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From Cujo to Precious, five tragedy-porn books and the films they inspired

MoNique in her Oscar-winning performance in the tragedy-porn classic, Precious.
MoNique in her Oscar-winning performance in the tragedy-porn classic, Precious.

In author Sapphire's new novel, The Kid (a semi-sequel to Precious -- the Hollywood adaptation of her '96 novel, Push), we are treated to another relentless marathon of abuse, rape, failed dreams and unsettling conclusions. "Commercial media looks at things in terms of heroes and villains," Sapphire told us in advance of tonight's appearance at the Tattered Cover. "And we all know that the psychological reality of people is much more complex than that."

In honor of Sapphire's visit to Denver, we're taking a look at a handful of other "tragedy porn" books and the films they inspired:

Tragedy porn should never be confused with torture porn (Hostel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the novels of Dennis Cooper) or stories with a tragic plot (Romeo & Juliet, The Picture of Dorian Gray). With tragedy porn, the suffering is typically more cerebral and the tragedy is consistent throughout the story. Here's a brief summary of what it takes to make a good bummer of a story:

* No happy endings: While you may find yourself cheering for a protagonist, in this genre you cannot walk away feeling satisfied. Characters must either unexpectedly die or return to a misery equal to or greater than what they started with.

* No clear villains: Even if the story has an antagonist, at some point something will be revealed that will make you empathize with him/her/it.

* No fantasy: While novel adaptations like The Road or The Hunger Games relentlessly torture their protagonists, the stories exist in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world that separates the reader from their pain. Tragedy porn contains characters you can relate to in environments you recognize, making the horror all the more present.

* No levity: In these stories, any moments of hope, beauty or safety only serve to arouse the momentary sense that it may all work out, strengthening your bond to the protagonist -- and making the sting of disappointment all the more unbearable.

5.) Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr.

The debut novel from a man who'd just spent three years half-dead in a hospital bed, Brooklyn is so unsettling it was held up in British courts on obscenity charges before becoming the Ginsberg-praised classic. The collection of short stories includes a drug-addicted transvestite prostitute who is humiliated, knifed and eventually run down by a car; the gang rape of a wet-brained con artist by a horde of sailors (at one point involving a broken broom handle); and a closeted homosexual union leader embezzling strike funds to lavish on a drag queen. Last Exit to Brooklyn has horrified generations of readers with its hellish portrayal of the human experience, yet Selby maintains it was based mostly on his experiences growing up on the seedier side of Brooklyn. Its 1989 film adaptation pulled few punches in terms of bleakness, yet ultimately failed to capture the sense of doom and loss in Selby's prose. Darren Aronofsky came somewhat closer to achieving this with his 2000 adaptation of Selby's Requiem for a Dream.

4.) Cujo, by Stephen King

Hey, you may be asking, doesn't the inclusion of Cujo preclude the rule about no villains? Not exactly. While the film may do a poor job of (among many things) showing the dog as a multi-dimensional being capable of holding contrary desires in the same moment, the book presents Cujo as a loving canine enduring a savage mental illness. Stephen King claims to have been so bombed out of his head at the time that he has no memory of writing Cujo, yet he was still somehow capable of spinning a heartbreaking yet terrifying story of regret, infidelity, primal violence and mind-snapping fear. In the end the dog is dead, yet so is our protagonist's son, after days of suffering dehydration in a sun-baked automobile, stalked by a rabid beast. And in classic tragedy-porn style, after the reader has been drained of emotion at the death of the young boy, King ends the book with the postscript: "He had always tried to be a good dog. He had always tried to do the things his man and his woman and, most of all, his boy, had expected of him. He would have died for them.... He never wanted to kill anybody.... It was a degenerative nerve disease called rabies -- free will was not a factor."

3.) Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis

In this debut novel from nineteen-year-old Ellis, lead character Clay watches with amusement and curiosity as his friend descends into drug addiction and prostitution, saying, "I want to see the worst, I want to see how dark things can get." This is probably the most encapsulating description of the tragedy-porn genre: The dark possibilities of the human experience will always fascinate an audience, as long as it's from an impersonal distance (similar to gladiatorial massacres in Rome). The producers of the brat-pack adaptation of this hit novel didn't feel the same way, though. Stripped of any visceral punch, the film version of Less Than Zero had a total plot and character restructuring, never used a single line of dialogue from the book, and was a mostly detached, unrelated piece of cinema, almost incidentally sharing the same title as this tragedy-porn classic.

2.) Push, by Sapphire

Typically, Hollywood isn't interested in adapting tragedy-porn books for one obvious reason: How often do people head to the cinema exclaiming, "I want to see something that will destroy my faith in humanity!" Yet somehow, producers Oprah and Tyler Perry managed to turn Push into the acclaimed film Precious, without stripping it of its morbid core (e.g. Less Than Zero). At the conclusion of the film, we not only learn that Precious is infected with HIV, but we are left with a scene that -- in classic tragedy-porn style -- humanizes the villain who is Precious's mother.

1.) The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, by J.T. Leroy

For five years, the media and literature fans were all convinced that the gruesome events detailed in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things were the true-life story of young author J.T. Leroy. Spinning the reader into a world of child rape, neglect, religious extremism and amphetamine psychosis, Deceit turned transgender ex-prostitute J.T. Leroy into a literary sensation, leaving journalists clamoring for more information, more stories of sadism and inhumanity.

Too bad Leroy didn't exist. What we all thought was the autobiography of a 21-year-old, male-born wunderkind from West Virginia was actually the fictional imaginings of 36-year-old San Franciscan Laura Albert -- all exposed in a brilliant New York Times article. While the hoax may have taken some of the sting out of the book, Deceit remains a horribly engaging read, whisking readers away into a world of juvenile torture that makes Jaycee Dugard's upbringing look tame by comparison. Like Last Exit to Brooklyn, the film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (by Asia Argento, daughter of famed Italian torture porn director Dario Argento) didn't hold back on the relentless misery of young Jeremiah, yet ultimately failed to convey the innocent perspective of a child enduring all this madness, an essential component when trying to rob an audience of its faith in humanity with some potent tragedy porn.

Sapphire will be reading from the new paperback edition of her novel, The Kid, at 7:30 p.m. today at the Tattered Cover Colfax, 2526 Colfax Avenue.


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