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Category: Benjamin Button

Final thoughts on Benjamin Button

filmshort storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bb_oldboy

Thanks for joining us for our 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. The film adaptation, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, opened Dec. 25. Our last thoughts:

John Fox, who, in addition to blogging at Bookfox, has a master In professional writing from USC and a master's in literary theory from NYU, says:

Even though the story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" didn't impress me, I'm glad to have read it. It gave me another reference point in interpreting Gatsby, and led me to other stories in "Tales from the Jazz Age" which are even better. Plus, now I can offer pretentious small-talk at parties about how the film actually came from a Fitzgerald story. In this town of L.A., where everyone assumes "screenwriter" when I say writer, I need all the literary plugs I can get.

Shaft, a blogger at Baby Got Books, adds:

I told myself (and you) that I wouldn't do this, but I can't help myself.  The world has been done a disservice that Hollywood has made a big-budget film "loosely based" on Fitzgerald's short story.  "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" is such a better use of a similar (but importantly different) premise, and now will be either unknown or thought of as a knock-off (which it isn't).

Amy Shearn earned her MFA at the University of Minnesota and wrote "How Far is the Ocean From Here." She blogs at Moonlight Ambulette and has a different take:

Thanks again for inviting me to take part!  It was fun. I can't wait to see the movie....
Thanks to all of them for taking part and to you for reading. Me, I'm going to see the movie too.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Paramount Pictures

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

filmshort storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bb_holdenhumbert

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

Making Benjamin Button likable

filmshort storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bb_middlepitt

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

Button's not a jerk, he's tragic

adaptationfilmshort storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bb_motorcycle

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. John Fox says:

I didn’t find Benjamin Button to be a jerk. I just pitied him. It’s terrible that instead of growing old and unattractive with his wife, he starts looking better. It’s terrible that everyone expects him to halt his decline in age but he can’t. It’s terrible that he loses his Harvard sports prestige and his military status. To me Button seems less an unlikable character and more a tragic figure.

Yes, he’s a bit oblivious and clueless about his aging process. But he had high (perhaps unfounded) hopes that the process would stop: "He had hitherto hoped that once he reached a bodily age equivalent to his age in years, the grotesque phenomenon which had marked his birth would cease to function."

If this type of adaptation is acceptable, Carolyn, what wouldn't be an acceptable form of adaptation? That is, if taking the framework or concept of a story and pumping it up with new characters, new dynamics, and new relationships counts as adaptation, what wouldn't count? This isn’t rhetorical, I'm genuinely perplexed. It seems the acceptable aperture for adaptations has grown quite large. Is it when the original material for adaptation functions more as a promotional tool (look, the shiny pedigree of a Fitzgerald story!) than as a guideline for characters and plot?

Although I agree that screenwriters have more latitude in adapting short stories than they do with novels.

As far as the bell curve, Shaft, I think you meant it more as a geometrical shape and Carolyn, you thought of its technical, statistical function. The former works to describe the story, the latter doesn’t.

-- John Fox

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Benjamin Button -- kind of a jerk?

adaptationfilmshort storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bb_pittthinks

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 says:

I agree with Shaft's comment -- Benjamin Button in the story is not all that likable. In fact, as he goes from 50 to 30, he's kind of a jerk.

He's absolutely smitten by Hildegarde's beauty, and she falls for him for being different from her other suitors -- more stable and mature. And like so many relationships, these initial assumptions don't turn out so well.

There was only one thing that worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him. At that time Hildegarde was a woman of thirty-five.... In the early days of their marriage Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her honey-colored hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery....

Certainly an unrelenting look at someone you're supposed to love, but it shows how Button is pretty oblivious about how his backwards life connects to the people around him. He goes off to fight in the Spanish-American war, and is further dismayed upon his return. "Hildegarde, waving a large silk flag, greeted him on the porch, and even as he kissed her he felt with a sinking of the heart that these three years had taken their toll. She was a woman of forty now, with a faint skirmish line of gray hairs in her head. The sight depressed him." He checks himself in the mirror and finds he's still getting younger. "His destiny seemed to him awful, incredible." Hildegarde is "annoyed," she regards him with "scorn," and she sniffs repeatedly as they talk. Where he's clueless, she's intolerant.

The relationship between Benjamin and Hildegarde seems -- from the endless ads for the movie we're seeing in L.A. -- to be the biggest departure from the story. The filmmakers have taken the cold, amusing misunderstandings of these two and turned them into a tragic love story of people who are destined to be pulled apart.

Is this an acceptable form of adaptation? Some thoughts after the jump.

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The adaptations of Benjamin Button

adaptationfilmshort storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bb_fsgreads_2 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. John Fox looks forward to the film version, which opened Dec. 25.

What gives me hope that the movie will have reviewers hanging superlatives all over it?

Well, at least B.B. has a good history of adaptation. Faulkner wanted to turn it into a stage play or screenplay back in the ’40s. Gabriel Brownstein gave a literary makeover to the short story in 2002, focusing on certain episodes in Button’s life. And here in 2008 Nunzio DeFillippis and Christina Weir put out the graphic novel version (with a great cover image!). Still haven’t seen any ads for "Benjamin Button: The Musical," but I wouldn’t bet against it. But maybe the adaptability of the story’s premise is also what makes it prone to radical changes –- the concept is so strong that people want to offer their own take on things inside Fitzgerald’s framework.

