While the film may seem dated with it’s obvious 1990’s beige computer monitors, lack of an Internet, and use of pay phones, the film and the book remain viable to this day by Fincher and Palahniuk’s ability to create an alternate reality that is timely and timeless. The ideas and themes of the story are so primal and yet so essential to the post-modern paradigm of elevated existentialism that so desperately tries to escape from it’s nihilistic prison.
As works of art, the film and the book are equally deserving of praise. Fincher presented a world that was dark, gritty and entirely unpleasant. It captured a world of corporate bureaucracy and sponsorship at the height of its ability to demand conformity. However, none of this world would have come unto it’s own without Chuck Palahniuk’s novel. Like the film, Palahniuk’s novel is unpleasant, but in a more subtle way. There are no pictures in the book, so instead the lack of caring by characters or the disgust with society is presented in a minimalist and meticulous narrating that has a strange, mysterious cadence to it. As Jesse Kavadlo put it, “imagine what it’s like to have your eyes rubbed raw with broken glass” (3).
Each work on it’s own is a separate entity of engaging storytelling, but together the book and the film are striking compliments. More specifically, the film and the book both exploit the advantages of each medium to deliver a more impressive and entertaining story to create one world that is interchangeable between the two forms while avoiding the cliché that one is better than the other. Further, the story of Fight Club has remained important over a decade later by its contradicting roots in both primal and post-modern themes. This essay seeks to prove that the film and the book are advantageous of their medium and they cannot be judged against each other, but instead are compliments. Also, as a story, regardless of form, I will discuss how Fight Club has remained viable in society through its duality of themes.
As a novel, Fight Club was published three years before based on a short story that Palahniuk had written (Palahniuk 4). The novel is in the first person by an unnamed narrator. In it’s style, Fight Club is minimalist and dark. When it was released, 20th Century Fox optioned it the very same year (“Chuck Palahniuk F.A.Q.”). The novel was released to very little fanfare, but exploded in popularity once the film was completed.
Fight Club was first theatrically released as film in 1999 with David Fincher directing and Jim Uhls adapting the screenplay from the novel. Starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as, to quote the film, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jackass.” Helena Bonham-Carter speaks the line, as Marla Singer, the love interest of the two main characters. The film went on to financial success, garnering over $100 million in international box office (“Fight Club Box Office Gross”). Critics were divided over the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “if it had all continued in the vein explored in the first act, it might have become a great film” (“Fight Club,” par. 12). It has proven, however, to battle it’s way through the test of time and now sits as number 21 of the top 250 films on the Internet Movie Database, a website where members can rate films.
The most exciting aspect of a book becoming a film is the visual manifestation of words on a page. Fight Club is no different in using this to its benefit with the visceral imagery of director David Fincher, especially in the literal manifestation of a dual personality. Whereas in the book, Tyler and Jack (the narrator, who will herein be referred to as Jack since he is left unnamed) are referred to as separate characters, their reality as one character has less of an impact because it is easy to deceive readers by telling them something. Films, however, seem more objective, despite their ability to also exercise the unreliable narrator. The reason movies give the impression of objectivity is because there are physical senses involved. Audiences see and hear Tyler Durden and Jack doing many things – fighting, talking, driving in the same car. Further, they see and hear them as separate people, in this case Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. This is different from the book where they are psychologically imagined as separate persons, but the possibility of a dual personality is more prevalent because, as they say, “seeing is believing.”
The effect that this simple visual and auditory difference has is the element of surprise. Audiences are more taken aback and more rewarded, in a sense, by the big reveal that jump-starts the third act of the film. As Jack says in the film, “please return your seatbacks to their full and upright and locked position,” preparing the audience in a direct manner for a subsequent “trip” of their psychological mind. Suddenly now, the visuals are presented to the audience without the tricks – there aren’t two manifestations of the narrator as Tyler and Jack, there is only one person but in the same scenes and settings. Again the reveal is bigger because now the audience can see and hear it and understand how it was possible. The book cannot achieve this by its very nature of the medium. Its unreliable narrator can only go so far by telling the readers what is happening. The major effect that the medium of film has on this aspect of the story is by making it more successful as a narrative device.
