Features and Columns · Movies

Print to Projector: The Learners

By  · Published on October 23rd, 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 the story of a young man joining an ad agency in the early 1960s, but instead of drinking scotch, chain smoking, and wearing nice suits all day, he stumbles upon the Milgram Experiment, a mysterious suicide of a close friend and is haunted by his true murderous nature.

The Learners

By Chip Kidd

“When Tip is standing in the doorway as he is right now, it can only mean one thing.”


The novel has been called Mad Men: The Novel, and that’s completely true in so far as they both involve advertising in the 1960s. That’s where the similarities end as Chip Kidd’s writing is less Dapper Dan and more Helvetica with a touch of Comic Sans. Kidd has an incredible skill for graphic design (most famously for book covers (you may remember the Jurassic Park logo)), and that style comes through on every page. Perhaps it’s because the main character here is so young that the same smoke-filled swagger of Don Draper isn’t present, but none of that matters; the book is its own entity, and it stands with its shoulders and head held high.

Happy has just joined the small family at the New Haven ad agency at which his mentor started. He’s nervous, a little shy, and a lot overwhelmed by the vibrant characters that all inhabit the office space (including a giant pampered dog). At the starting block of his professional life (the thing they tell us college is so important for), a meeting with his old friend Himillsy disrupts everything and sends him following his own advertisement to sign up for something called The Milgram Experiment that’s going on at Yale. What he learns about himself during the experiment is enough to shake his core right out of him.

Potential Problems

The biggest problem would be losing Kidd’s playfulness with typography and the interjections that come in the form of personified advertising/literary concepts like Satire and Metaphor. The extended version of the latter (the Milgram Experiment mirroring ads by hiding its content with its form) could be maintained, but it would be difficult to find the right balance for the quick lessons in how to say what you need to say.

They would either need to be shoved into the mouths of characters (which might be awkward) or done in a fourth-wall busting way that shows print on the screen (which might seem too creative for its own good).

Also, it doesn’t follow a typical three act structure, but audiences will just have to get over it.

The Pitch

Writing: Style is the name of the game here. It’s tempting to see Kidd adapt his own work even though he has no screenwriting experience (still, he’s proven himself to be a Renaissance Man). Instead, I’d love to see Kidd work hand in hand with up and coming screenwriter Robert Kaplow who turned in a great script for Me and Orson Welles. The language is there – all it needs is a lead that doesn’t have a spray tan.

Directing: While reading the novel, I could only think of Marc Webb taking the lead if a film were ever made. It would be like a slightly darker, non-romantic comedy version of 500 Days of Summer with just the right amount of humor and humanity.


Elijah Wood as Happy: This character first made an appearance in Kidd’s “The Cheese Monkeys” where he was put through the ringer by a sadistic design professor. Now that he’s out of school, he’s got a quiet way about him despite an earnest amount of talent and what seems like an intense passion (even if it’s sometimes naive). Wood has been in his fair share of quirky comedies, but the movie that really proves he’d be great here is Everything is Illuminated. Happy isn’t at all the same character as Jonathan, but they’re spiritual cousins – both slightly awkward and searching for something.

Blake Lively as Himillsy: Himillsy is a bit off from the moment we meet her. She’s a brief spark in the blowing breeze of the rest of the novel, and even with her eccentricity, she looks like she’s on a destructive path. If Lively could take her Gossip Girl character and add in a dash of Charlie from High Fidelity, the combination would be perfect.

Stanley Tucci as Tip: Perhaps Tip is supposed to be a bit younger, but Tucci seems tailor-made for the role after his turn in The Devil Wears Prada. Tip is hyper creative, an innovator that isn’t given his due, and sassy only the way a gay man hiding his homosexuality in plain sight can be. He’s one of the most lovable characters from the novel, and Tucci would be fantastic in the role.

John Goodman as Sketch: John Goodman is a phenomenal talent. He’s also getting to a point where he can play dodgy old father figures. That’s Sketch – a talent much bigger than the pond he finds himself in. Acting as a mentor, he’s also the lynch pin for the small company and seems the best equipped for dealing with the insanity of their boss while also being something of a dinosaur that time is about to pass by.

Timothy Spall as Dr. Stanley Milgram: Milgram, the mind behind the famous experiment that saw average people giving their peers deadly shocks for getting answers wrong, is sort of a God-like figure in that he’s talked about a lot (especially through mentions of the experiment), but he isn’t seen all that often. He’s a man behind a curtain. Spall, a strong talent, also happens to look a bit like Milgram, so hopefully he can nail down an American accent with a tinge of Hungarian and Romanian.

Who Owns It:

With no talk of a film adaptation yet, the rights reside with the author.

The Projection:

A movie version of “The Learners” would be a breath of fresh air. It’s funny and heartfelt, and while the style isn’t exactly a dirty martini with a twist of cigarette butt, it’s still got the same 60s ad environment that seems in style. There is a lot of commercial viability here, but there’s also a lot of creativity to be instilled into what might otherwise be a fairly standard dramedy. Bright characters, a fascinating story – the book finds itself on a silver platter waiting to be served up to a smart producer.

Feign literary expertise by reading more Print to Projector.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.