Fight Club: the Book vs. the Movie

Autumn 1999. Venice, Italy. The premiere audience hates the picture. It doesn’t matter. The credits roll, the house lights flicker on. 
Pitt turns to Norton and smiles. "That's the best movie I'm ever going to be in." The crowds are dispersing. Some people storm out shouting, "Fascists, fascists!" Norton nods, "Me, too." 

     Fight Club is one of my favorite movies. (I discovered it, by the way, after missing out on the 90s and 00s by living in Burmese forests, on a list of classic “mindfuck” movies on the Internet.) When I really like a novel or a movie, and when it appears to have symbolism to be interpreted and some real profundity, I study it; I want to understand it as well as I can. I watched The Matrix several times, for example, and researched interpretations of it voraciously, and contemplated it and contemplated it, before finally feeling confident that I more or less understood it. Similar cases would include Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive; and among novels, Moby-Dick, Lord of the Flies, and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. There are some that I still don’t completely get, like Bergman’s Persona or Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem. Then again, I’ve seen each of those only once.

     (Possibly my personal record for being slow on the literary/symbolic uptake involves Thomas Mann’s short story “Death in Venice.” I read it as a young layperson, and it appeared at the time to be a story about a disgusting old homosexual pedophile. Then, some fifteen years later, I was lying on my back in a cave in upper Burma, gazing vacantly at the ceiling, and recollected a certain scene from that story…and suddenly it all “clicked.” The old guy was obsessed with the boy’s youth, not his tight little anal orifice. But I digress.)

     The movie Fight Club really intrigued me. This is partly because it’s about as gloriously politically incorrect a Hollywood production as one is likely to see produced in postmodern times. Edward Norton, who played the protagonist, once remarked in an interview, "We were looking at each other going, 'We can't believe a studio is going to give us this much money to make this movie. They're giving us $70 million to make a movie that they're going to fucking hate!'"

     But also, the movie obviously has deeper meaning pulsating beneath the surface level of the plot. Consider the in-your-face symbolism which comes near the very beginning of the story: a big hulk of a guy, a former bodybuilder, now literally castrated, with huge "bitch tits" like a matronly German innkeeper, crying out plaintively with tears in his eyes, "We're still men!" Those are his very first words in the film. What could be a more powerful symbol of the plight of the modern western feminized male?

     So, I've studied Fight Club. But despite the fact that the movie obviously bears much beneath the surface, it's not especially easy to figure out. So, I figured I'd go to the original source: when a friend and supporter offered to send me a book, I asked for a copy of the novel on which the movie was based, Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club.

     The book is much easier to understand. Apparently what happened is that the director of the movie, plus whoever else adapted the screenplay from the book, changed the underlying emphasis of the story. They added little that was new, but still there was a shift in interpretation. I suppose this is why the movie can seem so enigmatical and hard to figure out: much of the meaning is retained from the novel but is almost vestigial, while the other meanings that were more or less peripheral or incidental are brought to the front—resulting in a kind of smeared  significance. The messages aren't exactly in conflict, but a sort of interference is created, making interpretation of the latter work (i.e. the movie) more difficult, especially if one doesn't have access to the original story, or to other "inside" information.

     Fight Club the novel is essentially about death. It's a kind of reflection on death. To express it more precisely, it is a modern western unreligious materialist's reflection upon our inevitable gruesome end, leading to a sort of crude, bitter existentialism, resulting in turn in radical nihilism, utter rebellion against human life, a felt need to throw everything away and hit rock bottom, anarchy, chaos, Mayhem. A more or less Buddhist statement repeated in the story is "Nothing is static. Everything is falling apart."; but this is not Buddhist novel.

     …the feeling you get is that you’re one of those space monkeys. You do the little job you’re trained to do.
     Pull a lever.
     Push a button.
     You don’t understand any of it, and then you just die.
     Almost as an afterthought, at the end there’s a suggestion that what might make the existential nightmare all worthwhile is love. It’s just a suggestion though.

     On the other hand, the movie is not essentially about death. Even so, the protagonist and Marla still attend support groups to surround themselves with dying people. The explosion in the narrator’s condo, with the destruction of everything in it, is still a kind of symbolic death. Marla still fears cancer and wants to die at the same time. Bombs are still made of human fat. Chloe and Bob still die. Death still abounds in the story, but the emphasis has shifted.

I am Jack's smirking revenge

     Again, few outward changes were made between novel and film. Most of the modifications were apparently for the sake of streamlining the story, eliminating rough edges and unnecessary awkwardness. Tyler stays around longer as the chaotic epicenter of the movie, allowing him the more natural role of driving in the limo crash scene and wielding the gun in the scene with Raymond K. Hessel. “Jack” meets Tyler on a plane, not a nude beach. The president of the projectionists’ union who beats the tar out of Tyler metamorphoses into a mafia goon named Lou. Big Bob with the bitch tits doesn’t have perfect, sculpted blond hair like in the book. The original source of the fat for Tyler’s soap business is different and less unlikely. Marla is slightly less messed up and dysfunctional, a bit stronger and more independent. “Jack’s” near castration occurs in a police station rather than a parked bus. Project Mayhem has more focus. Et cetera. Aside from smallish cosmetic changes like these, the only major plot discrepancy involves how the story ends: in the novel, Tyler eventually spins totally out of control as a prophet of death and bottoming out and becomes terminally, fatally chaotic; the narrator is driven to become a bloody human sacrifice, and really crashes, really hits rock bottom. Instead of becoming a bleak, extreme version of The Catcher in the Rye, the movie has an almost happy ending, almost upbeat. Not so much emphasis on human sacrifice and biological death, more emphasis on life, and on rebellion against a decadent, emasculating culture of weakness, alienation, and indifference.

