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  • Joshua Britton

Fight Club and the Film Adaptation Process

One of the benefits to reading the book AFTER watching the movie is that you’re less likely to get all up-in-arms if the director dares to change something. The movie director is the author of a movie, even more so than the screenwriter, and should be allowed to make it his own. Plus, it’s an adaptation, not a literal translation. If you want a literal translation, just stick to the book.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I embrace watching the movie first, but I do think it has value. It’s not that a story can’t be told the same way through prose as through film, but different mediums can do different things, and some things effective on film wouldn’t work on paper, and vice versa. It’s easier to go through a book afterwards and notice the differences, not just in the characters and subplots, but also in the way it’s actually told, rather than the other way around. People are more likely to watch the same movie ten times than they are to read the same book ten times. I’ve seen Fight Club ten times, probably more, without reading the book. But I had read other books by Chuck Palahniuk. With the first two Palahniuks I’d read, Invisible Monsters and Survivor, the narrators if each sounded the same inside my head: the voice of Edward Norton, the narrator in the film version of Fight Club. I thought Invisible Monsters in particular had a similar plot arc and conclusion as Fight Club, though, remember, I hadn’t read it. Survivor was fun, the most Kurt Vonnegut-like book I’d ever read not written by Vonnegut himself, and became the Palahniuk book I recommended to people. I also ended up reading Lullaby a few years later when I found out that the Lagwagon song of the same name was based on the novel. I figured I’d read enough Palahniuk, but then I came across a copy of Fight Club in a used bookstore, and I couldn’t resist.

I think my interest – embracement – in reading the book second goes back to The Rules of Attraction, which I’d first seen when it was relatively new to DVD. I recalled liking it but that the group I watched it with detracted from my enjoyment with their comments and complaints (it wasn’t the sappy rom-com they’d thought it would be). I rewatched it on Netflix ten-ish years ago and liked it even better than I remembered (I’ve since dubbed it one of my top-25 favorite movies). In the credits I saw that it was adapted from a novel. I very promptly (that afternoon, in fact) went to Barnes & Noble and bought the book. While I’ve since become a fan of Bret Easton Ellis and have read most of his books, The Rules of Attraction is not one of his better books; even the author says the film adaptation is better.

Sometimes I imagine being approached by a filmmaker to write an adaptation of a novel. I’m not sure how much confidence I would have in myself to do it. I’ve seen The Rules of Attraction perhaps five times now, and I’ll re-read the book at some point, too, and while it’s not a perfect film (though it’s a technical masterpiece), I can barely comprehend the process of making this movie out of that book. There may have been some genius involved.

Obviously, when making a movie, length is a factor. Most directors aren’t given the liberty to, or don’t have the interest in, making four- or five-hour adaptations like the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice and the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy. Nothing against those movies, but it’s sort of a cop out, like the director doesn’t want to worry about the story, that he doesn’t value the story-telling aspect of the film medium, and that he’d rather focus elsewhere. As a viewer, I want to see something different than what I’ve already read. At the risk of repeating myself, if you want a literal adaptation, just reread the book.

Fight Club, the book, is fresh in my mind. I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall during the process of deciding to omit entire chapters, and as a result entire anecdotes and subplots. There are times I recognized a sentence of dialogue in these skipped-over passages that was given to a different character in an earlier scene, or a descriptive paragraph that was reduced to a four-second flashback. And smaller decisions, such as changing a minor character from a white guy to an Asian or changing the job at which the narrator beats himself up in order to blackmail his boss. Some changes are more obvious, like changing how the two main characters met – too much male nudity? Brad Pitt may not have agreed to it.

The screenwriter was Jim Uhls, by the way; since I’m admiring his work so much I might as well acknowledge him.

While I have toyed with writing a stage play, I have minimal interest in writing a screenplay. I’ve read parts of two screenplays – Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver – but I’m barely interested even in that. I’m not connected to the movie industry, and I doubt I ever will be, but who knows. This will remain a hobby for me. I suspect that many more movies are based on books than people realize.

Speaking of which, I just picked up a copy of No Country for Old Men. I’ll probably start that soon. And I’ll probably imagine the adaptation process for it, as well.

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