PAGE TO SCREEN: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by Eric Roth

Posted by · 12:15 pm · August 26th, 2008

Page to Screen at In Contention“Time is the most precious of God’s gifts. It is untouchable, unseeable, unknowable…it is as light as a feather…as heavy as a stone…Time, my darling, what precious little there is, is all we have…”

I’ve known from Eric Roth for a few years now. I’ve spent some time investigating his process, picking apart his tendencies and have committed such findings, in addition to personal impressions of the man, to print. So one thing I’ve always taken to heart when sitting down to read one of his scripts is that, “bastardized art form” or not, he is insistent on challenging himself with his screenwriting, stretching the potential for thematic resilience and above all, treating the work like an exercise in elegant prose.

Such is the case with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a 159-page adaptation of a 30-page F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. It’s a rare thing to flip through the pages of a script written by someone focused on the words almost more so than the images he or she expects them to become. And as part of an art form that can be insufferable as a result, I have to say that “Benjamin Button” is something of a masterpiece.

The script begins with an aging Daisy (to be played by Cate Blanchett), recounting, via the reading of a diary by her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond), the life and times of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). The love of her life, the one that got away, the one that came back and the one that will stay in her heart forever, Benjamin was born, as you certainly know, “under unusual circumstances.”

Roth decides to do away with the hilarity of Fitzgerald’s take on Benjamin’s birth. We aren’t treated to a full-grown 85-year-old man in a baby crib greeting his father with a hearty hello. Instead, he treats Benjamin’s early years as something of a potential disease that makes a newborn aged beyond his or her years, so to speak. Frail skin, deformities…”His body is failing him before it has begun,” a doctor conveys with flabbergasted wonder.

Benjamin’s mother does not survive childbirth, while his father instinctively passes him off on a lonely Baltimore doorstep before disappearing from his life…for a time. It is there, not hours old, that Benjamin is taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) at an old-timers’ home, for lack of better vernacular on my part.

It was actually a stroke of brilliance by Roth to place Benjamin in such a setting for his formative years (and he’ll come back frequently throughout the tale). The writer’s commentary on wisdom and its many vessels is perfectly conveyed in this environment, simultaneously providing a fair share of comedic relief here and there, most of the time via unexpected flatulence (but it works).

The narrative then takes off on the familiar journey: Benjamin Button begins to age backwards, beginning his life in what might be considered his mid-80s and steadily moving toward a mid-point of “normalcy” before sliding down the other side of inevitability. Fitzgerald’s final words are not in the script, but their power is certainly evident.

They deserve their own space as they are so moving in and of themselves:

And then he remembered nothing. When he was hungry he cried — that was all. Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness.

Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind.

Benjamin’s life is an exciting one on par with Forrest Gump’s decades of adventure (though this narrative takes us from 1919 clear to the present day). Indeed, much of “Button” reads like a more thematically potent version of “Gump.” Daisy is there to be Jenny to Button’s world-weathered soul. There are fishing boat sequences that make me wonder if the writer has a particular affinity for the sea (as well as a tug boat segment that puts Benjamin in colorful supporting company).

One of the most interesting sequences happens when Benjamin meets Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swinton), a restless and disenchanted woman changed somewhat as a result of their affair in an aged Boston hotel, but ultimately representative of the ebb and flow of time…all things, good or bad, must come to an end.

It is also a sequence that allows Roth to use Benjamin’s voice over to maximum effect. The narration is never a hindrance and is always complementary to the images he chooses to describe, indeed in most cases it is difficult to imagine the images without Benjamin’s accompanying insight.

Consider this aside:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by Eric Roth

And one more, because it probably represents my favorite 27 words in the entire script:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by Eric Roth

And the script is filled with jewels like this, examples of Roth’s dedication to creating an atmosphere with his words rather than just committing the visuals to paper. His juxtaposition likely provided a field day for editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, while a director as visually inventive as David Fincher had to revel in the complexities of Roth’s depictions.

I have no problem offering the opinion that this is probably Eric Roth’s best work to date. It represents a sort of thematic maturity and absolute stranglehold on the screenwriting trade that could place it in some very distinguished company. But what’s more, it seems that his vision has made it through the studio system free of the pitfalls that have accompanied some of his past efforts (“The Postman,” “Munich,” “Lucky You”).

Robin Swicord has a “previously written by” credit on the script, so I can’t be sure how much material, if any, was carried over. And if it ultimately was just a serendipitous amalgamation of their efforts, fair enough. But I can sense a lot of Roth in this thing. A lot. It is also dated November of 2002, so plenty could have changed. But I hope not.

