After seeing the movie last week, I sought out the short story to see how they compare. I was surprised to find that, except for the title, lead character’s name and general concept of a man aging backwards, they are almost entirely different stories. If you’ve read it, don’t expect to see many of its plot points on screen. If you haven’t, you don’t need to. The movie has very little to do with Fitzgerald’s work. I’d go further to say that Eric Roth may have borrowed the aging concept but the movie can almost be labeled an original creation of his.
The short story is gorgeous—profound, sad, witty—and Benjamin is a much more complex character. Before I go into a point-by-point comparison, though, I must warn THERE WILL BE MAJOR PLOT POINTS REVEALED. This is not like the review, where the almost-three-hour plot was broadly summarized; I will be going into great detail here. DON’T READ FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW! I MEAN IT!! (Boy, you guys must be really curious to cross the yellow line. For the comparison, I’ll call them Literary Benjamin and Movie Benjamin.)
The very first thing that surprised me was Literary Benjamin beginning life as an actual old man, not a child trapped in an old man’s body like Movie Benjamin. Literary Benjamin is born five feet eight and can walk and talk straight out of the womb. He even sports a beard. In the film, he’s birthed as an old infant, a baby with wrinkled skin and ossified bones but only the face of an old man. He’s small enough to be swaddled in a baby blanket and cries and behaves like a newborn, whereas baby Literary Benjamin acts like an old man, smoking cigars and having no interest in baby food or toys. Young Movie Benjamin has children’s books read to him, while baby Literary Benjamin reads the Encyclopedia Britannica.
There’s also the circumstances surrounding his birth. Literary Benjamin was born in 1860, before the Civil War, while Movie Benjamin was born in 1918, the night World War I ended. This allows Movie Benjamin to grow into more contemporary times, dancing the Twist and listening to the Beatles. Movie Benjamin’s mom died giving birth to him while Literary Benjamin’s mom does not, though I don’t know how she survived squeezing out a 5’8″ baby. Movie Benjamin’s father, Thomas, who owns a button factory, abandons him at first. Literary Benjamin’s father, Roger, who owns a hardware company, brings him home. Though ashamed of him at first, Roger grows to accept his son as normal, even encouraging him to play with other kids and go to college.
I so wish Literary Benjamin’s college experience had been put on film. After he’s thrown off campus and Yale students yell rude comments at him when he tries enrolling there at eighteen, he becomes star football player for Harvard when he’s fifty and decimates the Yale team. He carries his grudge against Yale for thirty-two years, which I find hilarious. The fact that he plays “with cold, remorseless anger” makes him unrecognizable from Movie Benjamin, who’s almost saintlike in his acceptance of his fate. Movie Benjamin might get wistful or disappointed but never angry.
When Movie Benjamin falls in love with Daisy, it’s forever (though circumstances separate them and they do have other lovers). Literary Benjamin is more selfish; as soon as his wife Hildegarde gets her first gray hairs, he’s repulsed by her and goes out dancing without her. Daisy accepts Movie Benjamin from first meeting whereas Hildegarde resents her husband getting younger as she gets older. This is another great source of conflict that doesn’t exist in the movie. As we age, we already fear the deterioration of our bodies and how our partners may cease to find us attractive. In the story, poor Hildegarde must not only deal with her own aging, she has to witness her husband getting more vital and handsome every day. Her bitterness is understandable and affecting. Daisy bears no such animosity towards Movie Benjamin. She’s just sad they can’t be together as they continue to age in opposite directions.
Another great scene that’s only in the story is when Literary Benjamin gets commissioned as a brigadier general in World War I due to his earlier heroism in the Spanish-American War. He reports for duty, proud in his uniform and general’s insignia but looking sixteen. He is promptly ridiculed, stripped of these items and sent home weeping. Though Fitzgerald used unsentimental language, the scene is heart-rending. Overall, Literary Benjamin is layered and complicated. Movie Benjamin is nice. Literary Benjamin is spirited and sometimes defiant (repeating three times to the Yale registrar, “I am eighteen”); Movie Benjamin is compliant. Literary Benjamin is a doer; Movie Benjamin is more an observer.
Literary Benjamin has a son, who gives him a grandson. When they both attend kindergarten together but Literary Benjamin is left behind as his own grandson moves on to first grade, it’s incredibly poignant. Movie Benjamin has a daughter he barely knows, whose only purpose is to narrate the film.
I mean no disrespect to Eric Roth with this comparison; I just wanted to say the movie is not an expansion or adaptation of the story and the shared title is misleading. Roth used the aging-backwards concept only as a springboard and practically started from scratch. His creation bears little resemblance to Fitzgerald’s in tone and plot. I know some things only work on paper and must be changed for film but that’s not the case here. Many scenes in Fitzgerald’s story are perfectly cinematic but it seems Roth wanted to explore themes of life and death in his own way (he said in the movie’s program that his mom was dying at the time he wrote the script). Hopefully, a faithful film version of the story might still be made someday and I’ll look forward to that.
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