Monday, 17 February 2014

Fight Club: Film Vs Book

Movie Poster
Fight Club is one of my most favourite films. It's fiendishly clever, with wicked, black humour and some excellent acting. Helena Bonham-Carter is almost unrecognisable as the emotionally-ruined Marla, whilst Edward Norton  is wonderfully deadpan as the nameless Narrator who becomes disenchanted and cynical about his life. Brad Pitt completes the trio as Tyler, the revolutionary single-serving friend who appears in the Narrator's life and sets about spreading anarchy wherever he goes. The film is peppered with so many in-jokes, hints and Easter Eggs that every time you watch it, you spot something new to laugh wryly at, or a bit of foreshadowing that you missed the first dozen times you saw it. It's rude, violent, dark and hilarious, and I love it. Until this week, I had never read the book.

I knew there was a book; years and years ago a friend told me about it whilst we'd been talking about the film. I was surprised to hear this - it hadn't occurred to me that this insane piece of cinema had started out on a page - but initially I was eager to read it. Yet when I had opportunities to get it - in bookshops, when I got my Kindle, when people asked me what I wanted for Christmases and birthdays - I never actually took the leap. I always thought about it, but couldn't bring myself to do it. The simple fact is, after all those times I said books were better than films (with the brief exception of my Screen Beats The Page entry), I couldn't bear to read the book that inspired one of my favourite films. Silly, isn't it? I spend all this time worrying that screen versions won't match up to original books, but still watching them anyway, and then the very idea of one book not matching up to the film prevents me from reading the book. But to me, Fight Club the Film was so perfect, so wonderful that I was worried - for the first time ever - that the book would change my opinion of it, would twist it and alter it.

Book Cover
But last week, my curiosity - as it so often does - got the better of me, and I finally took the plunge and bought Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (if anyone can tell me how to pronounce that surname, please do). My first thoughts were how very like the film the book was - or rather, how faithful an adaptation the film was. Some parts of the text were instantly recognisable as dialogue from the film - even the pacing of the speech and thought patterns had been mimicked. This lead me to my first problem: Edward Norton was narrating my book for me. I don't know if you've ever thought about this, or experienced it, but I always find that when I read, it's like there is a voice inside my head that is reading to me, and does the voices and inflections as necessary. Normally, for me, this is a gender-neutral voice, just an extension of my mind helping me put images and opinions about what I'm reading together. For the first time though, this voice had taken on a personality: Edward Norton as the Narrator was reading the book to me in my head as clearly as if I'd been watching the film at the same time. I was also seeing the film, in my mind's eye, as I read each scene; the bar where the Narrator and Tyler have their first fight was, of course, the same as in the film, and the Narrator's condominium that blows up - setting the ensuing events in motion - was exactly the same as the film.

All this made it incredibly difficult for me to enjoy the book, because I wasn't able to focus on it entirely; instead of letting words and images and characters wash over me, I was half concentrating on the book, half rushing ahead, thinking about what happens next in the film. It's one thing to know what happens in a book, but it's another to spend your time thinking about how a scene you haven't got to yet looks in the film. One of the aspects of reading that has always bought me most joy is letting my imagination conjure up the scenes that a writer has created; a particularly gifted writer will be able to describe something so well, you can instantly see it. I can tell Palahniuk is a gifted writer, because the film is so like the book in many ways that you can tell he did a good job; for me, however, I can't experience this, because the images have already been created for me, and try as I might, I can't dislodge them.

This brings me back, I suppose, to my original belief that it is better to read a book first before seeing its cinematic counterpart; it gives you an opportunity to discover a world for yourself, and to see it how you would like to see it, rather than how someone else imagines it. An example of this that springs to mind is Peter Jackson's interpretation of Susie's heaven in his adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, which is one of my favourite books. His version, involving inverted skies, swirling colours and oversized creatures did not tally up with mine at all, which was a kind of beige, dry landscape, peppered with unremarkable buildings, dogs and other people. But because I saw Fight Club first, and because the film is such a good adaptation, now I'm reading it, all I can see is scenes from the film. This is disappointing, because on some level I know I would've enjoyed the book, regardless of whether I'd seen the film or not. Having said that, I don't know how long it would've been until I found the book if I hadn't seen the film, so in some ways that's a good thing - at least this remarkable story has been in my life in some form. And after all, Chuck Palahniuk himself thought the film did a fantastic job - he actually commented that "the movie had streamlined the plot and made it so much more effective, and made connections that I had never thought to make". When the author thinks the film has performed some tasks better than his own work, you know it's got to be a good one.

I've just finished Fight Club today, and towards the end there were some scenes that I was able to imagine in my own way - a few differences with the film that allowed me to sink more comfortably into the story. However, I was reminded of the film right until the end, with constant echoes of dialogue and scenes ringing through my head. It wasn't an entirely unpleasant experience, and I can confidently say I would read the book again, and I will watch the film again. I can't pretend my imaginings of scenes from books have ever gone unscathed by depictions I've seen on the big screen - a notable one is my imagining of the Great Hall from Harry Potter, which was completely different to how I saw it. In hindsight, my version was a bit stupid and my re-readings of the series has improved for adopting the Great Hall from the film. I think with Fight Club, I was just so thrown by how closely the film had clearly stuck to its original source material, that maybe my marvelling at the similarities got in the way. Then again, I challenge anyone to not notice them. It has taught me a lesson though: from now on - if I can help it - when it comes to adaptations, I'm reading the book first.

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