W hat’s the difference between a good liar and a good storyteller? The answer, or the lack of an answer, is a mystery at the heart of The Night Listener, a muted psychological thriller adapted from the Armistead Maupin novel. A writer’s elaborate what-if scenario extrapolated from an anecdote, it’s presented as a story within a story, sometimes clunkily. And yet, in some ways, the story’s narrative bumps and shortcomings create a clearer picture of its teller than the tale itself does.
“Inspired by true events,” the movie announces — a line typically best understood as “The film you are about to see is full of crap.” The truth of The Night Listener is more complex. Though adapted by Maupin himself, with his former partner Terry Anderson and director Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers), the movie is at least two degrees of embellishment removed from the incident that inspired it: the author’s telephone correspondence with 14-year-old Anthony Godby Johnson, whose 1993 memoir of parental rape and torture led reporters from Newsweek and The New Yorker on a merry hunt to corroborate his existence.
In his book, which drew upon details of his life as well as his fiction, Maupin made his stand-in an NPR commentator named Gabriel Noone; when The Night Listener was serialized as an audio book on Salon, Maupin lent the character his voice, blurring their boundaries even more. In the movie, Gabriel is distinctly Robin Williams, but the underlying ambivalence remain Maupin’s: “I’ve spent years looting my life for fiction. Like a magpie, I save the shiny stuff and discard the rest.”
The shiny stuff here is Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), a 14-year-old whose lurid memoir reaches Gabriel and stirs in him some protective, fatherly impulse. The closer they get, though, the more Gabriel needs tangible proof that the kid exists. That means a trip to Wisconsin and the cautious company of Pete’s adoptive mom, Donna (Toni Collette), a paranoid social worker who may have good reason to keep the boy hidden.
You can argue that Donna remains more fascinating plot device than rounded character, even with Collette making her desperation palpably clammy. You can also argue that details rhyme too neatly. But are these the faults of Maupin’s storytelling or Gabriel’s? Intended or not, they reveal something about the authorial sensibility shaping the story; a desire not to look too closely at a fellow fabulist who borrows, without asking, the lives of others; an instinct to beat a safe retreat back to NPR-friendly types and conflicts; and an urge to impose a structure on life’s messiness. The clunkiness can’t be intentional, but the glimpse it affords of an author tiptoeing around his ethical queasiness doesn’t seem accidental, either.
The difference between a good liar and a good storyteller, perhaps, is the degree to which other people willingly comply with the fiction. As someone once wrote — borrowing, of course, from somewhere else — the heart is deceitful above all things.