Welcome back to our blog series “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?” The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.
Today we’re going to be discussing “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that was first published in Collier’s Magazine on May 27, 1922 and adapted in 2008 by writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicard and director David Fincher (“Panic Room,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Fight Club”). For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the short story (adapted from schmoop.com) and the film (adapted from Google):
“In the summer of 1860, Roger Button, a socially prominent man who owns a hardware company in Baltimore, heads to the hospital to meet his newborn son, only to find that his “baby” is actually a 70-year-old man. It turns out that Benjamin Button ages in reverse, at the same rate that everyone else gets older. His father is filled with shame at his abnormal child and forces him to act like a baby, even though Benjamin has the body and mind of a much older man. Most people blame Benjamin himself for his peculiarity.”
“Born under unusual circumstances, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) springs into being as an elderly man in a New Orleans nursing home and ages in reverse. Twelve years after his birth, he meets Daisy, a child who flickers in and out of his life as she grows up to be a dancer (Cate Blanchett). Though he has all sorts of unusual adventures over the course of his life, it is his relationship with Daisy, and the hope that they will come together at the right time, that drives Benjamin forward.”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? Well, here’s the thing: I found the story’s unique premise intriguing and the read mostly enjoyable, but I hit a brick wall trying to get through the movie. I had watched it many years ago, but almost all I could remember was that I didn’t like it much at that time. Still, I had the idea that since I had actually read the story at this point, I might have a totally different experience. No such luck – I bailed at almost the halfway mark (which for an almost-three-hour movie is a substantial amount of time). Rather than discard the adaptation as a hopeless cause, though, I thought I’d try to determine what it was the filmmakers did or did not do that turned me away.
The original story, written early in the 20th century, is a bit dated, but Fitzgerald manages to pull off a curious sense of bewilderment and amusement with the unusual premise of a man living his life backwards and the other characters’ exaggerated responses to him, especially those of his father, Roger Button. The doctors who deliver Benjamin Button are concerned about the hospital’s reputation. Roger Button, a man of high standing in ante Bellum Baltimore wonders what society people will say of this “shameful condition.” When he has to go shopping for an “appropriate” outfit so Benjamin doesn’t go home from the hospital wearing only a blanket, he has no idea what to get, nor does he care – he’s only worried what will happen if he has to introduce this stooped man with the flowing white beard to someone he knows. He can’t exactly say he’s his newborn son, can he? So like any parent confronted with a 70-year-old infant who can talk and reason, he buys Benjamin (previously named Methuselah for his appearance) a rattle and insists that he play with it. Benjamin does, but only to please him, and at the same time manages to sneak into his father’s study to smoke his wonderful Havana cigars on the sly.
Fitzgerald tells us, “At his father’s urging he made an honest attempt to play with other boys, and frequently he joined in the milder games – football shook him up too much, and he feared that in case of a fracture his ancient bones would refuse to knit.” He’d also go sit in a sandbox or stage battles with lead soldiers, simply because it suited his father. After all, Roger Button had made an agreement with himself from the first moment he knew for certain that Benjamin was his son that he would always believe in his son’s normality, and he never veered from that course in his parenting. All Benjamin wants from his father, like so many other children, is attention and love, but he receives very little of either throughout his life, at least until he becomes young enough to be more of a son than a contemporary. In fact, one could argue that the driving theme of Fitzgerald’s fantastical story was the relationship between father and son at different stages of life – sometimes awkward, sometimes close, sometimes hard to define.
Curiously, women are almost an afterthought in Fitzgerald’s story, though he hasn’t left the reader any clue why this should be so. It is especially true when it comes to Benjamin’s mother. Other than giving birth to him, she is completely absent from any aspect of his life, and therefore absent from the story. And about that birth: I don’t think Fitzgerald considered the magnitude of the improbability he created. What would it be like for a woman to give birth to a fully grown man? Let’s just say I don’t think she would survive the experience and pass over all the rather gruesome details.
