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How much do you have to like a protagonist like Button?

December 27, 2008 |  1:23 pm


This week we are discussing "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 turned from the story itself to the film adaptation, which opened Dec. 25. Amy Shearn says:

Carolyn, I think what you said is so interesting: "In film, you really need to like someone on screen, usually the protagonist." I've found again and again, in reading reviews and talking to people about my own novel, that many people read this way, too. Plenty of readers judge the merits of a work of fiction based on how much they like or dislike the characters -- as if the characters were people they might have to become intimately involved with. I've always found this way of reading to be a bit reductive. It's hardly the point, is it, whether you like a character or not? 

In fact, some of my favorite characters would be quite unlikable people in real life -- Humbert Humbert, Holden Caulfield. To me, a character has only to be compelling -- even better if he is baffling in some way. I read to be surprised and provoked, not to make friends. That said, I never felt that I got to know Benjamin Button all that well -- as others here have pointed out, it's not exactly that kind of story. You don't get to know the characters in a fable or fairy tale very well either. But if he's a bit of a jerk, well, for me it works in the story. I would probably be pretty cranky if I were in such a predicament too.

The more we discuss this, the more curious (ha!) I get about the movie. Do you think they made him into a lovable quirk-fest? I guess we'll find out soon enough....

-- Amy Shearn