From Book to Screen: “Jumper”
For fans of sci-fi action thrillers, 2008‘s Jumper looked like it was set to score big with its core demographic. Director Doug Liman had previously charmed audiences with action hits The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the film had a fun premise: a young man learns he can teleport, or “jump,” and uses it to start building a new life.
I was particularly excited, as I had read the 1993 novel by Steven Gould multiple times in high school and remembered being wowed by it. But when the movie was released and the reviews started rolling in, they convincingly urged me not to see the film, and and it ended up in the “I’ll get to it some day” pile, which never stops growing.
It wasn’t until this year that I finally said, “All right, let’s do it,” popped the DVD into my laptop, and discovered where it all went wrong.
As a stand-alone sci-fi movie, Jumper isn’t great. It’s not awful, but it’s not great. The users of Flickchart agree, as the movie currently sits at a global ranking of #6864. The story starts off strong, as 15-year-old David Rice (Hayden Christensen) abruptly discovers his teleportation abilities and starts to experiment with them, but once the film’s antagonists show up, things quickly start going downhill. It turns out that a group known as Paladins seek out “jumpers” and kill them for religious reasons (“Only God should have the ability to be everywhere at once,” Samuel L. Jackson solemnly intones before stabbing one victim). Now they’re after David. So he romances his childhood sweetheart (Rachel Bilson), tracks down another jumper (Jamie Bell), and they all fight the Paladins together.
If that sounds a little vague, it should. The movie doesn’t spend much time explaining how or why any of this works. It mostly just tosses out a series of plot points and trust you to take the leap of faith to make it work, even if that means you have to leap over some pretty big holes. It’s as if the screenwriters are shrugging at us and saying, “Hey, bad guys are chasing good guys, what more do you need?”
Despite the awkward plotting, some of the action sequences work well.One in particular that stands out is a chase scene between the two jumpers. The scene shifts constantly, from a war zone to a tundra to a desert, as one jumps to get away and the other simply follows him through to the next world. These scenes look terrific and exciting and give us a taste of the massively imaginative potential this movie had, only for us to be disappointed when, as soon as the scene ends, we must return to the incoherent storyline.
I was unimpressed by the movie and wondered if maybe I was misremembering the book. Maybe it captured my imagination as a 16-year-old homeschooler but wouldn’t stand up to adult scrutiny. So I grabbed a copy on Kindle. To my delight, it absolutely holds up. The problem is that the story being told in the book isn’t at all the story being told in the movie, and the book version is way better.
The parts of the movie I liked least — the Paladins, framed as some mysterious coven of people out to get the jumpers since the beginning of time — were entirely the film’s invention. I’m not surprised they added something in, though, given that they wanted to make a sci-fi thriller. A more faithful adaptation might not be able to claim that label, since the book focuses so heavily on the drama.
For the most part, it’s a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old teenager discovering superpowers. This type of origins story has been told before, but the book doesn’t jump right into the action, the way the movie does. Instead, it takes its time and spends the first third to half of the book following David as he figures out exactly how this works. He learns he can only jump to places he has a clear memory of, so he starts videotaping “jump spots” to jog his memory. He robs a bank by asking to use their bathroom in the back and sneaking a peek in the vault, and jumping there later that night.
About halfway through, we get into the more adventurous storyline: Someone David cares for is killed by terrorists and he sets out to get revenge on the killer. In this process, he stops a lot of attempted hijackings and becomes something of a real-life superhero as he perfects the art of shutting down terrorist with his jumping ability. The government’s also after him at this point, as they’ve caught him in action once or twice and are desperate to find out why he exists and how they can use him for their own purposes.
But even in the midst of all this action, the real story is not “Will he get his revenge?” or “Will the government make him work for them?” Instead, it’s “Can he outrun his problems?” David’s relationship with his father is front and center in this version of the story, as opposed to just being a side note in the movie. No matter how far he runs or how much success he achieves or even how many lives he saves, he still finds himself coming back to the fury he feels toward his father, now mirrored in the fury he feels toward the terrorist he seeks.
The book successfully accomplishes what I love most in superhero stories: Using them as a way to tell stories about bigger issues. That’s why people connect with these stories in the first place. David’s story in the novel speaks to those who have desperately wanted to escape from their own lives, from the towns they live in, from the people they live with. Now here’s someone who can do that, only to learn that there’s more to being free than just disappearing.
The movie misses this deeper aspect entirely, choosing to, apparently, cut all the boring stuff and focus instead on mysterious conspiracies and fancy fight scenes on top of the Sphinx. That whirlwind of action has a time and a place, but, in this case, it makes the movie a pale reflection of what this story could have been. We didn’t need an enormous magical universe. It’s much more meaningful when it’s a simple story about one kid figuring out where he fits.
If you were intrigued by Jumper‘s premise but disappointed by its execution, I highly recommend checking out the original book, as it delivers in every place the film falls flat.
- currently ranked #6,684
- ranked 65,618 times by 10,650 users
- wins 25% of matchups
- 92 users have it in their Top 20
- 1 user has ranked it as their #1 film of all time