Some criticize The Curious Case of Benjamin Button because it is untrue to the short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But a film script derived from literature can be the result of one of two options. The script can be an interpretation or an adaptation. What is the difference?
A familiar illustration comes from the works of Shakespeare. When Shakespeare is interpreted, the result is movies that are interpretations, like She's the Man (Twelfth Night) or 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew). In these, the plot and characters are Shakespeare's, but not much else. When Shakespeare is adapted, the result is movies that are adaptations, like Hamlet (1996) with Kenneth Branagh. In this, the characters, the plot, the story, the language are Shakespeare's but the settings, costumes and props—the externals—reflect something other than the era of which it was written.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story: usable elements are retained, others are replaced, just like in She's the Man. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with choosing to write and produce an interpretation (i.e., changes to storyline, characters, plot, external elements, etc.) instead of an adaptation (i.e., changes to externals only). Some people dislike seeing their favorite novels, short stories or old movies interpreted, preferring them to be adapted, but that is a personal preference that cannot be used as a criterion for judging the film as a production of merit or otherwise.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button must be judged as a film on its own rights, not based on the short story. When Ron Howard was making The Da Vinci Code he expressed a concern for sticking as closely to the novel as possible because of Dan Brown's novel's overwhelming international popularity. Ron Howard chose to make an adaptation.
The fact that Howard made an adaptation did not bear on how the film was judged by critics, viewers and the Academy responsible for choosing the Academy Awards. Conversely, the fact that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an interpretation, which makes many unhappy, cannot be held against it when being judged by critics, viewers and the Academy. The number of Academy Award nominations The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received supports this rather vividly.
A baby is born at the back end of life: He is wrinkled and geriatric from his first day of life. As he grows older in chronological years, with his wisps of white hair and feeble old-man muscles and appearance, he grows younger in time. When he is chronologically old enough to leave home to be a sailor, he is physically rejuvenated enough to be of retirable age! While his childhood sweetheart grows older, he grows younger. When they meet again, she is an accomplished beauty and he is an accomplished man in the prime of his life. The women in Benjamin’s life are played to perfection by Taraji P. Henson, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton.
The film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button presents a compelling though unbelievable story with such conviction and mastery that the story becomes believable—you have the sense that this really happened to these people and they really thought, reacted and lived like this. You suspend disbelief and are entirely caught up in this incredulous story of life lived backward. That accomplishment—producing the feeling of reality from unreality—is among the highest praises for any work of film or fiction.
Brad Pitt (and the younger Benjamins) plays a potentially boring role—subdued; monotonic delivery; suppressed and repressed feelings, thoughts and actions; a constant sense of stupefaction and wonder at the state of things, concealed heartache—with a perceptible inner yearning for connectedness that elevates the Benjamin character to a level where connectedness, the thing yearned for, is attained with viewers watching his story. Benjamin eventually also attains connectedness with those who are in his story—for a time—but has to withdraw again as the possibility promoting connection slips from his once again isolated world.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an interpretation, should definitely be rented or purchased if you somehow missed it in the theater. Further, if you did see it when it was first released, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button deserves a place in your DVD library as one of those immortal films that you will watch again and again as your years go by in a forward direction.
Rightly rated PG-13, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a good film choice for those under the age of thirteen because the thematic matter is of a complex nature and best for more mature minds.
[Note: There are divergences of opinion on the film categorizations “interpretation” versus “adaptation.”]
David Fincher – Director (2008)
Eric Roth – Screenplay
Eric Roth and Robin Swicord – Screen Story
F. Scott Fitzgerald – Short story: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Claude Miranda – Cinematography
Donald Graham Burt – Production Design
Brad Pitt – Benjamin Button (1937 forward)
Tom Everett – Benjamin 1935-37
Robert Towers – Benjamin 1932-34
Peter Donald Badalamenti II – Benjamin 1928-31
Taraji P. Henson – Queenie
Cate Blanchett – Daisy
Tilda Swinton - Elizabeth Abbott
Buy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at Amazon (Single-Disc Edition)