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Print to Projector: Jitterbug Perfume

By  · Published on February 28th, 2010

As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to. This week, Print to Projector presents:

Jitterbug Perfume

by Tom Robbins

“The citadel was dark, and the heroes were sleeping.”


An ancient king eludes being killed in his ripe young age, invents individualism, meets a young Indian girl who is also running from death and the two discover the key to immortality (it’s mostly breathing correctly and having a ton of sex). Meanwhile, in the future, an inspired waitress, her enterprising stepmother, a French perfumer, and an eccentric pseudo-scientist all search for a scent that transcends time and space.


When Tom Robbins is actually focusing on the story and not, say, some random tangent he seemed to hit upon while writing, it sings. His writing style is basically unmatched when it comes to purple prose, and here he has centuries to cover, lovers to celebrate, and aromas to explore.

The book is so incredibly sensual that Robbins doesn’t shy away from the sweet surrender or the downright dirty. Read it, and you can scratch Learning What An Ancient Goat God’s Man Parts Smell Like off your To-Do list. Several times.

Nevertheless, even with immortality at stake, the whole thing is lighthearted and funny. The old king Alobar and his love Kudra wander the undeveloped world without much fear except for the townsfolk noticing that they never age. They banter back and forth about the best way to live and commune with Pan as he slowly disappears from the earth, threatened by the oncoming popularity of Christianity.

Even the waitress Priscilla’s problems of being broke and just a bit of money away from discovering a highly marketable fragrance are played on the surface – never living too deeply in the despair, always keeping light and breezy. Of course, a book featuring a character named Bingo Pajama who has a crown made of live bees sort of has to play everything light and breezy.

Robbins prefers to write while dizzying himself around a Maypole instead of while burying his head in his hands.

What results is a cross-continent, cross-century stroll through a field that may or may not deposit you at the end somewhere. In lieu of a main character, Robbins sets up several possibilities which give the reader the option (or force the reader’s own natural predispositions) to choose who they relate to most or who they are rooting for. So who do you choose? The free-spirited King? His beautiful, ethereal wife? The down-on-her-luck, avoiding-the-lesbian-advances-of-her-co-worker waitress? Her insane, Irish lover who leaves beets on everyone’s doorstep? The obsessed French perfumer? That guy who’s barely in it but has a sweet crown of bees? All of the above?

Potential Problems

It’s long, and not just page-wise. The novel spans such an intense amount of time that it would be difficult to film. Plus, the book structure hops back and forth not only between Seattle, New Orleans and Paris, but from modern day to the Dark Ages in Eurasia.

It would also be difficult to parse out the necessary elements from a story that has so many rich plots and sidebars.

It’s less of a problem and more of a challenge, but truly capturing the aforementioned sensuality would be a difficult task that would be incredibly rewarding on screen. Imagine a master filmmaker able to make you smell the scene through visuals alone.

Also, CGI bees might prove a challenge. I say, go practical.

The biggest hurdle, of course, is that the main draw the book is the writing instead of the plot. The characters are strong an interesting, but it’s really Robbins’s description (the only thing that really can’t make the jump from page to screen) that soars. He writes a scene of hairy goat-sex with the sweet, clear resonance of a choir singing hymns on Sunday.

The Pitch

Despite its epic nature and a whole host of non-cinematic elements, Robbins’s fourth novel is a perfect candidate for a sweeping, Oscar-worthy adaptation.


Writings that question the very nature of mankind and womankind’s struggle to find lasting meaning, eternal life, and beets always require wise talent to even start throwing ink onto page one. So where do we find a talent that can dig deep into the earthy soul of a sweaty king’s undersack?

You go to the source.

Tom Robbins is in his 70s, and he’s never written a screenplay. It’s high time that he rediscovered these characters for himself, put them on script pages, and had someone intelligent sift through and toss out all the pages where he diverts into describing a mushroom cap on a mountainside in intimate detail.


There’s no reason not to give Gus Van Sant another crack at directing a Robbins adaptation. He brilliantly took on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, managing such feats as making it appear as if Keanu Reeves could act and giving Uma Thurman enormous thumbs.

Van Sant is also friends with Robbins, which I imagine would make the collaboration process all that more intimate. Or they’d want to murder each other. Either way, we win.


Where do you find a Bohemian king, a struggling waitress and a cloven deity in Hollywood?:

Zoe Saldana as Priscilla:Not only is she a great choice for commercial reasons, she’s also a strong actress that is continuing to prove herself and her ability to steal scenes. Priscilla is frustrated but wears her emotions far below her sleeves.

Liam Neeson as King Alobar: Alobar is an introspective bad ass. He can live off the land, but still longs for his trusty dog, has killed his fair share of men in war, but loves with all his heart and doesn’t shy away from a conversation about how to live life the best. It requires an older actor – but one who is seasoned and can still look rugged and rough.

Zuleikha Robinson as Kudra: One of the difficulties is finding actors who fit the body types of the characters that Robbins paints. For example, he seems obsessed with the gravitational severity of Kudra’s womanly features. Those are hard features to find in Hollywood or Bollywood, which is why the “Lost” star is a perfect fit for the role. She’s gorgeous, and she can play tough and independent while carrying her curves with her.

Meryl Streep as Madame Devalier: Who wouldn’t want to see the Academy Award-winning actress play a crazy creole woman with a huge personality? I rest my case.

Brad Pitt as Wiggs Dannyboy: While I agree that casting Brad Pitt is a little unfair, it would still be an outrageous role for the guy. Wiggs Dannyboy is an honest-to-God insane person who just happens to be right about the nature of the universe. He’s the eccentric living up on top of the hill, attempting to live forever and bringing his act on the road from time to time. Imagine him channeling his character from Snatch while effortlessly, crassly seducing Zoe Saldana, and you’re halfway home.

Vincent Cassel as Marcel LeFever: He might be a little too serious for the role, but it would be fun to see Cassel play things for laughs. Marcel LeFever is a true genius with a gift for smelling that would make a bloodhound jealous. He, like everyone else, is also a little bit crazy, a lot bit French, and is determined to find the next best fragrance for more than just capital gains.

…with Mos Def as Bingo Pajama: A small role, but one that comes covered in bees and jasmine.

…and Peter Dinklage as Pan: Not a small role, but one that would see Dinklage act the hell out of an ancient God who celebrates the finer things in life – furiously fornicating, breathing fresh air, and dancing around in the forest.

Who Owns It:

As far as I could research, Robbins still owns the rights himself. Currently, no one has purchased film rights, or at least they haven’t publicized the sale.


Although a lot of people are split on the book, and split on Robbins as an author, it’s difficult to deny that the guy has a way with words. He describes everything in rich detail which, admittedly, is sort of a moot point when it comes to adapting for a visual medium, but part of me believes that he would create a fantastic script that could be taken by the craftsmanship of a master filmmaker and spun into a ridiculously fun ride (with a dash of deeper meaning) that would leave audiences smiling as they walked out of the theater wondering if they only imagined the invisible hand up their skirts.

Editor’s Note: This entry could not have been done without the always-lovely Caitlin Cima who introduced me to the novel and who suggested several members of the cast. Remembering “that girl from Namesake” was a particularly big help.

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