Last night saw the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King, an adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel of the same name. The film stars Tom Hanks and Sarita Choudhury, alongside newcomer Alexander Black, all of whom were in attendance, alongside Robert De Niro, one of the festival’s founders. And though there was no sign of Eggers — once a New York fixture — his presence was felt.
A borderline jolly adaptation of Eggers’ material, the film follows Alan Clay (Hanks), a divorced salesman and one-time board member of Schwinn, who travels to Saudi Arabia in an effort to sell a new IT system (a holographic video conferencing system, hence the title) to the Saudi king. When he arrives, the king is nowhere to be found. (His Godot-like absence, in fact, mirrored Eggers’ own at the premiere). Without much to do, Clay dissociates (think of a lighter Lost in Translation) while befriending Yousef (Black), a charming car service driver who likes the band Chicago. Meanwhile, facing pressure from his boss in New York — as well as his ex-wife and daughter, who want him to pay for the latter’s college tuition — Clay struggles to close the sale. But when he discovers a weird lump on his spine — “either a tumor or a sack of spiders” — he meets Zahra, a surgeon — a woman doctor operating alone: a rare occurrence in Saudi Arabia — and a romance unfolds.
Tykwer, who co-directed Cloud Atlas, a take on David Mitchell’s novel, is familiar with literary adaptation — and, for the most part, it shows. It’s fair to say, too, that Eggers’ books are friendly to book-to-screen translation. Hologram is the third (and possibly fourth) of his stories to be filmed this year, along with The Circle, Your Mother and I, and Zeitoun.
Still, Hanks and the rest of the Hologram cast were nervous to meet the author.
“He was on set, and none of us wanted to go talk to him,” Choudhury said after the film. “We were scared because he’s an intellectual, and we’re just actors.”
“It’s so frightening with they put the writer of the novel right in front of the monitor,” Alex Black added. “I kept thinking, ‘This is nothing like he envisioned.’”
But Hanks, who had met Eggers during the filming of Cloud Atlas, broke the ice. “I tried to be funny. I tried to be smart,” Hanks said, before launching into an impression of Eggers by folding his arms and wincing. Later he pointed out that Eggers, before now, had rarely given his books over to film.
“I told him that the smartest thing he’d ever done was to not let anyone make a film of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — because it was a memoir and very personal,” Hanks said.
When Choudhury mentioned a rumor that Eggers added a clause — “Don’t be an asshole” — before signing the contract, Tykwer confirmed. “That’s his favorite contract. We just promised not to be assholes, and signed. That was the deal.”
Next the conversation turned to the relative lightheartedness of the film over Eggers’ novel. Tykwer acknowledged the shift in tone as a choice he made with Hanks.
“When you adapt a novel that you love and admire,” Tykwer said, “I think it’s important to find your own take. To focus on something and expand it. The humor is of course in the book, only it’s more quiet. It’s a tiny bit more bleak. We felt with our constellation it was irresistible to investigate more energetic feelings.”
For Hanks’ part, the joy of the film came out of the adventure of making it. Though Hologram takes place in Saudi Arabia, it was filmed principally in the Moroccan desert.
“The great thing about making movies like this is that you do have adventures,” Hanks said. “You go off to places you would never go in a million years. At the end of the day you’re in a communal place, eating food out of the same pot. You can get a can of beer and go outside and the stars in the desert are unlike anything else on the planet Earth.”
“That’s a good gig, man,” Hanks concluded. “That’s a good time.”