Monday, June 25, 2012

Better than the Book: Fight Club

For a while, I read everything Chuck Palahniuk wrote.  He did some magazine articles, short stories, a travel book, and novels.  Then, all of a sudden, I was done with his stuff.  I realized that nothing he could write would ever be as interesting to me as the film Fight Club, not even the novel on which it was based.  What’s more, his other stuff was a whole lot less interesting.  Here’s the problem:  the twist.  Once a storyteller establishes that the twist is his thing, the audience expects it and it becomes nothing more than a gimmick. Maybe he's gone beyond this in more recent work, but I don't think I'm going to find out.

The trick to the twist is to make sure that the audience doesn’t even know it’s coming.  That there is a surprise should be a surprise.  Palahniuk, in the last books of his I read, seemed aware of this.  However, instead of tackling a new method, he decided that the best solution was to add surprises, smaller ones, coming earlier in the book.  More gimmicks. 

My distaste for his work culminated in his most recent.  I was given a copy of his book Rant, so I thought I might as well take a look at it.  The word awful does not even begin to describe the type of writer he is becoming.  Disgusting for disgusting’s sake.  Comics, especially in the wake of Watchmen and Dark Knight, seemed to become gritty because they thought this was realistic.  Palahniuk seems to be doing the same thing with vileness.

That said, I did like the novel Fight Club.  It has the following line:  “Before I met Tyler, I was going to buy a dog and name it Entourage.”  That cracks me up.  However, everything in the film version just works better. 

For example:  In the book the main character (who is often called Jack, but is in fact nameless in both book and film--played by Edward Norton) meets Tyler Durden on a beach.  Tyler is nude (for no particular reason), and is making a strange, hand-shaped sculpture using driftwood so he can sit in its center and be part of perfection or some sort of ridiculous, non-Tyler-Durdeny thing.  It just flat-out doesn’t work.  If you compare that to the way they meet in the film, placed next to each other on an airplane, the book just doesn't hold up.  I’ve had conversations with strangers on airplanes, but if I saw someone without any clothes on assembling driftwood into a sculpture and learned that they were doing so in order to be part of perfection, I’d run in the other direction.  Of course, if Tyler Durden were really the other half of my personality, I wouldn’t get very far.

The book takes some of the plot points and whatnot farther than the film does.  It appears that Marla, book version, really does have breast cancer.  And there’s some stuff about the narrator’s father.  But there’s not much of great value that’s not incorporated into the film.  And the book doesn’t have Meatloaf.

Again, it’s not a bad book at all.  It got me to read others that the author wrote.  Those others, however, went downhill.  Palahniuk has become a cult figure, and it’s easy to see why.  His style is imitable.  He writes as a minimalist, a form that’s easy on the surface to mimic but difficult to execute properly.  And the surprise twist, really, isn’t all that hard to accomplish. 

What the film does is makes you want to be part of the life its characters lead, then pulls the rug out from under you, exposing that life to be morally bankrupt.  That’s the real twist, one that the novel could not accomplish.  It fails to make Tyler Durden as cool as David Fincher, Andrew Kevin Walker (who did an uncredited rewrite on the script), Jim Uhls, and Brad Pitt make him.  It’s the audience’s initial wish to emulate Tyler that provides the real surprise.  Tyler’s a bit of a fascist--we shouldn’t want to be like him.  And his connection to the narrator is a gimmick that the movie’s “point” or “message” needs to work, but that it doesn’t need to succeed.  All this might be part of the novel, but if it’s there it’s too subtle even for me.  And I revel in subtlety.

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