Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fiction Review: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," F. Scott Fitzgerald

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a minor though entertaining short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is enjoying renewed interest because of the film adaptation directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt. (The late Pauline Kael once wrote that if one is going to see a movie based on something one thinks might be worth reading, read the source material first. Following that dictum, I’m reading “Benjamin Button” and writing about it before seeing the film.) Fitzgerald’s story features the characteristic elegance of his prose, and it has a rather gaudy conceit: it presents the life of a man who is the equivalent of about seventy years old when he is born, and who ages in reverse. The tone successfully shifts from the farcical to the romantic to ultimately one of pathos, with Fitzgerald hitting the notes of laughter and sadness with the various characters’ preoccupations with appearances. Everyone confronted with Benjamin’s incongruous aging pattern treats it as a joke, and those who must accept the truth of the situation, such as his father, wife, and son, treat it as a black joke on them. Benjamin’s only happiness comes as an adult, the one time when looking older when one is younger and looking younger when one is older is an advantage.

Fitzgerald handles the shifts in the story with remarkable skill. He begins with a terrific comic set piece, as Roger Button, Benjamin’s father, is faced with the shock of discovering his son has been born an elderly man. And Fitzgerald makes full use of the comic possibilities in having a child look and act like a man of advanced years. There’s one fiasco after another: in the nursery, in kindergarten, and even at the Yale registrar’s office when the eighteen-year-old Benjamin attempts to enroll. But Fitzgerald also prepares one to anticipate that Benjamin’s adult life will be a disappointing one, which is all the better to heighten the sense of happiness those years actually hold. He makes the transition with an observant irony: Hildegarde Moncrief, the town beauty who becomes Benjamin’s wife, is attracted to older-looking men. Their marriage is the icing on the cake of the first part of Benjamin’s adulthood, in which he sees the family business become more prosperous than ever, and he even becomes a war hero.

But where irony leads, it leads away from as well, and the pathos of Benjamin’s growing younger takes over. As time passes, Benjamin and Hildegarde’s relationship becomes increasingly strained. In both appearance and temperament, Benjamin becomes more like the bon vivant young men Hildegarde expressed disdain for when they first met. She ultimately deserts him to live abroad. And other disappointments follow as time goes by. He becomes too “young” to enjoy what life offers him. His second try at attending college fails because his intellect is losing the sophistication necessary to do the coursework. He can’t accept a senior officer’s commission decades after his war service because the brass can’t believe this apparent teenager is the same person. His only happiness comes when he joins his grandson in kindergarten, when his mind and body are such that he can enjoy the activities he shunned when he was five. His life ends in the senility of infancy, when he becomes increasingly unable to remember anything, even the smell of food. Fitzgerald never makes it explicit, but he suggests that the old end where the young begin. Losing the knowledge of one’s experiences, and with it one’s identity, may be the saddest pathos of all.

It’ll certainly be interesting to see how David Fincher and the screenwriters, Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, handle Fitzgerald’s material. From the trailer clips, they’ve clearly modernized the story. Brad Pitt is shown riding around in a motorcycle looking like an ‘80s or ‘90s yuppie, so the character probably ages to infancy in the present day. (Fitzgerald’s story begins in 1860 and ends in 1930 or so.) And unless Cate Blanchett agreed to make an extended cameo, the love story between Benjamin and Hildegarde (or her equivalent) has been heavily altered and/or expanded. (The Blanchett character is shown to be fascinated by Benjamin’s condition, not repelled by it the way Fitzgerald’s Hildegarde ultimately is.) I’ll also be curious to see if the film maintains the comic tone of the first half of the story; Fincher, best known for Se7en and, more recently, Zodiac, is not a director I associate with comic material or the deft sense of pace required to pull it off. However, he does have a feel for the sort of darker ironies that Fitzgerald presents in the latter sections, and I do expect that, whatever liberties are or aren’t taken, his attention to detail will be obvious in every shot. The man does not skimp.

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