Shaft, as far as your worry that the movie bears little resemblance to the original story, I guess that brings up the problem of adaptation. Should we judge the film on its relationship to the original? It depends on whether you think fidelity to the source material is a necessity or whether it’s only one option among many. In Hollywood, it doesn’t seem anyone would take a principled stand on either position: they’ll stick close to the material if it appeals to the broadest demographic, and alter the entire thing except the name ("Cheaper by the Dozen" -- what an insult to the excellent book) if it will rake in more cash.

I usually prefer if the movie hews close to the book, but that’s often because I’ve read the book beforehand. It’s also because when the film deviates from the book, sometimes it’s just to pacify the god of ticket sales. (I still haven’t seen "Blindness" because I loved Jose Saramago’s novel so much I’m scared the film will ruin it). But in principle, I recognize that film is a different beast and that changes are necessary for the story to thrive in the visual medium.

After the jump: some concerns.

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Maybe Benjamin Barbell?

filmshort storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bb_barbell

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.

Shaft, I'm not sure I'm with you on this bell curve thing. That describes how a bunch of people fall out -- lots in the middle, few on the ends. As John says, the story covers a lot of ground, and decades go by in paragraphs. In this way, I think the text is more like a barbell: it weights the attention on the ends of Benjamin Button's life, and is thinner in the middle. I think this is so the story can focus on the times when Benjamin's experience is significantly different from those around him, when those contrasts reveal the indignities we suffer, and the sometimes ridiculous assumptions we make.

I think, from the previews I've seen, that the film spends a lot more time on the middle parts of Button's life. And with that, let me ask: How do you think "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" will work as a film? What are your expectations of it?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Andew Eick via Flickr

Benjamin Button's bell curve returns

short storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bb_bells

Shaft directs our conversation of "Benjamin Button" back to the idea of the bell curve.

In my hope that it's not a federal crime to beat a dead horse this much, I want to follow up on a couple of the comments below and connect them back to the "bell curve" idea.  As I mentioned earlier, from Benjamin's perspective, his life takes on a bell curve in that in his early years he struggles to find his role (like the learning curve of a child), and in his later years he is somewhat helpless (like a fragile senior citizen).  But it also appears that his life takes on this bell curve when you look at how he is treated by others -- in his early years, his father forces him into child-like behavior despite the incongruity between these activities and Benjamin's physiological and mental makeup, and in his later years his son in many ways treats him like an aging father that his son doesn't want to have to care for (e.g., the parent who gets forced into an assisted living facility), despite the fact that Benjamin looks and acts like a child.

-- Shaft

Photo by shioshvili via Flickr

Does Fitzgerald cover too much ground with Button?

F. Scott Fitzgeraldshort storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bb_fsgstamp

John Fox continues our discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Make sure

It’s remarkable how much time elapses in this story. From birth to death (or vice versa) is quite a bit of ground for a novelist to cover, much less a short story writer. Fitzgerald will quite readily skip over large swaths of time (“In the fifteen years between Benjamin Button’s marriage...”), briskly plowing through entire college careers in five paragraphs, and the Spanish American war in two paragraphs. If I’m permitted to make a vast generalization that I’m sure will have exceptions, I would say that the genre of short stories today tend toward brief rather than wide time spans: an entire short story about a single moment, or a single conversation, or a few days. It seems much more manageable. All of which makes a story like "Benjamin Button" more of an achievement, for such deft handling of temporal shifts throughout an entire life.

(OK, this is the perfect time to bridge into talking about the movie, but I will hold off for now. But almost three hours long!)

Returning to the conversation about how Button’s father tries to restrict his son to age-appropriate activities, I should mention that Hildegarde’s response to his situation is just as absurd as Button’s father. She tells him to stop being stubborn and just reverse it. And his son Roscoe turns on him as well, demanding that his father call him uncle and that he “better not go on with this business much longer. You better pull up short” (a pun on his decreasing height?). But it’s so depressing to see a man condemned with an incurable situation be attacked by his family members -- his family members, who should know better than anyone his unique situation and tolerate it. But they all assume it’s a choice, not a condition. Which I suppose returns us to my earlier point about how applicable this story becomes to civil rights.

After the jump: Benjamin Button, not entirely satisfying.

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Benjamin Button grows to babyhood

F. Scott Fitzgeraldshort storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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Amy Shearn continues our discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," looking at the second half.

I find it interesting how in Section 8, as Benjamin finds himself growing younger than his wife, we get our first real insight into Benjamin's mind. "Instead of being delighted, he was uneasy -- he was growing younger. He had hitherto hoped that once he reached a bodily age equivalent to his age in years, the grotesque phenomenon which had marked his birth would cease to function ... his destiny seemed to him awful, incredible." Someone noted earlier that there's something slightly unsatisfying about this story, and I feel like this might be why: While the writing is brisk, smart, and funny, and the social commentary acute, we never really get to know any of the characters in the way we're accustomed to in contemporary fiction. There's always a bit of a distance. Which is what makes this moment so wonderful and sort of heartbreaking. To finally know that Benjamin feels the discomfort and precariousness of his situation! Poor guy. His wife helps by being completely not understanding at all and accusing him of trying to be different. Real nice.

At this point the story seems to double back on itself, like the bell curve that was mentioned earlier, or a kind of narrative mobius strip -- he tries school again, and the Army. I love that Benjamin's son starts to behave fatherly toward him, just as Benjamin's father was confused and disarmed by him and didn't know quite how to act. The story's as much about other people and how they deal with an unusual, rule-breaking individual as it is Benjamin himself.

Fitzgerald's picture of babyhood after the jump.

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