‘Benjamin Button’: A Curious Look at the Movie Adaptation

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.

Benjamin Button

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

 

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette: From Book to Screen

When I first learned that Maria Semple’s quirky and clever 2012 novel would be turned into a movie, I had that umm… feeling. When I found out Richard Linklater would be directing it, it turned into a whaaat? Sure it’s not a Wes Anderson project?

On the surface a mother-daughter relational story, Semple’s book is deceivingly simple. Underneath the humour is her take on contemporary American society, the tyranny of technology, vulnerability of the non-conforming, sarcasm on the upwardly aspiring middle class, the rat race and its effect on parenting, the outsourcing economy, and even taking a jab on America’s quiet and polite neighbour to the north. As a target, I must give you the following excerpt from the book as evidence of Semple’s spikiness (or is it spunkiness):

You probably think, U.S./Canada, they’re interchangeable because they’re both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obese white people. Well, Manjula (virtual personal assistant from India), you couldn’t be more mistaken.

Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass… Canadians are none of that. The way you might fear a cow sitting down in the middle of the street during rush hour, that’s how I fear Canadians. To Canadians, everyone is equal. Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD. John Candy is no funnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. No wonder the only Canadians anyone’s ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with talent who stayed would be flattened under an avalanche of equality. The thing Canadians don’t understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such.

But that’s not in the movie. Why, the movie is a total stripped-down version without the incendiary, sarcastic swipes, or the laugh-out-loud funny, and ah… thanks, Maria Semple, for the words, “it’s flattened under an avalanche of” smoothened edges in characterization and plot.

By the way, if one reads deeper into the Canadian jab quoted above, it wouldn’t be hard to see the layered meaning. Aha, the joke is on which side of the 49th?

Bernadette (1).jpg

 

Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) has had her glorious days as an acclaimed architect, pioneer of the green building movement, a MacArthur grant recipient at 32, and a young woman succeeding in a male-dominated profession. Due to an unfortunate incident, her award-winning project was demolished without her knowledge, destroyed by a vengeful neighbour who bought it under an agent’s name. Devastated, Bernadette crashed out of her career, moved to Seattle with her Microsoft, TED Talking husband Elgie (Billy Crudup, a miscast). They bought a huge, dilapidated mansion. For twenty years she had ignored the maintenance of her home and self. The traumatic health issue of her daughter Bee’s (Emma Nelson) early years drives her further into the hole living as a reclusive agoraphobic.

Bernadette and Bee are the best of friends though. Mother/daughter relationship is well portrayed in the movie, a particular gripping scene is their singing the song ‘Time after time’ together in the car ending with a Bernadette meltdown. “You don’t know how hard it is for me.” Bee doesn’t know, viewers need to guess, but readers do, for they are supplied with ample back story. The movie, however, has trouble connecting the past with the present, or presenting sufficient motivation for the actions and behaviour of the characters.

As loving parents, Bernadette and Elgie have to fulfill a promise to Bee, that is she can have anything she asks for if she gets straight A’s; now they’re stuck with making a family trip to Antarctica. For two-third of the movie we see mostly interior shots of home and work building up a case to Bernadette’s disappearance. The momentum picks up only in the last third, the Antarctica episode.

The storytelling in the book is a lively collection of emails, notes, letters, hospital billing, and police report plus personal narrative to present the different voices from various characters. On screen, the Rashomon-like shifting of perspectives are converted into mainly two characters sitting and talking to each other. Surely Linklater is an expert in dialogues with his Before trilogy, where the camera follows two characters Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) talking throughout the movie and yet still captivating viewers as we watch them wander the streets and listening to them chat. But here, that magic is missing. Where’d you go, Linklater?

