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Making Benjamin Button likable

December 27, 2008 | 10:21 am


This week we began a discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It takes about an hour to read and can be found online here at Project Gutenberg (with the rest of "Tales of the Jazz Age") and here on its own. Our discussion turns from the story itself to the film adaptation, which opened Dec. 25. Carolyn Kellogg replies:

The way in which Button perceives his "old and unattractive wife" still sounds jerk-like to me, but maybe that's because I've been a thirtysomething woman whose eyes, apparently, grow to resemble cheap crockery.

But his jerkiness (or not) points to one of the elements of successful adaptations -- in film, you really need to like someone on screen, usually the protagonist. Which means that in adapting the story, the filmmakers needed to make Benjamin Button clearly sympathetic. He may behave like a jerk, but our sympathies have to be with him, and the best way to do that is to give him a deep true love, one whose loss he feels with all the tragedy that you see in the story, John.

As far as I'm concerned, film and literature are such different media that all adaptations are significant departures. How do you take a 400-page novel with internal narrations and complexities and turn it into a 120-page, double-spaced screenplay with enormous margins? You change it. A lot.

Adaptations must be acceptable in the eye of the beholder, and as Amy said, it depends on how much you have invested in the original work. I know I was aghast at the changes made to "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" -- one major character was folded into another, altering the dynamic of the book's central love triangle. But overall, I'm happy to see literary adaptations because they generally make for fairly smart films.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Brad Pitt in "Button." Credit: Paramount Pictures