     These latter themes are also found in the novel, but seem to be practically incidental. Apparently—I’m guessing here—the author included much of his scathing contempt for feminized western culture and his Hemingway-like glorification of brutality simply through osmosis, from his own personality; these themes, rather than being added deliberately, may have simply seeped into the story because his own attitude is pervaded by them. Palahniuk is “allegedly” gay; but if so, he’s obviously more butch than femme, hypermasculine rather than effeminate.

     Consider the central theme of fighting itself. In his Afterword to the paperback version of Fight Club, Palahniuk asserts that the central purpose of the original story, which was later developed into the novel, was simply to build upon the set of rules (“The first rule about Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club…”) as a kind of framework for the narrative. Fighting was incidental; one reason why he chose fighting instead of some other activity to bring the men together was that he wrote the original story with a black eye from a recent fist fight. But what started as practically incidental became the central symbol of David Fincher’s film.

     Rather than fighting as a kind of nihilistic ritual human sacrifice, or as a reminder of mortality by getting one’s body broken and disfigured, almost for the same reflection-on-death reasons as attending support groups for cancer patients, fighting in the movie becomes more emphatically an act of rebellion against a weakening, castrated system, a way of asserting one’s primal masculinity, one’s dignity and power and self-sufficiency. Also it is a way of becoming more alive, of achieving an intensity of feeling almost extinct in the alienated, numbed-down world of western “civilization.” How can a person be completely alive if he equates his existence with his Swedish furniture?

I don’t know it’s just, when you buy furniture you tell yourself, that’s it, that’s the last sofa I’m gonna need. Whatever else happens, I’ve got that sofa problem handled. I had it all, I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable—I was close to being complete.

There are people who actually take this kind of inauthentic life seriously. Instead of that, the men of fight club become like this:

You saw the kid who works in the copy center, a month ago you saw this kid who can’t remember to three-hole-punch an order or put colored slip sheets between the copy packets, but this kid was a god for ten minutes when you saw him kick the air out of an account representative twice his size then land on the man and pound him limp…

Also this:

You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at fight club. When it’s you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching. Fight club isn’t about winning or losing fights. Fight club isn’t about words. You see a guy come to fight club for the first time, and his ass is a loaf of white bread. You see this same guy here six months later, and he looks carved out of wood. This guy trusts himself to handle anything. There’s grunting and noise at fight club like at the gym, but fight club isn’t about looking good. There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.

Those last two quotes are from the book. (In the movie the newcomer’s ass is a wad of cookie dough.) Again, the same themes are there, sometimes in exactly the same words, but the balance is different. More vitality in the movie, less morbidity, but still there are always both. The book emphasizes rebellion against inevitable biological death, the film rebellion against the (perhaps optional) quasi-death of a decadent society.

     In the words of the film’s director:

In the movie, violence is a metaphor for feeling. It's a film about the problems or requirements involved with being masculine in today's society. Ed Norton plays a guy in a rut, a guy who has grown up with ideas that were not his. His parents instilled all the typical beliefs in him: wear the right clothes, get a job, a nice house, start a family and make sure you fit in. At age 30, he's bought all the right stuff, but feels completely empty and out of touch with his anger. He's lived sort of an "Ikea existence" and he feels misled. Brad Pitt's character represents every idea—good, bad or indifferent—about what masculinity is. He tells Norton that "Pain is one of our great and memorable experiences in life," and that if we don't understand what it means to be hurt, then how do we understand when we've overcome our fears? They form Fight Club not to win, but to fight and to feel.

Also, Edward Norton, who played the protagonist "Jack," has said this:

In part, Fight Club turns on the Baby Boomer generation and says, "Fuck you for the world you made."

     Summing it up, I would put it like this: Palahniuk emphasized dying and death in his novel to an arguably morbid degree, with his characters lashing out in anarchic rebellion against their own weakness and insignificance and inescapable mortality. The creators of the film backed away from this to some degree, feeling that more emphasis on the sociological theme of the frustration and indignation of “a generation of men raised by women” was a more engaging artistic and social statement. But, they altered the original plot relatively little, leaving a great deal of vestigial symbolism from the harsh, edgy existentialism of the novel. Hence the ambiguity of the latter’s message.

     All in all, I prefer the movie to the book, although both are extraordinary, each in its own way, and although I could see how someone might disagree, and say the book was better. I consider the movie to be one of those relatively rare cases in which a great book is turned into an even greater movie, like, say, Apocalypse Now. I perceive that this is in part due to the fact that the director and the others involved in adapting the story actually upgraded it, polished it, improving upon parts which could stand improvement, creating in effect a new Fight Club 2.0. And it helps that they were evidently inspired by what they were working with. It seems to me that if there is any weakness to the movie, it’s the aforementioned smeared significance, plus maybe Helena Bonham Carter wasn’t the right person to play Marla (but then again maybe she was). Also, it is true I simply like more humor and a more or less happy ending, and the idea of rebelling against uninspired, alienated mediocrity rather than against the world itself out of a kind of crude, angry nihilism. But to each his own.

Flowers bloom and die
Wind brings butterflies or snow
A stone won't notice

We're all going to die.



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