For the casting of Bernadette, Cate Blanchett is a good choice, her Academy Award winning role in Blue Jasmine comes to mind. Unfortunately, here she is not in her Jasmine form. The major issue is a weak script, hence the directing of it. The screenplay follows the book faithfully but in a minimal, abridged version. It begs the question: does a movie adaptation need to follow the source material to the dot? Here in this very different medium, dialogues are picked right out of the novel while the camera has not been fully utilized, nor any imaginative ingredients been added to the visual adaptation of this quirky and zesty book. Well, yes, it might have been faithful to the letter, but not the spirit.

The title question obviously doesn’t just mean the physical whereabouts of Bernadette but where her talent, creativity, and vitality for life have gone. There’s a scene with Bernadette meeting her previous mentor Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne) who says it explicitly: “People like you must create. If you don’t, you become a menace to society.” Such is a thematic element that needs to be calved out more clearly, a talent caged in by her own disillusionment and her ultimate breakthrough. Don’t blame motherhood, and Bernadette doesn’t, for she sees a beautiful offspring flourishing in Bee. But is parenting a zero-sum game? The context and question should be handled with more depth and inner exploration. With not much contextual support, the case of a self-imposed, locked-up genius is left to the actor Blanchett to portray, and at times it seems forced.

Missing story elements cause lapses in the storytelling. Why does Audrey (Kristen Wiig), Bernadette’s neighbour and archenemy, suddenly becomes friend with her at the most critical moment? Or, during the mudslide, the camera hasn’t shown (without obstruction) what’s written on the sign, which has triggered much of the resentment between Audrey and Bernadette. Readers know, but not viewers if they have not read the source material.

At the end of the book there’s an “About the Author” page. Before writing fiction, Semple had written for the television shows Arrested Development, Mad About You, and Ellen. If one hadn’t known this tidbit already, a natural response would have been “no wonder!” It just points plainly to the ideal person who should have written the screenplay.

 

~ ~ Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple:

Blue Jasmine: Homage and Reimagining

Boyhood: The Moment Seizes Us 

Before Midnight: Reality Check

The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

 

Blue Jasmine (2013): Homage and Re-Imagining

Sometimes when we see different versions of an original piece of art we tend to dismiss them as cheesy imitations, turning art into a cliche, like, the many faces and parodies of the Mona Lisa.

And sometimes, when we see a work that we know is a new version of an older masterpiece and yet we appreciate it, all because it brings us a breath of fresh air, a different perspective, new insights, a re-imagining, or offers us some new pleasures.

Here are a few examples. Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) is the auteur’s version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and movingly crafted. West Side Story (1961), we appreciate it as a different styling of Romeo and Juliet. Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), we know it to be a Japanese rendition of King Lear, and we marvel at the director’s handling of a Shakespearean classic from a different culture. A bit later, the younger generation in the 1990’s enjoyed Clueless (1995) even though they may not have noticed the resemblance to Jane Austen’s Emma. With Disturbia (2007), we see Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window making its way into the minds of teenaged viewers, and who cares that they didn’t even know it.

Woody Allen has done that many a times in his over four decade career as a director, creating different versions of the works from those he had expressed deep admiration. Call it homage, if you will, or borrowing, but we never have the impression that he’s ‘copying’. Copying is mindless triviality. But a look at Allen’s Interiors, we’ll see the deep shadow of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, the intense yet intimate styling of a chamber drama. Or Hannah and Her Sisters, an apt parallel with Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, we see him deal with the issue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or rather, crime and the absence of punishment. I’m sure you can think of some more examples.

Blue Jasmine Movie Poster

So here with Allen’s 48th feature Blue Jasmine, does it matter that its structure and characterization parallel Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the Elia Kazan 1951 classic movie? Especially when we see such a finely crafted, enjoyable, and impressively performed modern version, we can only admire Allen’s imagination and creativity. I have a feeling that he (or his casting staff) gets Cate Blanchett to star as Jasmine because of her on-stage mastery of Blanche Du Bois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire performed not too long ago.

