Saturday, September 3, 2011

Benjamin Button

After seeing the film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” which starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, I was drawn to the original story. Not much expectation that the movie would follow the Fitzgerald story very closely, because that doesn’t happen too often. In some cases it’s hard to discern how filmmakers manage to get what they do from an original story, leading one to think it is a nugget of an idea only and stops there. Such is the story of David Fincher’s movie version of the Fitzgerald short story.

Development rights to the 1922 story were held for years by Hollywood producer Ray Stark. He retained those rights until his death in 2004. They were later purchased from his estate and used as a starting point for the 2008 Brad Pitt/Cate Blanchett movie. Director, screenwriter and producer chose to keep only the title, the main character’s name and several aspects of the character’s reverse aging.

Unlike the original story, the movie’s setting is New Orleans during the years between the 1920s and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Benjamin’s father, a button manufacturer abandons his ‘grotesque’ infant son on the doorstep of a nearby old age home. The baby is named and raised by a black woman there, never attends school or university, and only meets his real father years later. The love of his life is a ballet dancer named Daisy (Blanchett) with whom he eventually has a daughter. Before that, he spends his life wandering the earth, only marrying Daisy years later, she forty-three, he the same but looking twenty-five. The story is told in flashback during the approach of Katrina as the daughter reads to her aged and dying mother from Benjamin’s journal, only then learning of her father long dead.

Fitzgerald’s original was first published on May 27, 1922 in Collier’s magazine, and later that year in a collection of stories called Tales of the Jazz Age. In the table of contents to the first edition of that book Fitzgerald wrote comments on each of the included stories. Under “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” he wrote:

‘This story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. By trying the experiment upon only one man in a perfectly normal world I have scarcely given his idea a fair trial. Several weeks after completing it, I discovered an almost identical plot in Samuel Butler’s Note-books.

The story was published in Collier’s last summer and provoked this startling letter from an anonymous admirer in Cincinnati: “Sir—I have read the story Benjamin Button in Collier’s and I wish to say that as a short story writer you would make a good lunatic. I have seen many pieces of cheese in my life but of all the pieces of cheese I have ever seen you are the biggest piece. I hate to waste a piece of stationery on you but I will.”’

In the original 1922 story, Benjamin Button is born in Baltimore in the summer of 1860. To the shock of doctor, nurses and father, he is born with the physical appearance of an old man, already able to speak. His father brings in neighborhood children to play with the ‘boy’ though Benjamin is out of place among the boys, and goes along with it only to please his father. At the age of five, he is sent to kindergarten but after a time or two is sent home because he falls asleep during classroom activities. It isn’t until the age of twelve that Mr Button first realizes his son is growing younger as he ‘ages.’ Reaching the age of eighteen, Benjamin enrolls at Yale but is sent home by a dean, who thinks he is a fifty year-old crackpot.

Benjamin goes to work in his father’s hardware company and does very well at it. He soon marries a local beauty who is entranced with his mature appearance. For years they prosper, have a son and live satisfying lives. At the age of fifty Benjamin turns the hardware company over to his son, and goes off to enroll at Harvard, looking like a healthy twenty year-old. His first two years at Harvard are a great success, but during the last two, as he continues to grow younger, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to cope with the academic demands.

Benjamin returns home after graduation to find his wife has moved to Italy. He continues to live with his son, is treated very sternly, even made to call his son “Uncle” in front of others. The years pass and Benjamin goes from moody teenager to a young child attending kindergarten with his grandchild.

Benjamin begins to lose any memory of his earlier life, and as memory fades he gradually slips into darkness.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote as many as 150 stories in addition to the novels that made his name, and he depended more on those stories than anything to support the lavish lifestyle he and his wife Zelda lived. With the success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise in 1920 the writer was suddenly able to command large sums for his stories. While “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” did not attract the praise of all his critics, it is a solid, mature piece despite its flaws. In his stories, Fitzgerald often viewed life as stage or theater upon which his character’s days are played out as a series of trials and disillusionments. One could certainly see how the writer followed that motif in this story, as Benjamin’s every day is an example of that theme. The device of having a character that rather than up, grows down provided Fitzgerald with some of the themes seen in his other work: the place of an individual in the class and generation he inhabits, the callowness of youth, and the combination of wisdom and frailty in old age. This story, like his later novel, The Great Gatsby is a study of characters in search of eternal youth.

1 comment:

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America