Authors are often disappointed with the end product when their books are licensed to be made into movies. Such was the case with Less than Zero, the 1987 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' debut novel from 1985 which depicts social depravity in the city of Los Angeles, California in the early '80s. It's a somewhat loose adaptation but has basically the same plot as the book with just a couple of the characters' roles tweaked.
The dramatic performances of Robert Downey Jr. as failed entrepreneur turned drug-addict (Julian) and James Spader as the drug dealer he owes money (Rip) alone make this movie worth seeing. It's a definite throwback and a real treat to see these two actors who're still stars back when they were so young. The sex scene with '80s Hollywood staples Andrew McCarthy (Clay) and Jami Gertz (Blair) along with its entire buildup is also surprisingly erotic and beautifully depicts the chain of events that occurs when that perfect mood strikes.
For fans of the original novel, however, the movie fails to deliver in that it doesn't attempt to capture the main character's stream of consciousness at all. There's no visibility into the psyche of Clay which makes it feel like Julian is really the main character. It's probably for the best because Robert Downey Jr. steals the show, but imagine if The Catcher in the Rye were told in third person: it'd just be a meaningless sequence of events without direction or profundity. By and large, that's what the viewer gets with Less Than Zero, and the movie fails to illustrate the cultural vanity and emotional callousness in LA to the extent the novel does because of it. It's a shame because the novel has so many recurring invasive thoughts (Disappear here, People are afraid to merge) and mental commentary that served wonderfully to show how easily the human brain is distracted and how often people avoid thinking about actual problems or just focus on themselves. All of that is gone, and the shock value of the book is also lost in translation to film as they cut out the pornography viewing sessions, rape scene, and vulgar, unsavory conversations among Rip's posse. The movie hints at what Julian has to do to settle his debt with Rip and eventually makes it clear but never dares to show anything explicit.
Couldn't they have better captured the spirit and deeper meaning of the book? That's the challenge of filmmaking, and I don't think those involved in this adaptation rose to that challenge on this particular movie. It's something that can certainly be achieved with this type of writing; just look at the cinematic version of American Psycho (2000). Although Ellis didn't care for that one either.