It is a tightrope walk, regardless. The film depicted in these pages could easily slide off the rails in production and, indeed, come off ridiculous on the screen. I don’t think Fincher is capable of taking it there, and he has had his own run-ins with studio sabotage in the past (“Alien 3”), so perhaps he’s been diligent about cranking out his own masterpiece to do honor to Roth’s.

Brad Pitt will have the role of a lifetime, enjoying the potential for, far and away, his greatest performance to date. And he really is the centerpiece of the story. The Daisy thread is solid throughout and I think Cate Blanchett will be serviceable in the part, while Taraji P. Henson will have warm scenes to work with for the most part. But this is Pitt’s vehicle through and through.

And he should be thanking Roth for the package he’s created. Truth be told, it’s the kind of thing aspiring screenwriters should study.

→ 15 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Page to Screen

15 responses so far

  • 1 8-26-2008 at 12:57 pm

    Cinematically Correct said...

    Why do I feel like this movie is guaranteed to make 98% of the audience cry? It sure seems like crying is going to be a certainty.

  • 2 8-26-2008 at 2:23 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “with IT’S old carpet”

    Jesus, even massively accomplished scriptwriters can’t seem to differentiate between “its” and “it’s.” This is a real problem.

    Anyway the film sounds great.

  • 3 8-26-2008 at 2:27 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It happens…seriously, you can be afforded stuff like this. Who knows what kind of a draft I have.

  • 4 8-26-2008 at 2:36 pm

    Speaking English said...

    LOL, I know. It just gets on my grammar-lovin’ nerves!

  • 5 8-26-2008 at 2:59 pm

    mike said...

    Man I am getting more and more excited for this film each day, I cannot wait to see what Fincher and Pitt do together again.

    I hope they both get some noms and even more so, some wins!

  • 6 8-28-2008 at 5:23 pm

    head_wizard said...

    Thanks for making this even more exciting December can’t come soon enough

  • 7 9-24-2008 at 1:44 pm

    nick said...

    Kris: What didn’t you like about Roth’s script for Munich? I thought it was yet another masterwork that bears his name.

    I cannot wait for BB.

  • 8 9-24-2008 at 2:04 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    They ruined Roth’s script actually…lots of different takes in his version as opposed to Kushner’s re-write.

  • 9 11-29-2008 at 2:16 pm

    wti said...

    I attended a screening of this film, clocking in perhaps 13 minutes shy of 3 hours. For me, the time few by and a few people within my peripheral vision were literally sitting on the edge of their seats nearly the entire time. I am still thinking and talking about this film days later.

    I read and had long ago completely forgotten the F Scott Fitzgerald short story. On re-reading it, after the screening, I again found the original story rather perfunctory, if not unremarkable, in illustrating its point. Perhaps the best line in it is quoted by Tapley above.

    Roth’s “interpretation” of the original material is nothing short of masterpiece genius. There are resonant echos of Gump and The English Patient (the very best of each) as well as a sprinkling of more pointed moments of magical realism (given that the whole notion of physiolocigally aging in reverse sets the baseline for magical realism) that are not over done. While there are many moments of pathos, I find the telling of this story to be ultimately uplifting, if not inspirational.

    The viewer is presented with visual effects that are astonishingly vivid and beyond seamless. Any moment of initial disbelief is over just how real it all looks. All of the effects are integral to the story and none of them are gratuitous, so that moment passes very quickly, too.

    This is Brad Pitt’s finest work to date and should automatically earn him nominations for Best Actor across the boards. Pitt exceeded my every expectation and I cannot now imagine anyone else doing nearly as well with the part of Benjamin Button as he has.

    While all of David Fincher’s films have been remarkable, not all of them have been to my liking. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would never have guessed that Fincher had this one in him. One has to heap high praise on Fincher for directing his ensemble to the pitch of performance in a film so laden with character effects and painstaking post-production. The heart of each recurring character in the story is never lost or misplaced. There will be many more award nominations, in many categories, for this film.

    Some have said that this film might be too long in running time. I for one hope that it is not re-edited from the pre-release version that I saw, because I want to see it, exactly as it was, once again.

    Roth’s script is rich with symbolism that is not handled in the usually heavy handed Hollywood way in this film. For every scene that another viewer might propose cutting, I can argue the indelible importance of the point that was introduced (or reshaped, by time and circumstance) in the overall story by it.

    Do not allow any preconceived notions about anyone or any other aspect of this film prevent you from seeing it. If you do, it will only be your loss, because this film is meant to be seen on the Big Screen, at least once, before it is ever revisited in any “home theater.”

  • 10 1-02-2009 at 9:13 pm

    Angel said...

    I just finished watching this film. Loved it! And yes, it reminded me of Gump, too. However, I also could NOT get Time Traveler’s Wife out of my head… the original short story has none of this long-lasting love affair in it. What gives?