BOOK VERSUS FILM: An Epic Study of FIGHT CLUB

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Fight Club is an interesting and unusual example in the book versus film debate. Here is a cult novel that received an incredibly faithful, big-budget adaptation. The movie version then underperformed at the Box Office but found a following through home entertainment. Chuck Palahniuk is on record as applauding the adaptation, particularly the way it streamlined his original plot. When you compare the two, it’s apparent at least 90% of the book made it into the film, so no wonder the author was pleased.

The subject matter here is confrontational, but there was little conflict between the respective visions of Palahniuk and David Fincher, the director responsible for the 1999 film. Yet there will always be differences, however subtle or significant, when a story makes the leap from the page to a visual medium. Let’s explore these now and, for anyone unfamiliar with the work in question, expect adult subject matter and spoilers.

0099765217-02-lzzzzzzzThe Book

Palahniuk was in his early thirties and unable to place what would ultimately become his third novel (Invisible Monsters) so he penned Fight Club as a kind of “fuck you to the New York publishing industry”. Into his new idea Palahniuk poured all his frustration, not just with his creative struggle but consumerism in general, the crisis in masculinity and all the superficial values of contemporary America.

The conventions he established here would recur in all Palahniuk’s fiction; ideas of identity and acts of shocking violence, a barrelling, hyper-real style and ‘transgressive’ subject matter, stories that break at least one of society’s taboos. As with many of his novels, the idea was written as a short story first, this one with the intention of disturbing that publisher who rejected him.

Much to Palahniuk’s surprise, his new idea interested them. It was expanded into a punchy novel of less than 60,000 words, through Palahniuk’s usual methods of in-depth research, repetition and spinning out further plot developments. That’s how we get from the unnamed narrator’s meeting with Tyler Durden to the formation of Fight Club and on to Project Mayhem before everything falls apart.

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It Works Well On The Page

The most attention-grabbing aspect of the opening is the narrator’s voice; insistent, alienated, pummelling us in the present tense. Palahniuk’s strength has never been in portraying fully-rounded characters or creating a realistic world, he’s more about powerful imagery, intense developments, unexpected twists and turns.

Rather than adopt a conventional structure, narrative progress comes through a process of accretion, meaning the author can layer in allusions to the big twist early on (“I know this because Tyler knows this,” “Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth” etc.) These hints make developments seem obvious in retrospect, but they don’t spoil the surprise on a first reading.

On the page Chuck can skim over the more unlikely aspects of his story, such as the characters’ swift recovery time from horrendous injury or Tyler’s ability to travel the world while the narrator is supposedly asleep. The author simply barrels on to the next action-packed set-piece or memorable mantra.

When I first read Fight Club in the late nineties it seemed to me entirely successful; an exhilarating, sui generis piece, too near the knuckle for Hollywood. They would inevitably sanitise everything; render the book family friendly and PG-13. Filmmakers could never capture what made the book so effective – its vicious, nihilistic, pornographic, slapstick, profane, borderline fascistic elements – then sell the result to us as popcorn entertainment, could they?

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Many in the industry who saw the manuscript initially passed on it, with the book’s first reader at 20th Century Fox actively discouraging the studio from adaptation. Rights were finally bought for $10,000 which, when you consider Brad Pitt would later be paid $17.5 million to play Tyler Durden, shows the balance of power when it comes to writers and the stars who play their characters.

This was where David Fincher came in, still riding the worldwide success of Seven. The young director had the clout to get something this edgy made and being the same age as Palahniuk, the novel’s obsessions resonated. Fincher had even tried to option the work himself while another fan, budding screenwriter Jim Uhls, would lobby for the job of adapting it. This was Uhls’ first major screenwriting credit, working in collaboration with the director on something very different from the only other Palahniuk work to make it to the screen so far, 2008’s Choke which is an underwhelming, low-budget piece. Rather Fincher and Uhls would spare no expense to realise Fight Club’s full-on maximalism, with an initial budget of $50 million rising to $67 million and Fincher using three times the average amount of film on his fourth feature, some 1500 rolls.

