pedro stands in for all the failed punks populating Carroll's diary.) So there is a lot of pressure on Jim to perform well and prove himself punk . . . which he of course does. The film gets some of these subtleties, but I personally hated the way it replaced the competition with inseparable friendship.

8. If Jim Carroll ever was Mister Sweet and Innocent as portrayed by DiCaprio, he never let onto it in his diaries. The Winkie and Blinkie scene is ridiculous in this respect. In the diary, Jim shows up whacked on cough syrup, which he throws up "in order to get it up a lot." He writes: "I was pretty straight within an hour or so and hip on getting to gether with a scene or two. The it was about an hour or more of smoking the hash with my head on Blinkie's lap with an occasional grab for one of her titty treats. I was feeling pretty bored by then and anxious to fuck her . . ." So, tell me if this sounds anything like the scene depicted in the movie by the angelic DiCaprio, who hesitates to snort a line and is attacked by the aggressive Blinkie. BLAH!

9. Likewise, the single hustling scene is homophobic beyond words. There is absolutely NO indication in Carroll's diary that he found getting a blow job from a man to be a traumatic experience. Yes, he is disgusted by all the homosexuals who constantly try to rape him while they feign righteousness, and by perverts like the guy who wants him to whip a cat to death and piss on him in the bathtub, but consider this passage:

"I'll admit it, I have to, that today I had an experience hustling fags that, for once, turned me on. Quite a bit in fact. . . . some weird sensation did shoot a blood rocket up my zone as an incredible rush of power shook me with all those faces staring at my body fucking a mouth on its knees . . ."

10. Riker's Island DID NOT cure Jim Carroll of his heroin addiction. He got out of Riker's, and, as he writes: "Mancole did me the honor of preparing me asyringe filled with 'the finest junk in upper Manhattan.' I almost refused. . it was a moment I had both dreamt of passionately and cursed even more. . . but with the dream in from of me again I found that it was quiteeasy to curse . . . but so much harder to refuse." The film has DiCaprioall spiffy and clean at the end, speaking what appears to be a cautionarymessage (it would be hard to tell if he's at an "addicts anonymous" meeting orgiving a poetry reading were it not for the door marked "STAGE DOOR" . . .). This message is actually a doctored-upentry from the diary (pages 189-90 plus 199), describing Carroll'sCONTINUING addiction. The fact is that Carroll was addicted for about tenyears. He didn't conquer his addiction until well into his 20s--and to doit he had to move to California and undergo endless and grueling methadone treatments. The point is, it wasn't as quick and simple as the film tries to make itlook.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST, I do have a few positive things to say about the film:

(1) Carroll's cameo appearance is fabulous. I think the film is worth seeing just for that. If you don't know who he is, look for the scene at Headquarters, where DiCaprio is listening to an older junkie describe how the candles, incense, and rituals of a Catholic mass are like cooking up junk . . . Carroll is playing the role of "Franky Pinewater," whose story can be found on pages 202-204 in the book.

(2) DiCaprio actually looks like a teenaged Carroll. Check out Carroll's senior photo from high school if you want some indication of the resemblance.

(3) On about my fourth viewing of the film, I noticed evidence DiCaprio had "studied" Carroll enough to pick up some of his hand gestures. I thought that was wonderful.

(4) A couple of scenes are pretty darned good, even by my picky standards, and it just so happens that they both sort of revolve around Bobby, the kid who died of leukemia. I like the rooftop masturbation scene (right after the scene in which Jim takes Bobby to see the nude dancer), and I also like the scene after Bobby dies, where the boys talk about death and play basketball in a rock video type scene featuring Carroll's song "People Who Died." The latter scene is terrific, I think, because it argues against the popular interpretation of that song as a celebration of death.


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