How Well Has "High Fidelity" Aged Over the Last 25 Years?

From book to movie to a new Hulu series, the story is still about music and misery, but does it work in 2020?

February 13, 2020 8:30 am
Zoe Kravitz john cusack High Fidelity
Joan LeMay for InsideHook

I was in my mid-to-late 20s by the time I figured out I wasn’t supposed to love Rob Gordon.

By then, I had watched High Fidelity and read the beloved Nick Hornby novel which it is based on — which are celebrating their 20th and 25th anniversaries this year, respectively — more times than I can count, and made its record store-owning protagonist a template of sorts for every brooding, detached music obsessive I had ever developed a crush on. As Rob famously notes, “A while back, Dick, Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter,” and while I know now that’s meant to be evidence of his character’s immaturity, it felt like an indisputable truth at the time, an excuse for all the cute boys who loved all the same bands I did but were too neurotic to love me. They got bonus points if they loved High Fidelity too.

I was aware, of course, that Rob was, in the words of Joan Cusack’s Liz, a “fucking asshole.” He admits this, both in the book and the movie, rattling off his misdeeds like they were another Top 5 list. But he was charming and passionate and could respond to a customer’s “Do you have soul?” inquiry with “That all depends” while chain-smoking and listening to Love’s Four Sail in a way that seemed cool instead of deeply pathetic. So I rooted for him, and I applauded Laura for taking him back despite the fact that he hadn’t really done anything besides the absolute bare minimum to deserve it, and I hoped that one day one of the stupid Rob Gordons I knew would put Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love)” on a mixtape for me.

It wasn’t until years later that the true extent of Rob’s very specific brand of toxic masculinity hit me like a ton of bricks. It had always been there, plain as day, but in some ways, High Fidelity was ahead of its time. Twenty years ago, we were more likely to overlook and excuse certain types of awful guy behavior, and while the book made Rob’s flaws clear, the movie muddied the waters a bit by casting John Cusack, who brought his Lloyd Dobler leading man charisma to the part. As writer Dan Ozzi noted, “Rob Gordon was, in fact, a terrible human — a sociopathic womanizer, a stalker ex, and a shitty boyfriend. This was something that was understood by Hornby, but often goes over the heads of the movie’s fans … Every time [Cusack] flashes his sad, puppy dog eyes, it produces an instant flashback to his hopeless romantic teenage roles of the 1980s. Cusack is so inherently charming that he lends Gordon more sympathy than the character deserves.”

Related: How John Cusack Built the Template for a New Kind of Leading Man

This all seems painfully obvious in 2020; there’s not much difference between Rob and the self-righteous fanboys who feel like the world owes them something and feel a deep emotional connection with Todd Phillips’s Joker. We weren’t ready or fully able to see it two decades ago, but this month, we’ve been granted a new opportunity in the form of Hulu’s gender-swapped High Fidelity adaptation starring Zoë Kravitz as Rob (short for Robin, this time) Brooks. The 10-episode series, which premieres Feb. 14, was presented with the challenge of adapting Rob’s masculine flaws for a female character, but it also presents a unique opportunity for us, the audience, to finally get it right by offering a new perspective.

The show makes some updates for 2020 that attempt to modernize the source material: Rob is a biracial, bisexual woman. Jack Black’s Barry becomes Cherise, an African-American woman (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) whose arc attempts to address the ways women of color are frequently cast aside or dismissed by the music industry (and, of course, society as a whole). Todd Luiso’s Dick becomes Simon, a gay character who gets an entire episode centered around his own heartbreak. “I will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by the Beta Band” becomes “I will now sell five copies of Swamp Dogg’s Love, Loss and Auto-Tune.” There’s a debate over whether or not it’s ethical for Rob to sell a customer Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall in light of Jackson’s alleged pedophilia. 

There are some changes that feel like they were made in response to Rob being a woman this time around. Most of the exes on her top-five, desert-island breakups list are the same as in the source material — the schoolyard fling who ditches Rob for someone else, the glamorous and intimidating bullshitter (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the movie, this time around she’s a social-media influencer named Kat, played by Ivanna Sakhno), the ex whose existence is revealed to be too sad for Rob to consider having the “Why did you dump me?” conversation. Noticeably absent, however, is a surrogate Penny Hardwick character. In the original, she’s Rob’s high-school girlfriend, dumped by our hero because she wouldn’t put out. (“I wasn’t interested in Penny’s nice qualities, just her breasts, and therefore she was no good to me,” Rob admits.) She later tells Rob that the pressure he put on her to have sex essentially led her to being sexually coerced by her next boyfriend (“When that little shitbag asked me out and I was too tired to fight him off, it wasn’t rape, because I said ‘OK,’ but it wasn’t far off,” she tells him) and discouraged her from being sexually active all through college. 

It makes sense that a female Rob who, like nearly every woman, has undoubtedly had to put up with some sort of sexual harassment or assault would be more sensitive to this scenario. She likely wouldn’t, as the male Rob did upon hearing Penny’s recollection, fail to recognize the sexual trauma and delight over the realization that (s)he had been the one doing the dumping. Of course, internalized misogyny is real, and while the Penny storyline gets ditched, the Kat character allows Kravitz’s Rob to recreate one of Cusack’s most memorable toxic lines: “You fucking bitch! Let’s work it out!”

The female Rob is extremely similar to the male Rob, and in some ways, that makes sense. It even feels a little revolutionary, given the lack of complex female characters we typically get on TV. Women can be just as messy and flawed and irredeemable as men, and seeing more nuanced depictions of that is important. Why should Rob Brooks be any less of an asshole than Rob Gordon?

There’s one scene, however, that provides a glimpse at the gender dynamics the show could’ve highlighted. The series’ biggest addition is Clyde, the patient, square lawyer who serves as a new love interest for Rob (and also veers a little dangerously close into “nice guy” tropes), and one episode sees him joining her on a visit to check out a record collection being sold by a jilted woman (played hilariously by Parker Posey). It’s based on a scene from the book that was cut from the movie, in which Rob can’t bring himself to pay the woman’s outrageously low price for her cheating husband’s valuable collection.

In this version, Rob still can’t bring herself to rip off a fellow collector, so she and Clyde track down the husband at the Carlyle hotel to try to get a sense of whether he’s really deserving of such spite. He barely acknowledges Rob, focusing all his attention and spewing all his hot takes at Clyde, and when Rob speaks up to correct him about the year a Wings album was released, he mansplains, condescends and refuses to believe her.

It’s a brief but meaningful look at what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated fan community — one I felt deep in my bones. (Ask me about the time an older male colleague at a publication expressed shock and awe that I was familiar with the Ramones despite the fact that I was in charge of editing the entire music section, or how many times I’ve been asked to name three of a band’s songs to prove I’m a true fan.) But ultimately, it’s a hint of what might have been had the show decided to delve deeper into the fact that Rob Brooks has undoubtedly had to deal with her share of Rob Gordons.

To that end, this new adaptation feels like a missed opportunity. Despite a few fleeting moments of insight, the gender swap feels pointless: Rob is, for all intents and purposes, the same, and while it’s not a shot-for-shot remake, High Fidelity is a loyal cover version. It knows what we like, but it has failed to show us what it is like.

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