In the summer of 1952, when Robert Lipsyte was 14 years old, his family left New York City to spend the season at their lake house in Monroe, New York. Though 1950s childhoods tended to be idyllic for most people who lived through them, Mr. Lipsyte, Reporter columnist, author, sports writer and Island resident, recalls that summer was anything but.
That’s because he had three serious problems to contend with in the summer of ’52 — his excessive weight, a cruel bully, and his employer, an abusive old man who was never satisfied with the job he did mowing his massive lawn.
“He would follow me as I was mowing, pointing out blades of grass I had missed,” said Mr. Lipsyte in a recent interview at the Reporter. “He was awful and reduced my pay because I wasn’t doing a good enough job. I was 14 and lied about my age, so I came cheap.”
Mr. Lipsyte, wrote about the shadow of his 14-year-old self in “One Fat Summer,” his best-selling novel for young adults published in 1977.
This Friday, more than 40 years later, “Measure of a Man,” the film based on Mr. Lipsyte’s book, opens at 32 theaters in 20 cities across the country, including Los Angeles and New York (where it will play at the Village East Cinema on 2nd Avenue).
Directed by Jim Loach, the independent film features a screenplay by David Scearce. The movie, which was shot in Rhode Island in 2016, came about when Mr. Scearce contacted Mr. Lipsyte to find out if the rights were available to “One Fat Summer.”
“He had read it in middle school and always wanted to make it,” said Mr. Lipstye. “He asked, ‘Is it available?’ and I said, ‘It is.’”
“David found the company and the director and put all the pieces together,” added Mr. Lipsyte. “He sent me the script and I thought it was wonderful.”
In the film, 16-year-old Blake Cooper, who starred in “The Maze Runner,” plays protagonist Bobby Marks — Mr. Lipsyte’s alter ego — while Donald Sutherland portrays Dr. Kahn, the Wall Street executive who gives Bobby a torturous and poorly paying summer job on his estate.
Compounding Bobby’s problems that summer are his parents (played by Judy Greer and Luke Wilson) who are on the verge of divorce, and his older sister Michelle (Liana Liberato), who coerces Bobby to cover for her so she can sneak out of the house to spend time with her boyfriend.
Then there is the bully, a “townie” with an abject hatred of rich “summer people” (Sound familiar?) who takes his anger out exclusively on overweight Bobby.
It’s a time that the real Bobby still recalls vividly.
“I was 14 when I had this adventure. All I knew was I would be a writer and at the end of the summer, this was going to be my first novel,” said Mr. Lipsyte. “It wasn’t, but I tried. I couldn’t deal with the emotions, the shame of being bullied, being fat, afraid of girls, all this stuff.
“It took over 20 years to approach the feelings.”
Though Mr. Lipsyte’s book is set in the 1950s, the film has been shifted forward two decades to the 1970s. Along the way, Mr. Lipsyte notes, the music and story have been altered in order to make some of the plot twists more contemporary.
For example, in the book, Bobby’s parents battle over the notion of his mother pursuing a job as a teacher instead of staying at home with the kids — a decidedly 1950s conceit. Now, explains Mr. Lipsyte, it’s the ‘70s and she is studying for her law degree, which causes friction.
Also in the screen version, Dr. Khan starts out as a curmudgeon but turns out to be a compassionate man as he counsels Bobby through his troubles with the bully. In the film, Dr. Khan is a Holocaust survivor, so he has had some experience with bullies himself.
But in real life, Mr. Lipsyte found no such redeeming characteristics in his employer.
“The novel is semi-autobiographical,” said Mr. Lipsyte. “I lost 40 pounds as a kid taking care of this beastly man’s estate. In the book he’s beastly to the end.”
Gone altogether from the film is a decidedly 1950s-era scene in which Bobby’s family is scolded by neighbors for bringing an African-American friend from the city to stay with them for the weekend. But perhaps the most profound change in the film version is the fact there is no fat shaming of Bobby, unlike what Mr. Lipsyte experienced in real life and wrote about in the book.
“That summer changed me enormously. I was a fat boy in the corner. I wanted to be a writer, in retrospect, because I was fat,” he said. “I knew anyone who didn’t like themselves for any reason should be a writer to control and manipulate the universe. I wrote a lot of stories about thin people dying horribly.”
“The film moved to a more modern sensibility and in a sense, it’s one I like better,” said Mr. Lipsyte.
So rather than the lead character ultimately losing weight, as Mr. Lipsyte did in real life and his 14-year-old self did in the book, in the end of “Measure of a Man,” Bobby comes to terms with his body and accepts himself for who he is, extra pounds and all.
“In the last scene in the movie, Bobby goes on the high board with his belly jiggling,” said Mr. Lipsyte. “He’s comfortable in his skin.
“But the boy in ‘One Fat Summer’ still isn’t,” he added.
“Measure of a Man” opens in theaters across the country on Friday, May 11 and is distributed by Great Point Media Limited. To see a preview of the film, visit trailers.apple.com/trailers/independent/measure-of-a-man/.