There are two literary works depicting a man aging backwards — a Fitzgerald story, and Andrew Sean Greer's novel. One of them would make a great movie. Too bad they filmed the other one.
The movie in question, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, comes out in a couple of days, and it's nominally based on the Fitzgerald story of the same title. (Besides the title and the main character who ages backwards, they have almost nothing else in common.)
In fact, the Button movie has one crucial similarity to Andrew Sean Greer's 2004 novel, The Confessions Of Max Tivoli: they're both structured as a love story. In both works, a man who's born old and ages backwards falls in love as a child. And he loves the same woman for his entire lifetime. And in both the Greer novel and the new movie, the man and the woman connect at three different stages of their lives, as he grows younger and she grows older.
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The makers of the Benjamin Button movie deny that their film is based on Greer's novel, of course. The movie was in development before 2004, when Tivoli came out. (But the movie didn't start production in earnest until after that, and I know there were numerous script rewrites at various points.) But even if screenwriter Eric Roth has never read Greer's novel, he was clearly groping towards the same idea.
After I saw Button a few weeks ago, I was struck by the similarity, and asked Greer about it. Here's what he said:
Haven't seen the film or read the story, if you can believe it! I was so freaked out, when Max Tivoli came out, to hear about both that I stayed away from the Fitzgerald. People tell me it is very different from my book in plot, tone, theme, etc. I don't know anything about the movie except that it looks gorgeous in the way I wish my book would have looked, if it had ever been a movie.... But the truth really is that I'd never heard of Benjamin Button when I wrote my book, and they'd never heard of me when they started making their movie. We've both heard of each other now. The downside is simply that I'll never see a movie made from my book — but there are worse things in the world! Mostly I'm intrigued how they handled such a similar idea.
The sad thing is, even with the similarities between them, Tivoli would have made a much better movie than what Benjamin Button ended up with. (As Bookslut put it back in 2004, "Greer's written words would need little translation were they to be put on screen.")
To be fair, Roth didn't have much to work with in the Fitzgerald story. It's a very slight piece of comic fiction. Fitzgerald's main character is born old (and speaking complete sentences) and then grows younger until he's a baby. His father is embarrassed by him, and he can't go to college because he looks too old. He takes a wife, who thinks he's a mature older man, and then he gets bored with her as she gets older and he gets younger. Finally, his grown son starts treating him like a young whippersnapper, and he finally goes off to college. Then he regresses to childhood. The end. None of the characters are more than one-dimensional, and the wife, in particular, is a bit of a joke:
There was only one thing that worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him. At that time Hildegarde was a woman of thirty-five, with a son, Roscoe, fourteen years old. In the early days of their marriage Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her honey-coloured hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery — moreover, and, most of all, she had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too anaemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste. As a bride it been she who had "dragged" Benjamin to dances and dinners — now conditions were reversed. She went out socially with him, but without enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end. Benjamin's discontent waxed stronger.
Suffice to say, the Fitzgerald story is not a love story, exactly. (And, as John Updike notes, it's not one of Fitzgerald's best.)
In Greer's novel, meanwhile, the main character learns early on to hide his condition from everyone except his best friend Hughie. (His mother advises him, "Be what you seem.") When he's seventeen, he falls for the 14-year-old girl who lives downstairs, Alice, who's the same age and thinks he's a dirty old man. He vows to find her again, and does so at roughly twenty year intervals for the rest of the novel. He's able to woo her and even marry her, but he can never reveal his true identity to her. Instead, he marries her under a false name, Asgar Van Daler. But they're separated by a flu epidemic, and the next time they meet, she doesn't recognize her ex-husband once again. They conceive a child, but wind up parting again when she's creeped out to find some of her ex-husband's things among her new lover's possessions. The final time they meet, he's a child, and she's an elderly woman.
As I said, the new Button movie is closer in structure to Max Tivoli than to the Fitzgerald story. The main difference is, the woman (Daisy) somehow figures out early on that Benjamin Button is aging backwards, and she always knows it's him whenever she meets him. They meet as children and play together, and then hook up again in their early twenties, but don't end up together. They finally do connect in their thirties, and eventually have a child together before separating. And, as in Greer's novel, they meet one last time, when Benjamin is a toddler and Daisy is an old lady.
The fact that Daisy knows all along that Benjamin is aging backwards puts a very different spin on the story, however. It means that instead of being a story of the split between mind and body, and the impossibility of ever really knowing our loved ones, it's just a story of a couple facing logistical problems. In the movie, Daisy never thinks Benjamin's a dirty old man, and she always recognizes him. What's more, she somehow manages to see through his appearance to his true age at every point in the story. Later, Benjamin and Daisy have endless conversations about how to handle the fact that he's growing younger instead of older. It saps all of the drama out of the situation, and what you're left with, instead, is curiously inert. In a weird way, it feels like vestigial shreds of Fitzgerald's offhand treatment of poor Hildegaarde survive into the movie.
The idea of making the story of a backwards-aging man into a lifelong love story is a good one, and it's entirely possible that Roth and Greer both hit on it separately. But if you're going to do a love story between a normal woman and a man who is hurtling from senescence to childhood, you have a choice between the tragedy of deception and the banality of bodies that don't quite fit with each other. Greer's novel opts for the former; Roth's film for the latter.