I was vaguely aware that the movie of several years ago was based on a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A new copy (the movie tie-in one, of course) crossed my desk at the library and I cracked it open. It’s a short story, as it turns out, just a little thing that they presumably built upon a great deal for the movie. I did not see the movie (I see very few movies), but I got the impression that it was more of a love story. This is not so of Fitzgerald’s original.
In the year 1860, Roger Button is dismayed, horrified and disgusted that his wife gives birth not to a screaming, red-faced infant but an old man, with the appearance of a 70-year-old. (And thus ends the role of Mrs. Roger Button in this story, strangely.) The little old manbaby is mildly disappointed, as well, with the strange reactions of his parents and, indeed, the world at large. Mr. Button tries to make Benjamin play with toys and other little boys, but neither man is pleased with the results. Benjamin is driven out of kindergarten by the disapproval of the teacher, but eventually finds a happy place at his grandfather’s side, smoking cigars and discussing what is wrong with the world today.
As the years pass, Benjamin grows younger. Roger sends him off to college at Yale, where he passes the examination but is turned away for his appearance: he looks like a man of fifty, despite being just 18. This works out fine, however, because he and his father get along swimmingly and find that they have much in common. Benjamin goes to work in the family business and makes a great success. He meets an attractive young woman at a dance and miraculously, she is attracted to 50-year-old men! (I can’t help but observe that male authors like to write this fantasy) and they marry. But as the years pass, he finds her unattractive as she ages, and she is exasperated by his appearing younger and younger. She seems to take this personally. He becomes a real man about town, going out, charming the young ladies, partying, and eventually neglecting his business concerns. He goes off to the Spanish American War, and earns a rank of lieutenant-colonel. Upon his return, he is feeling so young and spry that he gives college another whirl, this time at Harvard. In his freshman year he is a big hit, mature for his age, the star of the football team; but by his senior year, he finds the classes hard and he can no longer play football because his peers are bigger and stronger.
When he returns home, his wife has taken off, so Benjamin moves in with his son. The years pass, and a grandchild is born, and Benjamin becomes young enough to play with his grandson as peers. They attend kindergarten together, until the grandson moves on to first grade and Benjamin remains in kindergarten… until, in his third year, this becomes too challenging for him and he retires to be cared for by a nursemaid. He ends his life as an infant in a cradle, unaware of his surroundings.
It is a strange tale, imaginative, and well told; Fitzgerald knows his way around a phrase. There is a wryly funny tone to the early parts, with Roger Button trying to make an infant and a little boy out of an old man. Later, sadness becomes the dominant sentiment. There is an episode when the Army calls Benjamin back in for service, as a general; but when he shows up as a 13-year-old (or thereabouts) boy in a general’s uniform, he is laughed at and turned away in tears. Towards the end, as Benjamin begins to lose hold of his memories of the good times (newlywed happiness, military glory, playing football at Harvard), I thought of Flowers for Algernon.
This is a short, easy, very worthwhile story by a fine storyteller, and I recommend it. I do not feel especially interested in the movie which I fear is different, not as good, likely to disappoint – and maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my pro-book prejudice, and probably explains why I don’t watch more movies. Anybody have a movie review for me? Anybody both read and watched, and can make a comparison?