Tag Archives: f. scott fitzgerald

Comparison Between BENJAMIN BUTTON the Story and the Movie

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!!ptg00111453 (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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Scoop! Review of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON Plus Q & A with Brad Pitt, David Fincher

Last night, I attended the first L.A. audience screening (meaning not a test screening) of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (out Dec. 25), where Brad Pitt and director David Fincher did Q & A afterwards. I haven’t seen a review anywhere else because the movie was only recently finished (Fincher said there are still 3 shots he’d like to fix) so this might be the first.

Before I get to the movie’s review and fun facts learned from Pitt and Fincher in person (who practically put on a comedy routine), I want to mention that in the next couple weeks, I’ll be going to screenings of some hotly anticipated Oscar bait like Australia, Milk, Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road and Doubt, so make sure you bookmark this page for all the scoop.

bb-programI also have 3 beautiful, glossy Benjamin Button programs that were handed out at the screening. They’re 6 pages long and not available anywhere else. They contain color photographs plus Q & A and testimonials from Pitt, Fincher, Cate Blanchett, screenwriter Eric Roth and producer Kathleen Marshall. On Nov. 16, I’ll randomly select 3 people from my subscribers list to receive one so if you’d like a program, subscribe now!

OK, on to the movie review. It’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story but it’s been expanded quite a bit because the epic film runs about 2:45 long. It opens in New Orleans in a hospital as Katrina is approaching. Fincher uses the framing device of Blanchett’s character, Daisy, on her death bed to tell Benjamin’s story. Julia Ormond (wasted in a thankless role) plays her daughter Caroline, who reads from her mother’s diary, taking us into flashbacks about a baby born in New Orleans in 1918 looking like an 80-year-old man (an older woman takes one look at the baby and says, “He looks just like my ex-husband!”). We soon find out this baby is not near death, as a doctor suspects, but will in fact get younger as he ages. This might have something to do with a newly installed clock in the local train station that tells time backwards. The clock was created by the mysterious Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas), who wanted time to go backwards so that his son, killed in World War I, might come back to him.

The baby’s father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), who actually owns a button factory, is so horrified by his son’s wrinkled visage, he first intends to throw him in a river but then changes his mind and leaves him on the doorstep of a nursing home, where caretaker Queenie (the spirited Taraji P. Henson) finds him and takes him in. Queenie, who’d been told she couldn’t have children, isn’t fazed by the baby’s condition (ossified bones, cataract-filled eyes), calling him “a miracle, just not the kind one hopes to see.”

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Queenie raises the boy in the nursing home, where Benjamin has no idea at first that he’s not old like everyone else. Here, he meets red-headed Daisy for the first time as a 5-year-old (visiting her grandmother) and is instantly infatuated. They embark on a friendship that evolves into a love that lasts for the rest of their lives despite their impossible circumstances. Before they can meet again as lovers in mid-life, Benjamin finds work on a tugboat and heads off to see the world, while Daisy becomes a star ballet dancer, performing in Paris and with the Bolshoi in Russia.

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When they finally come together as lovers, it’s with the knowledge it can’t last. “Will you still love me when my skin is old and sagging?” she asks. “Will you still love me when I have acne?” he retorts. Complications and separations ensue until they come together again one last time at the end of their lives in drastically different forms.

Pitt, buried in old-man makeup for most of the movie (we only get to see him as golden boy for about 15 minutes), gives a nice, subtle performance full of wonder and longing. When the 7-year-old Benjamin crawls into a makeshift tent with 5-year-old Daisy to share secrets, the scene could’ve been creepy because after all, it’s a grown man under some sheets with a little girl. It’s a testament to Pitt’s skill, then, that we’re able to overlook his old-man exterior to see the innocence in Benjamin’s eyes and realize it’s really just two kids playing.

Having said that, I wasn’t as moved by this film as I wanted to be. This was number one on my list of must-see holiday movies and I so wanted to be blown away but it just didn’t happen. This movie is a very ambitious effort—it looks gorgeous, there are some groundbreaking special effects and the rest of the cast also do excellent work but it’s the kind of movie you respect more than love. It’s like a piece of art that you look at and say, “It’s pretty,” but don’t necessarily want to bring home.

I think the problem for me was the stakes weren’t high enough for Benjamin and there was no sense of urgency throughout most of his life. Except for his father’s initial reaction, everyone pretty much accepts Benjamin upon first meeting. He doesn’t go to school where other kids beat up on him, he gets a demanding job as crew member on a tugboat while looking like a fragile old man and the captain barely questions it, and Daisy knows right away he’s not as old as he looks when she first meets him. In order for the film to be more compelling, Benjamin needs more obstacles to overcome. Even when he sees some action in World War II, we don’t fear for his safety because we already know the film will probably take us to the end of his life to fully explore his extraordinary condition. (I haven’t read the short story so if any of you have, please leave a comment and tell me how this differs from Fitzgerald’s version.)

I’m surprised there aren’t more riveting moments in this movie, considering it’s directed by Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en). I was attracted to it after hearing that Fincher would take the unsentimental route. Well, it’s unsentimental almost to the point of passivity. This isn’t to say it’s boring—it isn’t. Many times, it’s even laugh-out-loud funny (watch for an old man repeatedly telling people he’s been hit by lightning seven times). There are visually interesting aspects—the film looks like old stock at times, where you can see the pops and scratches like on an old newsreel. The color is sometimes muted, sometimes overly saturated, like the unnatural tones of a black and white movie that’s been colorized. The crash of the tugboat against a German submarine is breathtaking, Titanic-like but on a much smaller scale. The score by Alexandre Desplat (Oscar-nominated for The Queen but I thought his score for The Painted Veil was more enchanting) is lovely as usual.

All this amounts to a lot of value for your money, an especially attractive quality this holiday season. I just wish I could’ve been more moved by this character’s life story instead of being left feeling like a casual observer.

Call me only mildly Curious.

Rating: Good

Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of this post, where I’ll report what Pitt and Fincher shared during the Q & A.

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