The cover for the spiffy new movie edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button reads: "the inspiration for the upcoming major motion picture." Anyone who reads the famous 1922 short story, about a man who is mysteriously born a septuagenarian and begins to age backwards, will immediately realize that it can't be any more than that. My copy is about fifty small, large-print pages, and it takes no more than twenty minutes to read. There are only about four characters of any note, and each of their relationships is bitter and hollow; the whole thing is a quick, moody burst of melancholy, a high concept on which Fitzgerald had no interest in lingering.
The anxiously awaited movie is directed by David Fincher – his follow-up to Zodiac -- and written by Eric Roth (the IMDb doesn't list a credit for Fitzgerald), whose resume includes Forrest Gump, The Insider, and Munich. Compared to the source material, the film has virtually a cast of thousands. Benjamin's love interest is renamed Daisy – the story's "Hildegarde" just doesn't have the same ring to it – and is played by Cate Blanchett. "Daisy age 6" is played by Elle Fanning (a.k.a. Little Dakota), though it's hard to imagine what use the film will have for a Daisy age 6: do she and Benjamin now meet while the latter is an "old man" and she a toddler? President Theodore Roosevelt shows up, for some reason. And, at least according to this Ain't It Cool test screening review, the current incarnation of the movie clocks in at three hours.
Fascinating. Of course, the notion of a movie borrowing a short story's concept and vastly expanding its plot is nothing new: it has happened with almost every movie based on a story by Philip K. Dick, for example, as well as stuff like A Sound of Thunder, etc. But expanded short stories are rarely the sorts of expensive arthouse gambles that Benjamin Button is turning out to be: the reported $100 million budget no doubt has Paramount revving its Oscar campaign engines, and hectoring Fincher to get that running time down down down.
It's hard not to get excited. Fitzgerald was content to deliver a fairly simple allegory about our attitudes toward aging, but the idea at the center of Benjamin Button is rich with thematic possibilities. Fincher is nothing if not ambitious, and all of his movies have interesting things going on under the surface. Even in the story, Benjamin (now played by Brad Pitt) had the makings of a tragic figure; I imagine Fincher and Roth will flesh that out, make his chilling fate really hit home. Just the notion of a love story where one person grows old while the other grows young is incredibly potent, and one that Fitzgerald treats glibly. There's a lot of room to work.
And indeed, the trailer suggests something epic and larger-than-life, something resembling Forrest Gump in scale. Benjamin apparently globe-hops, since parts seem set in Russia. Fincher has conceptualized Benjamin's anti-aging in a way that makes some visual sense: he's born baby-sized but shriveled, becomes a diminutive old man, then finally begins to resemble Brad Pitt. (In the story, Benjamin apparently pops out of his mother fully grown.) The romance has obviously become the heart of the story.
Maybe the right way to look at this isn't to say that the movie takes Fitzgerald's short story and adds all sorts of extraneous material to make it fill a feature film. Maybe the answer, instead, is that Fincher and Roth will truly explore an idea that Fitzgerald was content to merely toy with. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a fun little read that only hints at some moving, disturbing implications, but the movie looks like it will actually realize them. In that sense, the short story will truly be the "inspiration" for the film. More adaptations should take that approach.