Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Eric Roth
Starring: Brad Pitt, Kate Blanchett
If someone had told you about an amazing autobiography he read about a man-child who was born old and died an infant, then the next day another person were to recount a wonderfully strange documentary film about an un-aging man named Benjamin Button, you would be hearing two starkly different tales. These men share a name, yes, but with different families, upbringings, home towns, personalities, adventures, romances, and growing up in different time periods, it’s hard to say that there is only one curious case of a Button.
In Fitzgerald’s original short story, Benjamin Button was born in 1860 Baltimore, Maryland. His mother was never known to the reader-my guess is that she did not survive the birth, as Benjamin entered the world as a 5’8” man-child. Ben’s father, Roger, was infuriated with what he found at the hospital, as what resembled a 70-year-old man with a long wispy beard was in the nursery speaking to him and the nurse. Roger wanted little to do with anything that would tarnish his social status, and a freak-of-nature newborn became an eyesore to his otherwise pristine reputation.
To compound Roger’s problems, the family doctor quit after delivering Ben; the hospital refused to keep him longer than a day under their care; and his father, Roger, was forced to take him back to the Button estate. But Roger took him in and raised him as a Button-though Ben was force-fed an infant’s upbringing-and he had no taste for warm milk, baby rattles, or games with other boys. He did, however, enjoy cigars, flipping through encyclopedias, and hanging out with Grandpa Button. All-in-all, Roger was a far more loving father than his doppelganger, Thomas Button.
We find Fincher’s version of Ben born in 1918 at the Buttons’ New Orleans duplex. Ben’s father Thomas steals him away in a crazed attempt to abandon the newborn. After attempting to throw the wrinkly, pint-sized infant into the Mississippi River, Thomas leaves Ben at the steps of a last-stop home for the elderly. Thomas spent the years bouncing between the whiskey bottles and brothelsHere, a woman named Queenie finds the hideously aged baby in blankets and takes him in. Though he had a youth’s curiosity, he didn’t think himself any different from the real 70-year-old residents. He is seen playing with kids visiting their grandparents at the home, adventuring in New Orleans, and playing with army soldiers.
The Buttons’ family tree, according to Fitzgerald, shows Roger Button as the successor to a wholesale hardware company, while Thomas Button manufactured and sold buttons. Go figure. Both had their share of success, but Roger shared success with Ben, who became increasingly acceptable to Roger as he progressively (or regressively, I should say) un-aged. Thomas, however, found success due to manufacturing demands from WWI, and only cared to pass the business to Ben as his life was passing by. Ben Button via the short story has a son named Roscoe. He takes over the wholesale company, and becomes increasingly irritated by his adolescent father winding back to a chubby-cheeked baby. Ben via Fincher’s movie has a daughter named Caroline and a lover named Daisy.
Both Benjamin Buttons became adventuring individuals. Fitzgerald’s wished to study at Yale, like his father before him. He was rejected and scoffed as he looked like a 50-year-old when he enrolled. He enlisted in the military and fought in the Spanish-American War. Ben, in the movie, worked on a ship when he began adventuring from his home. The ship was recruited by the navy for WWII and he saw some action off the shores of Japan. It becomes clear that Fitzgerald’s Benjamin is a man driven by vitality and adventure, while Benjamin in the movie seems to be more of a drifter. But, Fincher’s Benjamin always felt the call of home. This in large part was for his true love, Daisy.
In the movie Ben met Daisy when he was a hobbling, bald man-child. Daisy was no more then 10-years-old, but she saw a spark in the eyes of Benjamin, and they played much like normal kids do. Throughout out the movie they come in and out of each others’ lives. The two characters falls in love, but at different times. It creates wonderful tension. The short story, though, is a much dryer affair. Ben meets Hildegarde at a party. They dance in a formal arrangement. She loves him for his aged look and tranquility, though she was a young and beautiful woman. They age and cross each other as Ben groes young and she loses her vitality. They grow to dislike each other and Hildegarde moves to Italy (an unexplained event).
Narration is also a heavy point of divergence in the movie. We never know who the narrator is in the short story. Whenever there is a third-person narrator it is always an interesting discussion to have about who you think the narrator is, but Fincher leaves very little room for interpretation in the movie as he selected Benjamin’s daughter Caroline to read his journal back to his dying lover Daisy. Starting at the end is very fitting for Benjamin’s life, so having his daughter read the journal is perfect. It also give the story a beating heart because we watch how a passive individual grows attached to the story, then finds out how it impacts her own life-much like how the story interacts with the audience in the theatre.
To expand on the idea of unexplained events in Fitzgerald’s story, most occurrences in seem more like bullet points rather than momentous, life-shaping experiences. It’s like reading a slide show of somebody’s life in reverse. Fitzgerald flat-out states, several times, in essence that he is going to skip over some parts of Ben’s life. It is almost as if Fitzgerald rested on the laurels of conceiving this original concept, but did not explore its possibilities.
The movie does a far greater job of making Ben a full-blooded human being burdened with all the problems and anxieties unique to each individual. Fincher’s departures, and wholly creating a new Benjamin Button may be cruel to the Benjamin in Fitzgerald’s story, but it works, which is the most important part. Also, ending the movie on a Hurricane Katrina/Ninth Ward homage is a nice touch-you can thank Mr. Pitt for that, I’m sure.