A second woman in the story is Hildegarde Moncrief, the beautiful daughter of a prominent general. As Benjamin approaches 50, he sees Hildegarde at a party and becomes besotted with her. Six months later they are engaged, and they marry shortly after. She admits to Benjamin that part of her attraction to him is his age, which makes him more worldly and more interesting than younger men. It’s not surprising, therefore, that when she begins to age and he becomes even younger, stronger, and more viril, he becomes bored with his marriage. He doesn’t like that Hildegarde’s no longer as sweet-faced as when they met, or that her hair is dulled, or that she’s become more set in her ways. After their son Roscoe is born, and Benjamin’s eye begins to roam, as any young man’s might, we hear nothing more about her. The only other woman in the story is Nana, the nurse who takes care of Benjamin as he becomes a baby, but other than being there, she has no real role to play.
Okay, so what about the film? Well, first, it relies on the tired trope of being almost entirely narrated by the main character, in this case Benjamin Button. Narration is boring – it tells rather than shows what’s going on, and it quickly becomes tedious. It would have been far better if the filmmakers had allowed the characters to interact more through dialogue and action. They make the interactions more interesting, they reveal more about the characters than bland voiceovers, and they include the viewer in the experiences on screen. Second, it was framed by a story of a dying woman reliving events that had occurred in her life rather than letting the events unfold in a natural progression, as life does – again, a distancing (and overused) technique. Third, it tried to play the story as a straight drama, which took away the feel of mystery and quirkiness that made the original story successful. Other than looking horrified at Benjamin when he is born (an old man, but baby-sized here), no one seems to find his backwards aging unusual or unnatural, at least in the first half that I watched. Instead, we’re given a little introduction at the beginning about a clockmaker who put together a clock that ran backwards instead of forwards, and we are somehow supposed to believe that this would reverse the course of nature. Well, I certainly didn’t.
A fourth problem is that the action is very episodic, which means that we jump from one scenario at one time to another scenario at another time without a sense of flow between the segments. Benjamin is 70 when he’s born, wrinkled, arthritic, and with cataracts; then he’s 50 and he’s looking for his place in the world; then he’s 35 and working at the button factory. We don’t feel the character moving through time; instead, we see him jumping in discrete hops – again, very distancing.
The biggest change from the story to the film, though, comes with its main theme – that of a father-son relationship. It can be summed up in three words: “There is none.” The film is more a curiosity than a statement or exploration. After Roger Button sees the way his son looks in the hospital (Mrs. Button having died in childbirth), he wraps up the baby and leaves it on the steps of a nursing home. One of the workers, a Black woman named Queenie, “adopts” the shriveled little man, and he comes to call her “mother.” At the turn of the 20th century, a Black woman “adopting” a white child, especially in the South, would be almost as inconceivable as a man aging backwards, yet not one person comments on it. Seriously?
As Benjamin grows, the nursing home becomes a study in life and death for him, old people dying but others coming to fill their place. He finds it comforting. But just as he’s about to make his way out into the world on a grand adventure, his father inexplicably stops by to speak with him, albeit anonymously; he certainly was never a major player in Benjamin’s development. And that’s as far as I got in the film. The telling was so tiresome, and the actions were so banal (Benjamin goes to a brothel for the first time; Benjamin gets drunk; Benjamin goes to work on a tug boat, etc.), that I had absolutely no interest in continuing for another hour and a half.
I do realize that this story was written at a time when racism was even more prevalent than today, but I still found it shocking when I came across this description of Roger Button taking his son home from the hospital: “The old man would gather his blanket around him and they would plod on, past the bustling stores, the slave market – for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately that his son was black …” That the father would consider his son so hideous he would wish to sell him into slavery just to get rid of him is appalling to me, and it did tarnish some of my appreciation for the rest of the story and for Fitzgerald himself. Yes, I’m looking at it from a modern perspective, but that just indicates to me how poorly this story translates into a modern framework, unlike many of the classics we still read and enjoy today.
The Final Cut
So, how did “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” as a movie fare as a short story adaptation overall? Well, that’s a bit difficult to say, seeing as I didn’t watch the whole thing, but what I did see was tedious, untimely, and not well thought out, though Brad Pitt was fun to watch. I would give it about a D- and promise never to return to it again.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.
– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN
DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.