Tales of the Jazz Age, the collection of stories in which The Curious Case of Benjamin Button first appeared in 1922. Illustration by John Held, Jr.
Now that I am comfortably “well-read” in my twenties with a Master’s in modern English Literature tucked into my back pocket, I can’t help but notice that every movie I have seen lately — and every movie that I want to see — has independently stood as a work of print before being reincarnated into movie form. Twilight. The Tale of Despereaux. Marley and Me. Julie and Julia. He’s Just Not That into You. Modern bestsellers are easy to recognize, but I wonder whether a general audience, gazing up at the colossal figures of Kate and Leo during the previews, realizes that Revolutionary Road is a book by Richard Yates nominated for the National Book Award in 1962?
Just as it has become so fashionable to recycle, be it energy or movie plots, somewhere along the line it’s also became fashionable to be hypercritical of “book movies.” And in truth, until recently, I was one of those hypercritical people. So how do I dare to swear on my master’s degree, earned with theses and dissertations on F. Scott Fitzgerald, that I think The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — the movie — was better than “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the book? Because in this brilliant, albeit curious, case, the movie had absolutely nothing to do with the book. Here, Hollywood backed away from its own green campaign, throwing away the plot, the characters, the setting, everything that made Benjamin Button what it is — with the exception of two things: one, the name of the protagonist (and the film’s title) and two, the notion of aging backwards — an idea which was lifted from Mark Twain, buttressed by Samuel Butler, and immortalized by Shakespeare. An idea which, one could argue, wasn’t actually Fitzgerald’s at all.
Don't get me wrong. I love movies; I just love books more. To be fair, my disappointment in book movies doesn’t stem from feigned cinematic erudition or literary snobbishness. The book comes first — it is the familiar against which we must compare the new, the film which bears the burden of garishness compared to the staid elevation of literature. To me, no marathon could be as breathless, as invigorating, as a marathon read, when you can’t wait to get home in the evening and bury yourself against the cold world, slipping into bed, your body between cotton sheets, your nose between paper ones. And then the utter exhaustion, the let-down, when there’s not one more step to run, not one more page to read — at the end of a truly great book or series or author. The rush is over, the excitement fades, and the world goes back to turning.
It is our desire to repeat, to relive, to recapture that damns the “book movie.” What can a movie recreate when the plot, the characters, the climax and denouement have all already been tasted, chewed, swallowed, digested? All without the lyricism of the author’s chattering voice, the thrill of images constructed from a trill of words? It is just a picture book, an old album of places you’ve already visited, that you may reflect on fondly, indulging in resurrected shadows, but one that rarely reproduces a state of rapture.
The problem with the book movie lies not only with the recreation of what we already know, but in the simultaneous denial of film identity. It is like the Wolf lying in bed in Grandma’s clothing: it just doesn’t fit, and anybody beside Little Red herself would be able to tell something was wrong with this picture. Cinema is a different medium — it is not simply a more efficient way to get the information you need to write a book report. What makes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button different is that it uses all the power of the art of film in its current state not to recreate Fitzgerald’s story, but to invoke the spirit and mood of the writing, thereby transcending the original form into something unique and real and beautiful.
An excerpt of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the screen play by Eric Roth
Fitzgerald’s story is 22 pages long, begins in 1860, and takes place in Baltimore. The movie is three hours long, begins in 1918, and takes place in New Orleans. In the story, Mr. Button never makes buttons, Benjamin’s mother never dies, and his love interest is named Hildegarde — a girl who transforms from jailbait to cougar to matron before her increasingly uninterested husband’s eyes. There is no Second World War, no motorcycles, no Beatles, no television, no Katrina. After all, Fitzgerald wasn’t alive to witness any of these.
And yet, for a scholar of Fitzgerald, this is somehow not betrayal. For, reading between the lines of the script is like reading a love letter to the author. Everywhere, there are marks of reverence — from the heroine’s name (Daisy, lifted from the pages of The Great Gatsby) to her obsession with dance, an obsession which plagued Fitzgerald’s beloved Zelda. Fitzgerald set his tale in the antebellum South, a time and place which — for an early-20th-Century white Northerner like Fitzgerald — held a great deal of wistful romance, much like Fitzgerald’s own roaring era and the magical city of New Orleans does for us now.
But beyond these superficial dedications to the author, the script mimics Fitzgerald’s style to a T. And no — the story of Benjamin Button does not begin with a great clock that ticks backwards, but it certainly could have, for Fitzgerald’s entire opus is peppered with clocks. It is as though his heroes and heroines dance the Maxixe, not to the tangled tune of the horns but to the relentless, merciless tick-tock of the clock. From Mr. Gateaux’s memorial clock; to the clock on the hall table when Daisy spends the night; to the travel clock that Benjamin packs away the days he leaves the house; to the alarm clock that he unpacks from Daisy’s bag as a five-year-old and accidentally sets off — these are the scions of the clock that Jay Gatsby tumbles from Nick Carraway’s mantle when he first finds Daisy again, as he attempts to physically reverse time. It is that essence of reversing the clock, of tumbling away time, that pervades Fitzgerald’s writing, that Eric Roth recreates stunningly in his magical backward masterpiece. If Fitzgerald saw himself in Gatsby at all, which he surely did, then this movie is more like an answer, an admonishment to be careful what you wish for. While Fitzgerald’s early story is more about personal difference and solitude, the movie captures themes familiar in most of Fitzgerald’s work — wistfulness, nostalgia, regret, longing and inevitability — while affirming that even reversing the clock does not resurrect the dead, nor recapture lost chances. In our youth-obsessed world, this movie delivers a definitive slap on the wrist. “Nothing lasts,” says Benjamin. “Nothing lasts,” echoes Daisy.
The producers of Benjamin Button had nearly a century of world experience and technological innovation beyond Fitzgerald, and they used it. There is no attempt to stay true to the original and it is this choice that’s saved the film. Starting in Fitzgerald’s time evokes his signature ambience, but also allows contemporary viewers to fall down the rabbit hole into a cinematic wonderland, nostalgically reliving one decade after another as they are brought vividly to life on screen. Aging the film’s stars is itself astonishing: it’s as if the movie isn’t ashamed to be just that — a movie — and it ultimately rejoices in the power of its transcendent visual effects, its unquestionable grandeur, its flip-book imagery. Benefiting from the subtlety of its fundamental form (film is, after all, a time-based medium), the movie shows with wrenching clarity the implications of age, from the humiliation of an old man playing a secluded game with a little girl, to the humiliation of an old woman dressing herself before a young man.
Curiously, for a writer whose main preoccupation was stopping the clock, Fitzgerald failed to reach the poignancy in “Benjamin Button” that the film so gracefully captures, leaving us with the realization that aging backward strips us not only of love and comfort and company, but of experiences and achievements and respect. Perhaps youth is not, as Twain would say, “the best part of one’s life,” but is, instead, the part most encumbered by emptiness. The movie refutes Fitzgerald, establishing that there is something serene and beautiful about growing old, and something oddly melancholy about growing young.
Such things are hard to capture in written form, but understood in an instant when expressed visually— an instant in which, it is true, a picture is worth a thousand words. In disregarding the place, the time, the characters, the everything of the written version, the movie is able to project the heart of the story and the universal truth of Fitzgerald’s work: that holding onto time is like waves clutching desperately at the sand. Both are liquid and the more one tries to harness them, the more they impossibly dissolve and slip past each other, beyond our mortal comprehension, beyond our fallible and deeply human reach.