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Destroying Something Beautiful in Fiction and Film: Reflection on a First Reading of Fight Club (1996), Differences Between Film and Novel, and Refuting the “Marla Isn’t Real” Hypothesis

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By Adam J. Pearson


How… toothy. Or not.

“Project Mayhem will save the world. A cultural ice age, a prematurely induced dark age. Project Mayhem will force humanity to go dormant or into a remission long enough for the earth to recover. Justify anarchy. Figure it out. Break up civilization so we can make something better out of the world,” Tyler said.”

~ Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club.

The film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s (1996) Fight Club has been one of favourite films of all time. And yet, the mystery is why, after having been a Literature Major before I finished my Bachelor’s of Education, it took me so long to read the legendary novel that spawned the cinematic cult classic.

I suspected the reason was that by the time I finished my B.Ed. I was so sick of fiction that I wanted to neither read, nor write anymore of it, and switched exclusively over to nonfiction in both consumption and composition for years. 2021 was a difficult year for many reasons, but it also happened to be the year of my Rediscovery of Fiction, and with it, my first foray into the novel of Fight Club.

And what a novel it is.

A. Entering the Fighting Circle: General Reflections on Fight Club in Prose and Film

Chuck Palahniuk shares an interesting anecdote about the genesis of the core idea that would later become Fight Club. When he was a child, his mother and father used to argue violently. It scared him and his siblings so much that they would hide in the basement to avoid it. Then, one of them would take on the dark responsibility of “playing Kissinger.” This child would injure themselves on purpose and then run to the raging parents, crying and bleeding, to distract them from their conflict by shifting them into care mode. In later life, these experiences made Palahniuk very avoidant of conflict. He fantasized about a way to engage with violence and conflict in a controlled and consensual way, chaos in order. The culmination and fruition of that fantasy turned into the foundational concept that birthed Fight Club (1996) from the anguish of the author’s childhood trauma.

For those who are mysteriously unaware of one of the most iconic works of fiction of American civilization, Fight Club tells the tale of an unnamed Narrator who struggles with insomnia. Inspired by his doctor’s exasperated remark that insomnia is not real suffering, the protagonist finds relief by impersonating a seriously ill person in several support groups. Then he meets a mysterious man named Tyler Durden and establishes an underground fighting club as radical psychotherapy, a club that only becomes the precursor of a mass anticonsumeristic, antisocial, and anarchistic movement of pure Mayhem.

One of the things that struck me while reading the novel is just how faithful the movie was to its eponymous subject matter. The tone and texture of the Narrator’s dry commentary in the film is woven into the chapters of the book. In its most significant incidents, in its thematic core, and in its tone and vision, the film version of Fight Club is not only a tribute to its written ancestor, but arguably one of the best cinematic adaptations of a novel in history. It helps that the core subject matter of the novel is so inherently compelling, riffing as it does on the emptiness of consumerism, a generation of men without fathers who are looking for Joseph Campbell’s Second Father who will call them on a Hero’s journey, the ambiguities of identity and dissociation, the difference between who we are and who we yearn to be, the secret subcultures of support groups, the surprising spiritual uplift that violence can afford, the dangers of trusting our own cognition, and so many more.

This book is rich. It brims with depth, blood, humor, and hyper-real takes on, to paraphrase Nietzsche, our human, all-too-human existence.

B. Transformations Across Media: Fascinating Differences Between the Novel and Film Adaptation of Fight Club

Probably about 90% of the novel is represented in the film. However, as I read, I discovered some striking differences that fans of the film might enjoy. Here are those that stood out the most to me.

First, in the novel, Tyler and the Narrator don’t meet on a plane. They meet on a nude beach. Where Tyler stands up 5 logs so that for one minute of the day, they form the perfect shadow of a non-existent hand. Tyler is thereby introduced in the process of weaving a grand illusion. How appropriate.

Second, in the film, Tyler and the Narrator break into a liposuction clinic to steal fat out of which to make soap, “selling rich people’s fat asses back to them,” as the Narrator muses. In the novel, however, it is only after the creation of Project Mayhem that they obtain fat from the liposuction clinic. Before that, Tyler makes soap out of Marla’s mother. Literally. Marla stores her fat in the freezer of the house at Paper Street in the hopes of using it for her own future collagen implants. However, Tyler ends up using it to make soap to fulfill a large order when supplies run out. Tyler makes soap out of Marla’s mother.

Third, unlike in the film, in the novel, big Bob isn’t given a hard time when he tries to join Project Mayhem and the Narrator doesn’t give him tips to stay with it despite the dissuasion. Instead, he joins fairly easily. When the Narrator returns home from work one day, he sees big Bob working in the garden in the back. That’s how he learns that Bob joined Project Mayhem. As a passing commentary,. I think the movie version was effective; it helped increase pathos for Bob and reinforce the illusion of difference between Tyler and the Narrator.

