Contains major spoilers!
Chances are, if you heard the name Benjamin Button your mind would go to the 2008 film from director David Fincher, and would probably have images of a heavily made-up Brad Pitt looking like a strange old man. And whilst the film, and its success, made The Curious Case of Benjamin Button into more of a household name, many people are still unaware that it began life one hundred years ago as a short story. As the book is celebrating its first century of existence I thought I’d take a look back at this odd piece of literature.
Originally published in Collier’s magazine, before being printed as part of the anthology collection Tales of the Jazz Age, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was written by acclaimed author F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922. By the time of the story’s publication, Fitzgerald was already a household name in the US thanks to the success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Having married the well known socialite Zelda Sayre, Fitzgerald and his wife became big figures around New York, living in luxury hotels, attending fancy functions, and doing childish things like sliding down hotel banisters, spinning in revolving doors for half hour at a time, and even riding on the roofs of taxis. Having often been accused of being ‘wild’ or ‘childish’, it’s no surprise that Fitzgerald would explore the themes of age and behaviour in one of his stories.
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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button begins in 1860 in Baltimore, where Benjamin Button is born. Despite being a newborn, Benjamin has the physical appearance and abilities of a 70-year-old man. When he’s taken home Benjamin is made to play with toys and neighbouring children by his father, Roger, and obeys to make his father happy; despite not wanting to do so himself. Benjamin eventually attends school, starting at kindergarten, but thanks to his elderly body, frequently falls asleep in class.
It soon becomes apparent that Benjamin isn’t staying old, but is ageing in reverse, becoming younger and healthier as the years progress. Benjamin tries to go to college, but is rejected as a ’50-year-old lunatic’. He eventually works with his father, and even starts to run the family business. He meets a young woman and marries her, though their marriage doesn’t last and they eventually split. Now in his middle ages, Benjamin goes off to serve in the Spanish-American War, and reaches the rank of lieutenant colonel for his exemplary service.
Entering his twenties, Benjamin gives control of the family business to his own son, Roscoe, so that he can go off and finally attend college. As Benjamin continues to age into his teens he struggles to keep up with the work load, and discovers he’s not strong enough to stay on the football team. After graduating, Benjamin, who is now in his young teens, is forced to move in with his son, who makes Benjamin call him uncle for appearances sake. As Benjamin turns into a child he becomes friends with his own grandson, and attends kindergarten with him. Eventually Benjamin reverts to a baby, his memories of his life begin to disappear, before everything eventually goes dark and the story ends.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is strange to pin down a lot of the time. It’s a farce to a certain degree, a wild satire that could never, ever happen. The story is absolutely ridiculous, but there are times where it feels kind of sad too. It seems like Fitzgerald wrote parts of the story as a kind of slap-back at those who criticised him and his wife for their outgoing personalities, making a point of how society tells people they should be acting at certain ages, and skewing it with the odd ageing of Button. Children are forced to act grown up sometimes, as Benjamin is in the book, and whilst society tells older people that they should be respectable and serious that’s their last chance to really have fun and enjoy themselves; especially if their own children have grown up and left home. The story asks the reader to consider how society treats age, the expectations that are put on people at different times in their lives.
The book looks at familial relationships in new and interesting ways too, turning things on their head. When he is but a newborn, barely in the world for a year Benjamin is the same age as his grandfather. He and his father are the same age at one point, as is he and his son, and he and his grandson. The book does something that I don’t think I’ve seen in many other stories: it allows the protagonist to interact with the various members of their family as peers. This completely changes how these relationships work. Any grandparent can play with their grandchild, but they’re not doing it in the same way that another child would, with the same sense of wonder and imagination, the same energy; but here Benjamin is able to. It also skews things further when his own son becomes older than him, and the father becomes a moody, emotional teenager that acts like a child to his own son.
There are a lot of layers to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a lot of ways that readers can experience the book. You can read it as an odd fantasy story, you can delve deep into the themes of family, you can look at what is has to say about roles in society and ageing. It’s a story that has more to it than first appears, and that’s a big part of why it has existed in public consciousness for so long.
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However, much like Benjamin himself, the story gained greatest success as it got older. In 2008 a Hollywood adaptation was made starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The film version differed quite a bit from the original story, seeing Benjamin being abandoned by his father and growing up in an old people’s home for example. But the concept of the story grabbed audience’s attention, and thanks to the special effects turning a recognisable actor into an old man, people took note. The film was well received by audiences and critics, and even went on to be nominated for several awards, winning three Oscars that year.
With the film adaptation being the most well known part of this story’s legacy it will be interesting to see how the story of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will continue on as it goes into its second century. Will it have another resurgence in the future, or like Benjamin himself, will it eventually fade away?