Success on the Screen

It worked. The movie ended up far better than anyone could have expected. As I’ve mentioned, Palahniuk’s writing doesn’t really conform to traditional narrative structure, but in adapting Fight Club Jim Uhls refined the material to tease out act breaks (the formation of Fight Club, the beginning of Project Mayhem) as well as a clear Inciting Incident. It happens ten minutes in, when the narrator spots Marla Singer at the cancer support group they both attend and is the very antithesis of a meet-cute. The opening and concluding scenes with the gun in the narrator’s mouth were retained, while Fincher lobbied hard to keep the distinctive address through voiceovers, something that was initially opposed by the studio. Perhaps they were in thrall to the then-fashionable teachings of screenwriting guru Robert McKee, the execs who described this convention as hackneyed and trite. But rules are made to be broken, and our unreliable narrator becomes clear and sympathetic as his voice pounds in the audience’s ear throughout.

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What Was Improved

Fincher took advantage of the technology and resources available to turn  into an overwhelming sensory experience. He put on the screen moments only mentioned as offhand fantasy in the book, such as the narrator willing his plane to crash, now shown in graphic detail. There are wish-fulfilment cutaways and visual montages, with the first fight between Tyler and the narrator expanding over a number of nights, as other men are attracted by the sight, all keen to wallop each other and feel alive once more. Later Project Mayhem’s mischief committee will use pigeons to soil luxury cars, take out sculptures and sabotage the in-flight guides of aeroplanes.

During the opening credits special effects take us through the narrator’s brain and soon we will pan down buildings, into the underground car park hosting the club.  There is a pounding score from electronic group The Dust Brothers, perfectly in synch with the visuals, but perhaps the most effective addition is also the subtlest.

To hint that Tyler is an invention of the narrator’s fracturing mind, and also reference Durden’s hobby of inserting porn frames into family films during his projectionist work, Fincher splices in subliminal appearances from Brad Pitt, beginning when the narrator meets Marla. They reflect the narrator’s declining mental stability, his subconscious need to invent a new persona to attract Marla; a decisive, buff man of action. He is the kind of alpha male Norton’s character has been made to believe she wants, and if your mind was inventing the perfect physical specimen back in 1999, it would surely be Brad in his heyday. Flashes of Pitt start to permeate the reels before Tyler appears in the background at an airport and is then introduced, the director manipulating the frame regularly as events progress through the narrator’s mental breakdown.

What Was Lost

fight-club-book-coverInevitably certain elements from any novel, however short, won’t make the cut in a two-hour feature. In the book there is a strand that involves Marla storing her mother’s fat, which the narrator uses to make products for the Paper Street Soap Company and leads to recriminations. Near the end of the story Marla is further alienated by seeing Tyler-slash-the narrator murder a man while working as a waiter at a murder-mystery party. I suspect these elements were removed because Uhls saw Fight Club as a “romantic comedy”. The screenwriter played up the connection between Marla and the narrator, something Palahniuk doesn’t dwell on in the book, uninterested as he is in happy endings.

Certain elements have actually been toned down for the film, with Marla’s memorable line after sleeping with Durden – “Marla said she wanted to have Tyler’s abortion” –  considered too strong for US sensibilities and changed to her saying: “I haven’t been fucked like that since Grade School”. Arguably this is even more shocking, but at least it won’t get the pro-lifers’ backs up. More obscure in the book are references to the central character’s mental condition, as the narrator tries to explain by asking Marla if she’s ever seen the 1976 American TV mini-series ‘Sybil’ and Marla in turn saying he was like “Tony Perkins’ mother in Psycho”. The film prefers to cite Jekyll and Hyde, which brings us to …

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Plausibility

As I’ve mentioned, on the page the difficulties of a narrator achieving all he does with two personalities using the same body – one in daytime, the other at night – can be glossed over. When it’s up there for the audience to see, this sleight of hand isn’t possible. As with The Sixth Sense (whose writer-director has just tackled D.I.D. himself in Split), Fight Club’s twist makes you go back and realise that one of the central characters was never actually there.

On a second viewing you observe the minor players and wonder how likely it is they react as they did around Ed Norton effectively talking to himself. The movie manages this fairly well, with moments gaining significance in retrospect as when Marla asks who he’s talking to while they’re having sex, Bob mentioning the rumour Durden “only sleeps one hour a night” and the scene where Norton shows how adept he is at beating himself up before his boss.