The film also spends a lot of its screen time towards visualizing violence, whether in the fight scenes or the rogue rebellious acts of Project Mayhem. Again, the advantage of film as a physically sensory medium is important. While Fight Club doesn’t have violence as a central theme, the few scenes and moments in which it does take place are important keystones for the story’s greater themes. Compared to a paragraph about a fight, a movie can deliver a much faster paced experience of a brawl. A punch can have a bass kick that “punches” the audience themselves. Seeing blood has a different effect than imagining it. A fight, in itself, is a very intimate act for the fighters involved. It’s much easier for the audience to become part of this intimacy with the main characters to see it, especially because Fincher uses a lot of point-of-view angles or positions cameras within the fight during these scenes.
What this does for the film medium over the novel is provide a much deeper understanding of what the fighting means for the men that have joined the fight club. An important part to understanding Fight Club is realizing that the fights, the violence, are physical representations or proof of the narrator’s thoughts. The fight clubs and the clashes within it represent the need for masculinity and identity by the men who are participating. Almost all of the physical action is a byproduct of the mental action it is designed to represent. By placing the camera within these fights, the audience can be come closer to what it feels like to be involved in the fighting – the adrenaline, the fear – and they can better get a grasp on the kind of pain involved.
However, there is a disadvantage to this as well. For as much as film can intimately bring audiences closer to the physical action, Fight Club the book has a far greater advantage over the mental states of characters. There is an inherent tendency with the book to associate more closely with the narrator’s psychological state. There are two reasons for this: the first, the prose is written in first person, inherently giving the reader an omniscience within the narrator’s mind, but not the rest of his world; the second is that the very nature of reading is a psychological activity by rendering the imaginary worlds within the mind’s eye. The point is that reading Fight Club, a novel in the first person, is an experience that leaves the reader with a better understanding of what each character is thinking. It’s true that Fincher’s film provides a voiceover that is the narrator exposing his thoughts, but the difference is that the voiceover supplements the film whereas in the book the narrator’s thoughts are the primary (and only) driving force of narrative action.
Since these thoughts are what the reader is left with to further the plot of the story, Palahniuk uses a slow, cadenced writing style to emphasize the ideas of the story. He speaks his ideas fluently through the narrator often with a dull and repetitive prose, reinforcing into the reader the idea that we’re just a “copy of a copy of a copy.” Some of Fight Club’s larger themes involve the fascist conformity of society, in small groups such as Project Mayhem. However, it’s also a nod to the circular, repetitive ways in which humans often think; becoming obsessed with certain ideas and bringing them up in the mind whenever possible.
Combine this soft-spoken prose with the thoughts of our narrator and his doppelganger alter ego and the effect amplifies the themes of the novel without being masked by the façade of violence. One of the film’s perceived major flaws is it’s apparent obsession with the violence and while this may be true or not, the book does not have the same problem. It’s style of writing and the nature of how a novel is read lead the reader to see the themes easier and less obliquely than the film, which forces them to sift through a less transparent outer shell. In short, how the story is being presented to those digesting it, in this case, a novel, has the effect of making it easier for them to understand what the story is.
The film and the book of Fight Club are both tremendous works of technical craft and artistry not only separately, but they enhance each other when viewed as a single story. Through the advantages of each medium, viewers and readers can get a better perception of the world of Fight Club, as well as it’s purpose, by evaluating the novel and the film as complements. The film has the ability of telling a story that stimulates the auditory and visual senses, giving viewers a greater sense of what characters look like, how they interact with each other in and around their environments. The book has the ability to give the reader a greater psychological understanding of the characters and their relations to their environments and each other. For example, in Fincher’s film there is a visualization of an Ikea catalog like pricelist over the narrator’s furniture, whereas in the book it is only told that the narrator owns it all. In the film, there is a definitive price, a definitive look, and an environment for which the character interacts with. In the book, the reader gets a greater sense of what he thinks about the environment, but fails to visualize it as fully as the film for how he acts within it.
