So, perhaps you’ve seen the blitz of advertising for the new movie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”? I have not seen the movie, nor do I plan to see it. The movie is based on a short story of the same name published by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922. So far as I can tell the name is where the similarities end.
First, I understand that translating literature to the big screen requires changes and alterations. These are two different mediums and I tolerate many of the books I read that go this route. Yes, often mumbling about how “the book was better,” but for the most part I can appreciate the intent and recognize the original spirit of the work. In some cases, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the movie is almost verbatim and that was disturbing in its own way. I have to say it what really bothers me the most is when the original spirit is lost.
Based on the trailers for this new movie I fear that this is the case. Ordinarily I wouldn’t really care, but I love F. Scott Fitzgerald and it really bothers me that this dark, fantasy driven story has been stripped of all its real power. I read this story years ago and it always stuck out in my mind; such an odd little piece. I just re-read the story to refresh my understanding, and the movie is even worse than I originally feared.
The short story is set in Baltimore, in the middle of the 19th century at the start of the Civil War. While the movie takes this time period to heart it moves the setting to New Orleans thus losing some of the inherent tension. Maryland was a southern state for all intensive purposes, but situated just north of Washington D.C. it was made to declare itself for the Union. Thus, leaders from Maryland were jailed to prevent the state from joining the confederacy. So when Fitzgerald describes the Buttons as part of the old peerage the “This or That family” it is relevant to Baltimore specifically. I lived in Baltimore for years and I can attest to the uniqueness of the city. It is no mistake that John Waters sets his strange movies in the charm city. If you’ve ever spent much time there you realize that his stuff isn’t so much fantastical as it is true. So, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could only really happen in Baltimore in my mind.
So, far as I can tell about the movie from the trailers this whole film is about Brad Pitt ageing in reverse. “Hey look Brad Pitt is old!” except if I wanted a glimpse of that I could just look at Robert Redford. So the idea of ageing in reverse is the premise for the story, certainly, but much of the work is focused on the father’s inability to deal with this anomaly. In the movie the father abandons the child. Maybe it feels like I’m splitting hairs here, but the truth is that emotional abandonment has a different tone that the physical. When you are reading the story you wonder, “why did he take him home?” and you start to understand that there is an effort to “fix” Benjamin to make him conform. The movie appears more focused on a love story, about using this odd premise to make us all warm and fuzzy about the nature of ageing and life.
The movie may be good, great even, but it isn’t in the spirit of the original work. As such, it should have a different title. Seriously. I hope that none of my stories are ever bastardized this way. Or if they are, I hope I’m not around to see it.