But as the twist approaches things start to unravel, specifically in the scene when Durden crashes a car with two ‘space monkeys’ in the back to make the narrator feel more alive. In the book Tyler doesn’t actually appear in the vehicle, this stunt is done on his orders by an acolyte who spouts Tyler’s invective while driving. Watching the film, we later realise there was only one person in the front of the car and ask ourselves: would those in the back really have been so brainwashed? The space monkeys fail to intervene, even as the narrator becomes increasingly unhinged and looks as if he will kill them. And worse is to come…

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The Ending

In the film, once the narrator realises that Tyler Durden is a figment of his imagination we are shown a sequence of earlier scenes with no involvement from Pitt: the narrator attacking himself, sleeping with Marla, heading up Fight Club and so on.

As the apotheosis of Project Mayhem approaches, reworked here with an anti-Wall Street bent, the narrator takes action to free himself from Tyler’s malign influence. This gives the film the opportunity to end Fight Club in the same manner as every Hollywood action movie ever – with two men fighting each other. But as interpolated CCTV footage shows, this is actually Ed Norton attacking himself, dragging his body along by the hair then throwing himself downstairs in a way that’s physically impossible, even for an experienced self-harmer. As the climax approaches the audience moves from willingly suspending their disbelief to being unable to accept what is happening, as it all becomes too implausible.

At least, they do for me.

In the book, the narrator’s realisation that he can consciously control Tyler, but will only be rid of his malignant alter-ego with drastic action, leads him to blow a hole through his own cheek. The narrator then ends up in a mental institution with “a jagged smile from ear to ear”, following much reconstructive surgery (presumably). This is much more satisfying and thematically appropriate than the ending the film offers, where Uhls and Fincher fall into the trap of offering an upbeat finale and strain credulity in doing so.

Because when Ed Norton fires a handgun through his cheek in the film, it creates a minor wound that is somehow sufficient to cure his D.I.D. and vanquish Tyler, but doesn’t actually affect his speech much. It certainly doesn’t spoil the romance of the climax; he simply dabs a bit of gauze on it then happily holds Marla’s hand while they watch the empty buildings fall. I’m not a medical expert, and I know very little about ballistics, but I suspect if a bullet was fired through my cheek the immediate concerns would be very different from Norton’s here. Excellent use of the Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’ to soundtrack it though, you don’t get that in the book.

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Cult Success

In spite of these flaws, this adaptation remains a triumph, number four in Total Film magazine’s list of the greatest films ever made and with an 8.8 average on IMDB; higher than La La Land. After an underwhelming theatrical run when it failed to make a profit and led to Fox studio head Bill Mechanic’s resignation, Fight Club found an audience on DVD and video, shifting more than six million units. The film eventually made a $10 million profit for 20th Century Fox and would remain the high-point of Jim Uhls’ career, although he did go on to write Doug Liman’s 2008 teleportation disappointment Jumper.

Fincher continued to have huge success with the similarly dark Zodiac and other twisty literary adaptations like Gone Girl or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, while Chuck Palahniuk gained a whole new audience from the publicity and continues to transgress fictional boundaries, although his insistence on releasing a book a year since the late nineties has resulted in a significant drop-off in quality.

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Conclusion:

Overall Fight Club is as faithful a book-to-film adaptation as I’ve seen and a much-loved movie in its own right. I suspect my preference for the novel might be because of those plausibility issues I mention, and because it was on the page when I first encountered Palahniuk’s ideas, the author elucidating things I was feeling only vaguely at twenty-two. However many visual innovations or shots of Brad with his shirt off Fincher employs, his movie simply can’t have the same impact as when I first read Tyler’s philosophy:

You are not your job, you are not how much money you’ve got in the bank. You are not your family, and you are not who you tell yourself.

Then again, how many other films make an eight figure profit and lead to the resignation of a studio boss? Maybe we should call it a draw.

BIO: Alan Devey is a London-based writer of scripts and fiction. His most recent book is a novella for the Kindle called You Don’t Bury Survivors. He presents the Comes With Mp3s music show on Radio Woking, writes a blog on writing and other matters at and can be contacted via his website alandevey.net.

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