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Benjamin Button -- kind of a jerk?

December 26, 2008 | 11:54 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 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.

I think this is an acceptable form of adaptation -- when the kernel of an idea from the source material is developed in a new and different way from the screen. I don't mind that the time frame has moved up by several decades, or that Benjamin becomes a foundling. But this will change his character -- instead of a demanding upper-class man/boy, he'll be someone searching for his identity. And Hildegarde and Benjamin will be very different people on the screen than they were on the page.

But I think I'm sanguine about these changes because it was a short story, one that whips along on premise rather than character. To make such grand changes when adapting a novel is disturbing because character is one of the satisfying elements of a good read -- and nobody who loves, say, "Harry Potter" or "The English Patient" would be happy if the protagonists had been significantly changed for the screen.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures