Many years ago for the BBC I interviewed T Coraghessan Boyle, author of a novel set in Battle Creek, Michigan - "The Cereal Bowl of the World!" - in the early years of the 20th century. The title of Boyle's book was The Road To Wellville, which in fact was the name of a pamphlet written by C W Post after a stay at Dr Kellogg's sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Mr Post was so inspired by the Kellogg recommendations on "clean living" that he started his own breakfast cereal - Grape Nuts - and included a copy of his pamphlet in every box. In Boyle's novel, the mere mention of "The Road To Wellville" provokes Dr Kellogg to paroxysms of rage.
As soon as my BBC producer told me what the book was about, I thought, "Ah-ha! There's a hit!" But T Coraghessan Boyle is an idiosyncratic writer and rather more of an acquired taste than Corn Flakes or Raisin Bran. His literary style is quite as obsessive as his subject in his measured, clinical pile-up of details - the Nuttolene and Granuto, the rectoscopes and sitz baths. But he's also somewhat fastidious and granular when it comes to both country matters and waste matter: one chapter heading encapsulates his attitude - "The Civilized Bowel". Very civilized. So the novel wasn't quite the runaway bestseller it might have been in others' hands.
He did, however, get an instant movie sale out of it. So a year after publication - 1994, or a quarter-century ago this week - The Road To Wellville hit the big screen in a treatment by writer/director Alan Parker. The film appeared to be Parker's attempt to put a whoopee cushion under Boyle's book, or at any rate a lot of corn among the flakes. The principal elements remain: Will and Eleanor Lightbody (Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda) have decided to entrust themselves, after the death of their child, to the care of John Harvey Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins) and his up-to-the-minute health cures and "clean living" prescriptions. En route to Battle Creek, they meet a couple of shysters (John Cusack, Michael Lerner) hoping to cash in on the latest fad by enlisting Dr Kellogg's estranged son George (Dana Carvey) to lend his name to "Kellogg's Per-Fo Flakes", in hopes that the senior Kellogg's will buy up the inedible product to protect his name.
Once at the sanatorium, Will finds the clinical regimen frustratingly arousing and is soon harboring lustful thoughts toward both nurses (Traci Lind) and patients (Lara Flynn Boyle). But he also can't help noticing that a not insignificant number of Kellogg's patients seem to die, beginning in the sinusoidal bath with a fellow seeker of clean living, and quickly moving on to one of the lady residents to whom Will is partial. His wife Eleanor, meanwhile, is enjoying the health benefits of clitoral massages from Dr Spitzvogel (Norbert Weisser).
Complications ensue, as they will. In light of developments three years ago, Kellogg's journey across the century from straightforward health-fad hucksterism to hollow social-justice posturing seems in a certain sense a perfect précis of the degeneration of a mercantile republic. And, after all the poseur talk from their recent spokespersons about the company's "values", Alan Parker's film is a lovingly detailed recreation of both a more earnest yet less pompous age. Nevertheless its preoccupations are rather different from the book. We've all heard from various accounts that the respective inventors of the Corn Flake, the Grape Nut and the Graham Cracker intended that regular consumption of their products would significantly reduce the urge to masturbate. How odd then that The Road To Wellville, with its catering budget groaning under vast quantities of Dr Kellogg's and Dr Post's and Dr Graham's breakfast cereals, is chiefly distinguished for its directorial onanism. On the screen Alan Parker has never been one for self-denial, and at the time this picture came out he'd had a pretty remarkable two-decade run: Bugsy Malone, Fame, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments... Along the way, as the most Hollywood-inclined of British directors, he gleefully flayed what he regarded as the UK's preening, pretentious, parochial film industry for its predisposition to disappear up its own bottom. Yet here he is turning in what is, by his definition, the ultimate British movie: it disappears up everybody's bottom - literally. The real star is not the ostentatiously buck-toothed Anthony Hopkins, notwithstanding his splendid set of dental props, but the good doctor's colonic irrigating apparatus; the supporting cast is not so much the then hip up-and-comers Broderick, Fonda, Cusack, Carvey and Boyle, but their stools, lovingly analyzed by both Kellogg and Parker.
So, while the novel is concerned as much with the damaging and destabilizing effects of Dr Kellogg's regime, the film is mostly about bowel movements. When young Will Lightbody is given his first colon wash by the young nurse, Boyle describes it thus: "It was the must mortifying and exquisite moment of his life". Parker's approach is summed up by his inability to resist including the line (altogether now) "With friends like these, who needs enemas?' His characters are literally what they eat, eventually reduced to mere conduits to facilitate the next defecation joke. At the beginning of the novel, Will and Eleanor run into Kellogg's would-be rival, the cereal scam artist, in the club car on the train to Battle Creek; on the screen, Parker feels the need to liven up the scene by having Will vomit over an adjoining table. It's impressive, not least in that Matthew Broderick is one of the few actors who can puke in a clean-cut way. But over two hours it can become a little wearing.
Still, much of the picture is not without its pleasures, especially in light of Kellogg's recent behavior. The company, after all, has always had "values"; it's just that they've evolved over the years. So, for example, Dr Kellogg sternly warns that "An erection is a flagpole on your grave" - which I don't believe is the company's current position. Actually, I'm not entirely persuaded Dr Kellogg himself ever uttered such a line, but in the interests of hooting and jeering at his successors I'm happy to believe it. Anthony Hopkins, coming to Kellogg after his repressed butlering turn in The Remains of the Day, seems to have looked on the role as an opportunity to make like his colonic patients and let it all out. He has a funny voice, a funny beard, and funny chipmunk teeth all the better to chew up the movie with. He's a big, coarse cartoon, and, as such, he just about holds his own with the set — and the extras, whose vast expanses of cellulite wobbling in and out of their diapers and harnesses are the most literal example of how Parker has grossly over-inflated Boyle's original. His svelte, pristine, youthful stars can't compete in such company, crushed like stick insects by the excesses going on in the background.
Here and there Parker has a sober insight, but the film falls between two, er, stools: Is he using Kellogg's sanatorium to mock, as Boyle's novel does, contemporary health faddism? Or is he just having a laugh at fat asses and pendulous pecs? He's got a Hollywood budget and Bridget Fonda and John Cusack instead of Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams, but he veers alarmingly close to Carry On Up The Colon. Which even so is a useful reminder both of Kellogg's corporate origins and that the healthiest attitude to their diversification into political virtue-signaling is to advise them to stick it where the sun don't shine.
Oh, and Rachel Portman's score is quite lovely.
~As we always say, membership in The Mark Steyn Club isn't for everybody, but it does come with certain privileges, including a trio of member-exclusive events with Mark coming up next month.
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