‘It’s a pity that the best parts of life come at the beginning, the worst parts at the end.’ In 1921, when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor told him this quote from Mark Twain, it inspired the author to pen The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. A short story about a man who ages backwards, receding from newborn old geezer to swaddling infant, it has aroused the curiosity of Hollywood for more than 80 years.
Fitzgerald quickly sold the film rights and the story bounced from one studio desk to another. A second iconic American author, William Faulkner – at that time a contract writer for Warner Brothers – produced the first treatment in 1943; however, he couldn’t persuade movie mogul Jack Warner to buy the rights. These were later scooped by another entrepreneur, Ray Stark, who guarded them for 40 years. During the ’80s it was touted to a post-Splash Ron Howard and later a pre-Jurassic Park Stephen Spielberg; both were keen but deterred by financial problems, especially the necessity of having several actors play the lead.
It wasn’t until 1992 that a draft found its way onto director David Fincher’s desk, only to depart just as swiftly. It was only when, in 2004, a producer suggested to Fincher that with CGI effects only one actor need play Button that they went ahead.
This wasn’t the end of the project’s difficulties: it ran into budgetary problems and Fincher walked away, until the producers arranged to film in New Orleans, thanks to a tax break. But, while filming, Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana. It was agreed that they’d continue, but as testament, the hurricane was worked into the script and movie props were donated to victims of the disaster.
Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth was also brought in to ‘reconceive’ the story. Instead of Fitzgerald’s crotchety old man who’d rather smoke cigars with his grandfather than play baseball with the neighbourhood kids, Fincher’s Button looks at the world with a Gump-esque innocence, meeting prostitutes, sailors and diplomats all with the same quiet, eager curiosity.
‘I see a lot of my father in Benjamin,’ says Fincher. ‘As a journalist and a product of the Great Depression, my father was a bit of a stoic, an observer; he took things in without judgment. I remember him as being happy to appreciate people as they were. I filtered that into how Benjamin deals with people, with situations.’
A chance to reunite with his Seven and Fight Club star Brad Pitt convinced the director the movie was worth making. ‘Brad was only interested in playing the part if he could play the character through the totality of his life,’ Fincher says. A mixture of make-up and CGI render Pitt almost unrecognisable as the film traces Button’s days from hobbit-like baby to dashing teen, narrated from his diaries by his daughter.
‘All the people Benjamin collides with leave marks on him,’ explains Fincher. ‘That’s what a life is – a collection of these dents and scratches. They are what make him who he is.’ It’s something that rings true with his star. ‘I like this idea of dents,’ adds Pitt. ‘People make an impact and leave an impression. It doesn’t mean you don’t fight for what you want. It means you accept the inevitabilities of life. How you deal with this becomes the big question.’
Pitt also sees this trait in his friend and collaborator. ‘The film explores this idea that I know to be true of Fincher – the belief that we are responsible for our own lives,’ the actor says. ‘We’re responsible for our successes and failures and there’s no one else to blame or take credit for them. Fate certainly has a say, but life’s shape is ours.’ In shaping the film, liberties have been taken with the source. Fitzgerald devotes just one page to Button’s wife, Daisy (played by Cate Blanchett); his tale is not a love story. Fincher’s is little else but, although he baulks at such simplicity.
‘This isn’t a ballad of co-dependency, which is “I can’t live without you”,’ he says. ‘They’re not waiting for each other. These are two individuals who choose to be together for a certain amount of time, even though it is not the easiest way to go.’
F. Scott Fitzgerald despised Holly-wood. He spent his dying days as an embittered screenwriter, at once at odds, in thrall to and appalled by the studio system. Given that it’s taken 80 years to get this film onto the big screen, he may have had a point. We are yet to see a truly memorable screen adaptation of Fitzgerald’s work, but while he will hardly be remembered for Benjamin Button, if the Oscar buzz proves correct, Fincher and Pitt just might. A curious case indeed.
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is scheduled for release in cinemas on February 19.