F. Scott Fitzgerald would have been pleasantly surprised to find his short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, finally becoming a movie but could not have anticipated something like a graphic novel as well. Both the movie and the comic are fine works in their own rights. However, both must work in the tricky world of adaptation which sets up some formidable challenges since its always asking a lot to compete with your mind’s eye reading the original.
Amid all the buzz surrounding the Brad Pitt flick, I first turned to the graphic novel adapted by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir and illustrated by Kevin Cornell. Its ambitions are more limited than the movie as, chapter per chapter, it remains faithful to the original. It reminded me of a theater group putting on a play version of a favorite classic book. Once you get past the novelty of the characters coming to life off the page, it all depends on the actors.
Much like a theatrical adaptation, you get to enjoy from this graphic novel the novelty of the characters and action from the original inhabiting a different space. Then you have to ask yourself how good is it, would it be better if it were just a reading? Had this graphic novel taken on the goal of pushing the comics medium, then a bolder statement would have been made. Instead you get a mellow and charming presentation which is fine but holds back too much. It all depends on the art in this case and Kevin Cornell provides a wonderful characterization of Benjamin Button starting with our first look at a Father Time figure in a baby crib.
Now, as for the movie, the sky is the limit in the hands of director David Fincher and his creative team. Not since Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby in 1974 has there been a major motion picture of such caliber based on a work by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s hard to resist comparing the two movies considering how much Benjamin Button is transformed into a tragic hero, dark and enigmatic, not unlike Jay Gatsby. In the original short story, Benjamin Button follows a more linear path with only a few key adventures befitting a tall tale. In the movie, everything is nuanced down to the slightly more plausible version of Benjamin Button’s fantastical birth and physical development.
It is Benjamin Button’s spiritual development that is carried out in the grand old Hollywood style, enhanced by digital wizardry, and so it all depends on that style to make this movie work. Much like Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby, Brad Pitt knows how to command the screen in quiet moments with himself. He’s a natural leading man who doesn’t take himself seriously and we can relate to him with ease. He’s perfect to play the role of a man we want to see “reinventing” himself, a concept at the core of The Great Gatsby and which continues to influence us.
Finally, I looked up the original story. I considered how old it is and yet how full of life it is too. The movie version begins the story in 1900 and has Benjamin live well into the ’80s while the original story begins in 1860 with the Civil War which would have resonated with a reader of the time. And then I thought about how much fun it is to read it and how timely the theme remains concerning an individual’s progress in relation to society’s demands for conformity. The theme of reinventing oneself is there too but not as fully developed as The Great Gatsby and hardly full of the drama of a grand old Hollywood movie.
In the original, as well as in the movie, Benjamin Button manages to live up to the standards placed by society and himself. This reminds me of another movie about an enigmatic character who lives out the American dream: Forrest Gump. Unlike The Great Gatsby and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. It too is an adaptation from a book but it somehow found a way to become a phenomena. The right movie at the right time much like Slumdog Millionaire. But this is really no slight against Benjamin Button considering that Eric Roth wrote the screenplay for both Forrest Gump and, with Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald would have been pleased.