Within the last twenty minutes of Kill Your Darlings, Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) narrates for the viewer what he believes to be the nature of the relationship between Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). He says,
[Kammerer] loved you. And the truth is, once, you loved him back. But this secret ate away at you … He rescued you. He saved your life. You needed him as much as he needed you.
Since Ginsberg is the main character of the film and also the lens through which the audience sees the sequence of events unfold, the assumption to be made is that Ginsberg’s version of events is the truth.
Granted, those who are well-versed in the history of the Beat Generation and the relationships between the writers will raise various issues with Kill Your Darlings. This isn’t a film which has been praised for its accuracy. It’s one that’s “inspired by true events” rather than “based on a true story.” However, there is one major discrepancy between the film’s version of events and recorded history which is particularly problematic: the depiction of the relationship between Carr and Kammerer. The film portrays the relationship as a tragic love story rather than an abusive one involving years of stalking, pedophilia, and harassment.
Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, both of whom were closely involved in Carr’s life for a while, wrote about the events depicted in the film in their book, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Kammerer first met and began stalking Carr when they were 26 and 12 years old, respectively. He would follow Carr from city to city and from school to school until they ended up at Columbia University in New York. By this time, Carr was in his twenties and had faced several years of harassment. This culminated in the anger, altercation, and infamous murder.
Here, I would like to analyze the film’s portrayals of three individuals involved in the events, and what these portrayals say about Hollywood’s misrepresentation of abuse.
Kill Your Darlings depicts Ginsberg as a sympathetic writer with a strong moral compass who challenges the institution of Columbia University and has a desire to expose the truth. By the end of the film, the audience gets the sense that Ginsberg sees the true nature of the “love” between Carr and Kammerer and only wants to bring about justice in the aftermath of the murder. Because Radcliffe is the star of the film and Ginsberg is the main character, the viewer is naturally inclined to sympathize with him.
However, in reality, Ginsberg often advocated pedophilia in his poetry – in some cases, it was a central theme – and he was also defensive about child molesters. Taking these factors into consideration offers up a new context through which one should view Ginsberg’s version of events. Radcliffe’s Ginsberg does not have the aforementioned context; instead, he is simply a young man attending Columbia with no opinion on or advocacy of pedophilia. This is why the film’s portrayal is problematic and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Kill Your Darlings depicts Carr as a conflicted, closeted homosexual who struggles to deal with his feelings for Kammerer and for Ginsberg. He is also portrayed as a manipulative young man who uses his good looks, magnetism, and charm to get people to do favours for him. He exploits Kammerer throughout the film in this way and eventually begins to exploit Ginsberg as well. All of this adds to the overall implication that Carr is wholly at fault for taking advantage of Kammerer and Ginsberg’s love and kindness.
Regardless of whether or not he was gay, Carr suffered years of harassment according to firsthand witnesses, including Kerouac and Burroughs. There is no record of a mutual love between Carr and Kammerer or between Carr and Ginsberg. Furthermore, regardless of whether or not he was selfish and manipulative, these years of harassment should not be justified in the way that the film attempts.
Arguably one of the most problematic aspects of Kill Your Darlings is the portrayal of Kammerer as an intelligent, sensitive, sympathetic man who cares deeply for Carr’s well-being. Granted, there are moments in the film during which his stalker-like tendencies are brought to the forefront; namely, when he tries to kill Kerouac’s cat out of jealousy and when he verbally threatens to follow Carr wherever he goes. However, the overall vibe that the viewer gets from the film is that Kammerer is a sympathetic character.
In reality, Kammerer changed cities to follow Carr wherever he went. It’s unclear whether there was ever a sexual relationship between the two men — speculation seems to be that there was not. The fact that Kammerer’s obsession over a twelve year old boy is turned into a tragic love story is the most discouraging aspect of an otherwise well-made film. A pedophile and a stalker should not be portrayed as a misunderstood lover, no matter what the context.
All of this is not to say that the murder was justified. However, since this film provides questionable context leading up to the crime, it’s easy to sway the opinion of the viewer, especially if said viewer is unfamiliar with the history of the Beat generation. If Kill Your Darlings was a fictional story, there would be no issues here: the acting is mostly fantastic, particularly from DeHaan, and it is an otherwise well-made film.
However, this is not a fictional story — this is a story based on true events. These events involved pedophilia, stalking, and years of harassment. Covering up these harsh realities—but portraying the actual murder—is an unsettling decision on the part of the filmmakers, in my opinion. It suggests that murder is an issue worth addressing on screen, while sexual abuse is not.