Before I get into the analysis proper I guess I should say which you should watch/read first. Honestly I’d say watch the film first. It gets the message across pretty rapidly and is all around a more satisfying if less in depth experience. Then read the book. This is the order I experienced them in and I was immensely pleased with how both turned out. Having seen the film I could appreciate the subtleties of the book a lot more.
(Warning, contains spoilers for Fight Club)
Those of you familiar with my blog (not a lot) you’ll know that last year I read the book Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. I’m also a pretty big fan of the film as well. I consider myself someone who is pretty forgiving when it comes to adaptations, some of my favourite films are adaptations, Hellraiser for instance is an adaptation. The trouble with adaptations is that much of the audience is going to have a differing vision than the one the director has. Television and Film speak in a different language to that of novels and short stories. I usually enjoy an adaptation that can do a few things a little differently to the book because it means I can get a different experience out of both; however it’s difficult to strike a balance between a verbatim script and the Starship Troopers movie. Luckily the director of Fight Club manages to bring new aspects to Chuck Palahniuk’s story.
First thing I want to comment on is the look of the film. It is glorious. Before Edward Norton’s character gets to hang out with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) everything looks whitewashed and polished the epitome of falsehood. However once Tyler Durden tells Edward Norton his views on consumerism the look of the film starts to switch to something dingier and grittier. On the one hand you could argue that things are getting worse for Edward Norton I mean he’s living in a crappy squat for goodness sake, but on the other that damp shit hole is certainly more interesting to look at than his boring condo.
The film and the book both have to be subtle about the nature of Tyler Durden, the man who teaches our narrator about philosophy and dynamite. They both have to hint at their intertwining lives. In the film he is alluded to as he appears for a couple of frames next to people or walks past Edward. In the book the narrative will break away from what the narrator is doing to focus on a piece of Tyler’s life, such as how Tyler was fired from catering. This is still narrated to us by the narrator character (and good luck trying not to imagine Edward Norton’s voice as you read it). Also the way Tyler and the Narrator meet in the book is more interesting. Tyler in the book is introduced to us as a man on a beach putting logs into the sand so that when the sun is in just the right position they will cast the shadow of a giant hand.
In the book Tyler is rather more malevolent going as far as murder and delighting more when people he dislikes suffer. We don’t nearly see as much of the consequences of Tyler’s anarchy in the film and this makes him an easier character to like, helped along by Brad Pitt’s charismatic portrayal. Tyler’s affable nature in the film makes his turn against the narrator all the more hurtful. Whereas in the book it’s the kind of thing we could expect him to do. It wouldn’t be surprising to a reader of the book that he would turn on his alter ego to try to become the dominant personality because throughout the book he is almost an antagonist, it’s not just in the third act that he starts putting things in the way of the narrator he’s pretty much been doing it for the majority of the story. Also the question of whether or not Tyler or the narrator is the dominant personality is more explored in the book. Who should have control? The snarky narrator who struggles to get what he wants, or Tyler Durden the quick witted anarchist with a very fixed view of life. By the end of the book we are told how the narrator has changed for the better, he sees through the falsities of consumerism but doesn’t have Tyler’s aggressive attitude towards it. That said many of his followers are still eager for Tyler’s return. I do love an ambiguous ending!
The book is obviously more layered than the film, that’s commonplace in almost all adaptations. There are more obvious themes of homoeroticism in the book than in the film. Not that you couldn’t derive that from the film, certainly many people have. But in the book the sexual references are much more noticeable, references to Tyler’s penis, a kiss he places on the narrator’s hand, the fact that he is on a nude beach when he meets Tyler etc.
The film tries to juggle the book’s unusual style of prose by injecting narration from Edward Norton. The thing is on film the book’s style might not have worked, Palahniuk often uses stream of consciousness and haikus in the novel to emphasize the narrator’s emotional state (haikus for when he’s trying to disconnect and stream of consciousness for when he’s on some kind of emotional over load). This would be quite difficult to achieve on film, for instance, how does one film stream of consciousness? Answer is you don’t, at least not quite. Instead we have Edward Norton’s dry monotone delivering quick snappy remarks and witticisms. The whole reason you’ll be hearing Edward Norton’s voice in your head after watching the film is because his narration is just so damn good, made all the better by Palahniuk’s razor sharp wit.
The book doesn’t focus as much on the titular club as the film does. This I felt was to the detriment of the book. I think we could have learned a lot about the healing nature of violence on the neutered American male but for some reason it’s not as focused on as the characters. In the film however we get a lot more of this and it really works. It’s quite satisfying to hear how Edward Norton wants to fight Ghandi or watch him pull out broken teeth. You really get the feeling these men feel better for having beaten seven shades of crap out of each other.
All in all I’d say this is a great adaptation of a classic book. There is a reason it tops some best of film lists. It’s because it is a great film, all the actors are great in their parts. Edward Norton is sympathetic and intelligent, Brad Pitt walks a brilliant line between charisma and narcissism, and Meatloaf (oh yeah, Meatloaf is in this film!) is so much fun to watch as the sappy character of Bob.
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, Vintage: London, 2006.
Jim Uhls, Fight Club, 20th Century Fox, 15th October 1999.