The idea of a baby born as an old man and then grows younger––a reverse trajectory of the human experience––is the premise in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story published in 1922, reviewed in my previous post. Prompted by a remark made by Mark Twain, Fitzgerald unleashed his imagination and wrote the story.
The tale was adapted into a 2008 movie directed by David Fincher who brought it all the way to the Oscars with 13 nominations the next year. I watch it for the first time in 2020 and am surprised to find its relevance: the fear of strangeness in our age of xenophobia.
As for the 13 Oscar nominations, the movie won only three: Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects. These are difficult feats and deserving wins. Unlike the Academy’s (and some critics’) aloofness in embracing the film’s other achievements, I much appreciate the adapted screenplay and Fincher’s 166 minute visual rendition.
Here’s an exemplar of how a film adaptation diverges from the original literary source and yet still keeps its main concept, but instead of faithfully following the thin, short story, carries it to a different direction, creating an expanded and more gratifying version.
Screenwriters for the adaptation are Eric Roth and Robin Swicord. Roth is known for his Oscar winning adapted screenplay for Forrest Gump (1994), and Robin Swicord for her 1994 version of Little Women. They had chosen to turn Fitzgerald’s farcical, acerbic fantasy into a serious film in the vein of magical realism. The magic lies in the imaginary, reverse growth trajectory; the realism is love.
This is not just about love between two star-crossed lovers, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett), but about a woman with a huge heart, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who embraces a Gollum-like baby abandoned at her doorstep. Instead of a non-mentioned mother in Fitzgerald’s story, Queenie raises Benjamin with devoted affection. There’s love and acceptance as well from those in the old folks lodging house where Queenie works. Further, the movie adds one more layer, and that’s Daisy at her deathbed, sharing the story of her lost love with her daughter Caroline (affectively played by Julia Ormond), leaving her with a legacy of love.
The film makes amends to the sardonic tone of the short story by creating a moving love story. For a short period in their lives, both Benjamin and Daisy are of approximate age, but such joy doesn’t last as one grows older and the other younger. Yet unlike the short story, their love endures, for as long as one can hold on to it despite separation. And we find out that one can, all the way to her deathbed; the other is just too young to remember. What’s left is the transience of time and inevitable fate.
The setting is early 20th century on the cusp of WWI in New Orleans where Benjamin is born, and not 1860 Baltimore. As he grows younger, Benjamin goes through WWII instead of the Spanish-American War in the short story. The movie starts off with a modern time with Daisy’s final hours revealing to her daughter who her real father is. That’s 2005 New Orleans, during a hurricane when the hospital is preparing to evacuate. A disastrous storm as a backdrop in the telling of a billowy story. A name to denote the significance: Katrina.
The movie is a divergence for Fincher too considering he’s a master of crime thrillers –– Zodiac came out just a year before in 2007, and more recently Gone Girl in 2014, Benjamin Button is Fincher’s only ‘romantic’ drama (The Social Network, 2010, is drama but definitely not ‘romantic’). Crafted in signature Fincher styling with low-light, sepia colour to enhance the period effects, the aesthetics in set design and cinematography bring out the notion of ‘every frame a painting’.
Brad Pitt’s understated performance characterizes Benjamin aptly. Instead of remaining ‘the other’, Benjamin strives to connect, albeit in a gentle and quiet way. His love at first sight with then 7 years-old Daisy is a poignant encounter. Elle Fanning is a perfect cast. A child who holds no prejudice, she’s fascinated by the ‘strangeness’ in Benjamin. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter comes to mind.
Other curious finds: music by Alexandre Desplat, Tilda Swinton in some memorable sequences, Queenie’s husband Tizzy played by now two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Green Book, 2018 and Moonlight, 2016).
You probably have watched it before when the film first came out. How the world has changed in just twelve years. Watching it again now would probably bring you a different feel, and more relevance.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
11 thoughts on “‘Benjamin Button’: A Curious Look at the Movie Adaptation”
Lovely post honoring Fitzgerald and the writers who based their script on his short story. They did a better rendition than those who tried to bring “The Great Gatsby” to the screen and never got it right.
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I totally agree with you about the most recent “Gatsby” adaptation by Baz Luhrmann, back in 2013. They thought Gatsby is all about lavish parties and wild living. Matter of fact, Gatsby seldom appears at the parties in his own house. 🙂
I”ve never seen this film. Now I wonder why I haven’t. I’ll have to watch for it to show up on cable or netflix. This is such a thoughtful review. Thank you.
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It’s on Netflix. I’d not seen it until now even though I’d known about it all along, maybe due to the mixed reviews it got. Glad to experience it first hand myself.
Maybe Canada netflix. I just check Netflix US and it’s not there…Maybe eventually.
I’m surprised. Maybe not popular enough to be on your Netflix. I just checked it’s on ours. Also, you can find it on Kanopy. I watched it there actually, and it’s free. Just needs a library card to login. Lots of classics on Kanopy.com
In January 2010, I posted these comments about the book and the movie. You’re right, I DO need to watch this again.
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Debbie, Thanks for the link to your post reviewing both the book and movie adaptation. We share similar POV’s. Also, glad to know another Canadian book/movie blogger, a rare find for me. Just checked, while we’re fellow Canadians, we live 4,724 km apart. 🙂
P.S. The last comment is interesting.
Indeed it is. This just shows how meticulous the set design is.
Well, you already know what a movie person I’m not, and like you had read those mixed reviews and didn’t give the film another thought. I so enjoy the details you note and the themes you uncover — even If I never do get around to seeing it.
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