In a post-Hamilton world, it should probably come as less of a surprise when a massive nonfiction book is adapted into something that becomes a pop-culture phenomenon. But Oppenheimer remains a pretty unlikely summer blockbuster, a three-hour, R-rated, very faithful adaptation of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The film manages to include an astonishing amount of details from the book, from the wild backstory of Robert Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, to the specific retort his friend Isidor Rabi had for the politicians scraping for details about Oppenheimer’s Communist ties (“What more do you want? Mermaids?”).

It is probably a little ridiculous to suggest that anyone read American Prometheus before they see Oppenheimer, which opens in theaters July 21 and works very hard to tell a clear story for people who have no familiarity with the book. So if you don’t have time to get through a 700-page biography before your showtime, the Little Gold Men book club has convened to help you catch up on what you might have missed. Joining Katey Rich and David Canfield for the discussion are Vanity Fair staff writer Erin Vanderhoof, a New Mexico native who has been to Los Alamos many times, and Atlantic film critic David Sims, a longtime Christopher Nolan devotee

The question of why Nolan would choose to adapt this book is pretty quickly answered when you pick up American Prometheus, its cover adorned with a striking close-up of Robert Oppenheimer that makes it very easy to imagine Cillian Murphy in the role. But the book resonates with Nolan’s work in other, more significant ways. “The way it’s talking about Oppenheimer pretty early on as inscrutable, charming, but also moody and mysterious…it just felt like such a Nolan protagonist,” Sims says. “That just sounds like the sort of frosty, weird protagonist that Nolan loves to put at the center of these very epic movies.”

Vanderhoof sees the book as the story of “a person who thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he’s eventually undone by shadowy forces that are larger than him”—another familiar plot for a Nolan film. But the book goes to great lengths to set up the context of the world Oppenheimer was operating in, devoting a lot of time to the left-leaning circles surrounding him in Berkeley, as well as the connections to Communism that would eventually come to overshadow his work on the Manhattan Project. For readers or moviegoers approaching the story more than 80 years later, the explanations on why a college professor in California would give money to Spanish Civil War refugees, or what it meant to support the unionization of a group of graduate students, make the stakes in Oppenheimer much clearer.

And then, of course, there are the details you get in the book that just can’t make their way to film. Jackie Oppenheimer, who marries Robert’s younger brother, Frank, is unflinching in her description of sister-in-law Kitty, calling her “one of the few really evil people I’ve known in my life.” At Los Alamos, scientists Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe, played in the film by Jack Quaid and Gustaf Skarsgård, establish a playful Relationship that earns the duo the nickname “the Mosquito and the Battleship.” And the details of Robert and Kitty’s life after what’s depicted in the movie, building a home on the Caribbean island of St. John and feuding with their neighbors, would make a pretty satisfying film all on their own. 

Listen to the conversation above, and find much more about American Prometheus and Oppenheimer in our extensive coverage of the film


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