Taken together, the film and the book become one and the same story, building on each other to take the ideas of Palahniuk and Fincher to greater heights. The fight scenes are visually stunning and intimate in the film, but psychologically engaging in the book. One can watch the film after having read the book and understand not only the physical motivation of the characters but have a deeper understanding of their psychological motivations. This is crucial, because in films, audiences are conveyed psychological motivations usually through acting, framing, composition, etc. And while Fincher does construct his scenes carefully to do this, it leaves less ambiguity if the book has been read before viewing the film because the audience already knows.
So, as a film and a book, the story can be elevated to new heights, but how has it lasted as long as it has? Over ten years for the book and a ten-year anniversary for the film, the story has still been connecting with readers and audiences alike regardless of which form they encounter it in. This is due to Fight Club’s themes that are rooted in primal, basic instincts that manifest themselves in existentialist problems with a nihilistic skew; specifically in the themes of masculine identity and the existence of a higher being.
Masculinity is a major theme of Fight Club as a story. The narrator reveals early on to Tyler that he had lacked a father and like so many other men growing up in the modern society of the 1990’s, Jack is searching for a way to feel like a man again. Before he “meets” Tyler and before he starts fight clubs as a release of primal, masculine identity, the narrator participates in many activities that are not normally perceived as “manly.” He shops for furniture to dress up his apartment; he is subjected to subordination by his boss, “the man;” he has never been in a fight in his life.
Yet, being manly is one of the most primal instincts that human males experience. There is an urge to be aggressive, dominant and powerful that is hardwired into their brains. At the same time, being masculine has become an ever-elusive quality for males who find their gender roles being blended and blurred by the success of the feminist movement. So, what is apparent is a modern re-imagining of a primal instinct to be masculine in a world that is becoming more feminine. In Fight Club this dilemma manifests itself as fight clubs where men go to fight, for no reason, and afterwards they return home to their more feminized, “metrosexual,” lives. However, Tyler Durden, in his existentialist search for meaning, pokes and prods them to replace their old lives with their primal lives (see: Project Mayhem).
For Tyler, who in his nihilistic view claims, “I am the toxic waste by-product of God’s creation,” leaving God means elevating science (Palahniuk chap. 23). Science’s main explanation of existence, in the absence of God, is evolution and evolution is what is responsible for these primal instincts in the first place. For Tyler, these primal ties are what make him a man because it is what nature, God’s replacement in his mind, dictated he should do.
Again, even the existence of a God, or higher being, is a theme that is both basic in its nature and so important to the modern human. For primitive man, the belief in a higher power was to explain phenomena that science now explains, such as the Sun or rain. In modern society, many struggle to find where their faith lies in the crossroads of belief and science. In Fight Club, the narrator is searching for a meaning in his life in the absence of a God that “hates” him as Tyler says. Not only is he searching for a replacement for God, the “Father,” but for any type of male role model in his life. This lack of a father figure is the post-modern equivalent of the human ancestors searching for who put the sun in the sky.
Because of these two basic premises: the masculine identity crisis and the search for a higher being, among others, Fight Club has endured with audiences and readers. It remains relevant to this day because of the ability to combine primitive problems with their post-modern equivalents in an edgy, dark and engaging way. The film and the book are inseparable as companion pieces to each other that provide commentary in their own ways that are advantageous to each medium. Whether people encounter the story of Fight Club through the medium of cinema or the tradition of the page, Fight Club will continue to challenge the mind and soul. While Kevadlo said reading Palahniuk was like rubbing glass in your eyes, he also reminds us that, “when you’re done, you realize that everything really is all right” (3)
– “Chuck Palahniuk F.A.Q.” ChuckPalahniuk.Net. Chuck Palahniuk.net, 2008. Web. 21
– Ebert, Roger “Fight Club.” RogerEbert.com. Chicago Sun-Times, 26 Oct. 1999. Web.
21 April 2009.
– “Fight Club Box Office Gross.” Box Office Mojo. Web. 21 April 2009.
– Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton. 1999. DVD. 20th
Century Fox, 2002.
– Kavdlo, Jesse. “The Fiction of Self-destruction: Chuck Palahniuk, Closet Moralist.” The
International Journal of Existential Literature. 2.2 (2008): 3 – 24. Film and Television
Literature Index. Web. 13 April 2009.
– Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.