With Blue Jasmine, the 77 year-old director seems to have hit his stride yet again. Two years ago, Midnight in Paris brought him the highest opening box office gross in his career, now Blue Jasmine has surpassed that. Blue Jasmine will also be the widest screened Woody Allen movie, so far. It reaffirms the director’s talent in how he can bring out the best from his actors.

Cate Blanchett turns from blanche to blue, but just the same as she steps down the social ladder in a fragile mental state, dependent on a cocktail of alcohol and anti-depressants. She is Jasmine, a New York socialite who has to go stay with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco after her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) meets the full legal consequence of his fraudulent business dealings, a definite change of course from Allen’s earlier movies Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.

The real and imaginary in Jasmine’s mind is smoothly shifted as we see her delusional self living in the present and the past at the same time. Allen handles it very well. The non-lineal storytelling is seamless. Blanchett is superb in her lucid performance, portraying convincingly a whole spectrum of emotions and mental states, while tugging at our heartstrings as we see her try desperately to stand on her own two feet for the first time in her life. This is where Allen is best, piercing sad human situations with light and gentle humor.

Allen has plenty of materials to poke fun at and chances to deliver his social commentaries. Yes folks, there is a class system in democratic America, and the humor in the film is at the expense of both the upper class and maybe more, the menial workers. Mind the gap, for it is unbridgeable. Fact is, the fun of the film, I’m afraid, is at the expense of depicting some of the characters a bit like caricatures. Having said that, I must applaud the wonderful acting from the supporting cast. They look like they are convinced first of their character’s idiosyncrasy, making their portrayals so unabashedly natural.

Further, Allen seems to redeem himself in presenting a moralistic stance. True love can be found right there in Ginger’s circle with her devoted boyfriend Chilli (Bobby Cannavale), whom Jasmine calls a ‘loser’; the deceivers are from the upper crust, Hal (Alec Baldwin) being the prominent figure. Others who may look like a step up for Ginger could well be a mirage. The wonderful supporting cast includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, Louie C. K. the seemingly hopeful sound engineer, Michael Stuhlbarg, the serious man turned desperate dentist, and Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight, no doubt the parallel of Mitch (Karl Malden) in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Blanchett’s Jasmine performance has already sent out Oscar buzz, and it’s only August. She carries the film through brilliantly. An Oscar nomination should be well deserved. We are glad to find too that Allen has not missed a beat after his success with Midnight in Paris, still churning out enjoyable films on an annual basis, while sometimes a superb actor can much enhance our appreciation, as it is the case here. 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Other related posts:

Midnight In Paris

A Serious Man (Michael Stuhlbarg)

An Education (Peter Sarsgaard)

Do we need a Rebecca Remake? Another Grapes of Wrath?

Art and Cliché

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The Independent Spirit Awards

Some pleasant results from the Independent Spirit Awards held in Santa Monica today (Feb. 23). This is the dressed-down film awards ceremony honoring low-budget indie films, which takes place in a tent, and has gone green, completely environmental friendly according to host Rainn Wilson. For a full list of winners, click here. Some results I’m happy to see:

Cate Blanchett and Ellen Page

Juno: Winning Best Feature, Best Actress Ellen Page, and Best First Screenplay Diablo Cody. Ellen Page’s awestruck face and shaky voice as she gave the acceptance speech is the icing on the cake…sweet.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Best Director Julian Schnabel, Best Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.

Also, there are some very pleasant moments seeing:

  • A very pregnant Cate Blanchett winning Best Supporting Female for I’m Not There.
  • A still attractive Marisa Tomei, nominee for Best Supporting Female in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
  • And last but not least, Darcy in jeans, yes, Colin Firth, the man himself, presenting the Best Screenplay Award.
Colin Firth

Great momentum, great spirit, all charged up for the grand movie award of the year, tomorrow’s Oscars Ceremony. And, Colin, we’re ready just the same to watch Pride and Prejudice after that, for the…ooh…I’ve lost count how many times.

(Photo Sources: Cate Blanchett and Ellen Page from Gossip Girls, Colin Firth from Wikimedia.)