Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Interesting Thing about the The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

If you haven't seen 
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 
don't read this***

I saw Benjamin Button recently.  It was a virtuousic and moving film, an intimate epic, and not without its flaws.  No surprise in the technical virtuosity of the film, given the extreme prowess of its director, David Fincher.  What is surprising is its departure in tone from Mr. Fincher's previous work, better known for chronicling serial killers (Se7en, Zodiac)and most especially, the brutal and social commentary-laden Fight Club.

Much like Forrest Gump.  Actually there are some striking parallels- no wonder the screenplays are both penned by the same person, Eric Roth.  In some ways it seems like Mr. Roth simply blew the dust off the template, and changed the colors in the paint by the numbers paradigm.... I know that sounds harsh- much harsher than I mean it too, since I did enjoy the film.  But if anyone where to watch the two films side by side, and consider what I'm saying from the two films story structures, their eccentricities and morales, I think it would be hard to dispute my point.

Here are a few salient examples:  

Both characters have a strange disability.  In the case of Gump, Forrest's disability is, for lack of a better word, dumbness.  Or perhaps more precisely, an overly earnest and literal heart.  With Benjamin Button, on the other hand, we have the odd handicap of a man growing younger as he ages.  

In both films, a very sincere point is illustrated through ironic means.  Forrest Gump sees the deeper truth in life and articulates it in the simplest and clearest terms possible, because of his seeming cognitive limitations. Benjamin Button, on the other hand, illustrates the immortality of love and sacrifice through death, and the effects of aging through it's exact opposite.

They both span a panoramic view of the 20th century, rely heavily on special effects and both screenplays are adaptations of literary works.

On the last point, however, there is a significant divergence.  Forrest Gump was adapted from a novel, and the movie is fairy true to the literary work, in both tone and style.  There are some significant changes, but just par for the course in film adaptations.

The the short story by the same name which The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based, on the other hand, conveys a very different moral than its feature film version.  The Benjamin Button of the short story is rather a rather selfish fellow, unlike his noble and kindhearted film version.

The story of Benjamin Button chronicled in the F. Scott Fitzgerald version is more Twilight Zone than intimate epic, more a sad commentary on the cruelty and vanity of men than the immortality of a deathless love.  In Fitzgerald's version, Benjamin comes out of the womb a grown, ancient man, not just baby with the skin of an eighty year old man.  No, he is grown, 5'8", and already in full command of the English language- no goo goo ga gas here.  He has a whispy beard, and the temperament of an old man.  He is not just fully grown and old in body, but his mind's development matches his body's, unlike in Fincher's world, where part of the pain is the developmental mismatch.

Unlike in Fincher's version, Benjamin does not leave his wife out of a selfless desire to leave her free to find a good father who will not revert to childhood in his old age.  Rather, he drifts away from his wife because she is saggy and boring.

The ending of the short story is to me much sadder than the film.  Both illustrate the hardship of going through life in reverse and of being out of step with your peers- but in the short story, this tragedy is compounded by the absence of deep human ties.  It's these ties that allow humans to powerfully sustain one another.  Yet poor Benjamin (of the short story) has no such meaningful connections, and it is this one element that stands out in an otherwise fantastical tale as all too tragically true.

Fitzgerald's sad tale of Benjamin Button ends with these graceful words:

"There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes, and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his twilight bed hour and called "sun." When the sun went his eyes were sleepy--there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.

The past--the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather-all these had faded like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been. He did not remember.

He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his last feeding or how the days passed--there was only his crib and Nana's familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing. When he was hungry he cried--that was all. Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness.

Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind."

For the full text of the original story of Benjamin Button go here.

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