‘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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The Gone Girl Phenom: A Reality Show in the Making?

NOTE: It is my full intention to drop NO SPOILERS in this post. Can one write a review but save the spoilers? Yes, but difficult. I’ll try to do that. What’s more, take this as an ‘op ed’ on a book-to-film phenom, and a small commentary on our contemporary media-driven culture.

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Let me cut to the chase. To answer the question that a lot of you may have, no need to crack open my head: If you have already read the book, will that hinder you from fully enjoying the film?

The answer is yes. For a film that predicates on the twists and turns in the plot line, where suspense is built on keeping the audience in the dark, a person having read the book before seeing the movie has to be amnesiac to be surprised. As in my case, my suspense is more like “will Gillian Flynn throw us a curve ball here?” That’s why by the time the third act comes, with its slightly altered storyline, it then began to pique my curiosity more.

However, and this is a big However, Gone Girl is many things. Above all, it is pure Fincher entertainment. Following his Social Network (2010) and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Gone Girl is stylish, slick, absorbing and contemporary. It depicts adults behaving badly like a Hitchcock thriller. It is a modern film noir where, albeit not in black and white, the mostly dim, sepia tone, together with the numbing electronic pulses of the music combine to elicit mystery and suspense. A hyperbole of a marriage gone wrong, it is about the knowable and unknowable of ourselves and others, even those close to us. It is about violence in our thoughts and actions, and the fronts we put up to cover the deviance.

But then, don’t read too much into it. This is not a philosophical quest in finding who we are, albeit the question has been asked in the film, nor is it a diatribe on our social condition, the marriage institution, or domestic violence. This movie is simply as it is, pure entertainment.

For me, the most crucial issue it touches on has to do with our mass, popular culture, our media-driven, insatiable thirst for sensational headlines, or hashtags for that matter, and our crowd-sourcing way in forming opinion. Like a satire, it points to the influence of our TV personalities, the link between popularity and credibility, the follower and fan-based momentum.

A former Entertainment Weekly writer, Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl debuted in the New York Times Bestseller list in 2012 and has been there for 91 weeks. The two weeks before the film premieres, its sales has doubled.

Gone Girl Movie Still

The story seems straight forward enough. Amy Dunn, a New Yorker transplanted in Missouri after she follows her husband Nick to move back to his hometown as his mother is diagnosed with cancer. On their fifth anniversary, Amy is gone missing. Nick soon becomes the prime suspect in the case. Although a body has not been found, murder is on everyone’s mind. With this premise the story unfolds, and we are off to a ride of twists and turns all the way to the end.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are convincing as the troubled couple. Affleck, who is not known as a superb character actor, is above his previous level here. Although I must say, having read the book could affect how we judge his performance. As for Rosamund Pike, I have no doubt this is her breakout role. Glad to see she finally get this golden opportunity after her supporting parts in An Education (2009), and in Pride and Prejudice (2005) playing Jane, the eldest Bennet sisters, overshadowed by Keira Knightly’s Lizzy.

However for me, I’m most impressed by Kim Dickens in her portrayal of the thinking detective Rhonda Boney perfectly, a role that usually falls upon a male star, like Columbo, or the doubting, persistent detective that looks at evidence and not dwell on prejudice. Her character is the one I like the best in the movie.

The production also benefits from supporting roles from Carrie Coon playing Nick’s twin sister Margo, Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s former boyfriend Desi Colling, Tyler Perry as defence lawyer Tanner Bolt, although more screen time and story could have been written for him.

If you have read the book, what’s in it for you in the movie? Several things. First off, watch for how the savvy former Entertainment Weekly writer Gillian Flynn transforms her novel into a screenplay, and how a talented director in turn crafts a stylish and absorbing film out of Flynn’s script, from mere words on the page. While you’re at it, watch how a cast of actors interpret their roles (with many cues from the director I’m sure) and make the characters come to life. How do they compare with your imagination while reading the book?

The director of photography plays a dominant role in styling the visual, the light and shadow, the overall tone. Together with the suspenseful, numbing and electrifying music and the smooth editing, the 149 minutes feel like 90. Likely awards nominations for several categories, in particular adapted screenplay, editing, and acting categories. But Best Picture? I have major reservations about that.

Treat this as a modern day Hitchkock movie, a contemporary Film Noir that’s slick and teasing. Fincher’s Girl With A Dragon Tattoo may be the warm-up task, a borrowed source. But here is an authentic American book-to-movie success story. The trend from this day on could well be authors writing more ‘ready-for-movie’ novels.

Now, to the media frenzy. The surge in Gone Girl sales and all the hype pushed the movie in this past opening weekend to the number one spot in box office sales, an impressive $38 million, doubled that of Ben Affleck’s own Best Picture Oscar Argo (2012).

The product may be good, but still a movie needs a strong marketing end. So, all the buzz are the generated effects from a successful marketing campaign, and a large fan base sure is a major asset. All indications point to the Gone Girl phenom could well send the movie to hit targets in profits and Oscar noms.

According to Variety, Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at Fox, had said, “we did an excellent job of marketing the movie and making it a cultural event where people had to see it in order to be part of the conversation.”

“That’s a testament to the film becoming a zeitgeisty film,” he said.

Exactly. Nowadays, looks like there’s a more acute pressure for one to be part of the conversation at parties or the Friday social, and especially, on social media. And zeitgeist is just the right word to describe a phenom. I’ll be harsh to say it’s a ploy, but the fan-based momentum is just the right fuel to ignite a trend like a wildfire. But amidst the rave, judge for yourself the worth of the movie and decide if you want to be in this reality show or not.

This may be the very issue satirized in the film. View the production for what it’s worth, seek the evidence, and think for yourself how many ripples you’ll give it. Then decide if you ‘like’ it or not.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Your comment is most welcome. By all means, share your opinion on the movie, the book, or my post. But while you’re at it, for the pleasure of those who have not read the book or seen the movie, please observe the NO SPOILER intention here.

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Awards Update:

Jan. 15, 2015: Rosamund Pike nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress

Dec. 11: 4 Golden Globes noms: Best Director David Fincher, Best Actress (Drama) Rosamund Pike, Best Screenplay Gillian Flynn, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross for Best Original Score

Dec. 10: Rosamund Pike gets SAG nom for Best Female Actor