Fourth, in the film version of Fight Club, During a support group, we see Chloe begging desperately for someone in the group to have sex with her. In the novel, however, he confesses her desires privately to the Narrator. So the painful public humiliation from the film is absent from the novel. Once again, I find the film version more effective – its raw desperation felt real to me. It struck a chord the novel presentation could not.

Fifth, in the film, when Bob dies, it is during an epic Project Mayhem stunt; it takes on a grandeur fitting of the loss of a character we’ve come to love in Meatloaf’s portrayal. However, in the novel, Bob dies doing a fairly unimportant “homework assignment;” stealing change from payphones. His death in the book is therefore somehow more tragic by its sheer banality and meaninglessness, a reading which fits the bleakness of Tyler’s nihilism.

Sixth, in the novel, the Narrator gets beaten so badly during a particularly brutal Fight Club clash, that he ends up with a permanent open hole in the side of his cheek through which his teeth can be seen. At the end of the book, this hole gets torn open such that he ends up with a ripped open face from ear to ear, like the Joker’s scars taken to an extreme. I find that appropriate; Tyler Durden is in many ways a chaotic terrorist villain quite like the Joker, and just as charming. In the film, they omitted this detail, probably for the sheer practicality of not having to do elaborate makeup and CGI on Edward Norton in every scene, which would be both cumbersome and unjustifiably expensive.

Seventh, in the novel, Tyler Durden is more overtly murderous than in the film. In the book, he not only murders the Narrator’s boss by blowing up his work computer, but also murders Patrick Madden, the son of the Mayor for compiling a list of all of the Fight Clubs. Tyler shoots him dead during a murder mystery night at the hotel.

Eighth, in the novel, Tyler and the Narrator start Project Mayhem together, both seeing it as a logical extension of Fight Club. However, for more dramatic conflict in the film, it is Tyler who creates Project Mayhem independently of the Narrator, and deliberately leaving him on the outside of its efforts.

Ninth, in the film, both Tyler and the Narrator are psychologically abusive and neglectful of Marla Singer. However, in the novel, this goes a step further; Tyler punches her in the face, giving her a black eye.

Tenth, in the film, the Narrator beats himself up in his boss’s office to get off work and still get paid. In the novel, this scene actually happens with the Narrator and Tyler’s boss; the manager of the hotel in which they pee in the soup and fart on the meringue. The Narrator also does suffer a violent beating from a boss in the novel, but it is his boss at the Film Projector’s Guild, who beats him until the Narrator blackmails him into also giving him paychecks for not working.

Eleventh, at the end of the novel, when the Narrator shoots himself in the head to kill Tyler, it isn’t just Marla who’s there, unlike in the movie. Instead, the shot is witnessed by countless people from the support groups as well. As such, it becomes more of a social spectacle before people who care for their suffering friend and not a private scene between two tragic lovers.

Twelfth, some lines are transformed from novel to film, and in sometimes surprising ways. After Tyler and Marla have sex in the movie, she says “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.” In the novel, however, Marla tells Tyler that she wants ‘’to have your abortion.’’ This line was surprisingly considered “too edgy” for Hollywood while the pedophilic line was considered passable. Wonder what that says about Hollywood. Hmm.

Finally, in the movie, Marla and the Narrator watch Project Mayhem’s bombs destroy countless skyscrapers at the end of the film. In the novel, however, the bombs don’t blow up because Tyler used paraffin in the plastic explosives used to wire the buildings – a fatal error. Instead, the novel ends with the Narrator surviving the gunshot and hallucinating that he’s in even. Instead, he’s in a psychiatric hospital, where Project Mayhem members come to visit him and tell him that their work continues.

C. As Real as the Narrator: Refuting the “Marla Isn’t Real” Hypothesis

Before I bring these reflections to a close, I want to touch on a popular theory that Marla Singer doesn’t actually exist, but is, in fact, a figment of the Narrator’s imagination just like Tyler. Does the book support this daring theory?

I don’t think so. There is too much evidence for her reality to deny or explain away through contortions in service of something we’d want to believe because of how cool it would be if true. For one thing, as screenwriter Mark Hughes notes, ”at the end of the story, while the protagonist is on the roof of the building with a gun to his own head facing down the police on the streets below, Marla goes to the support groups (the original ones she and the main character were attending together at the start of the story) and rallies several members to come and confront the protagonist, to try and convince him that they’d help him overcome his problems and to express their concerns for him, to say he’s not alone and that people do care about him.’’

However, there are additional reasons to dismiss the ‘’Marla isn’t real’’ theory. Multiple people see her and interact with her in multiple locations (e.g. a waiter takes her order, people at Support Groups interact with her, as do Project Mayhem members, etc.). Contrary to the theory, the real reason she and Tyler never appear in the same room at the same time from the Narrator’s point of view is not because they are both alters but because when Tyler is active, the narrator is asleep. Moreover, the Narrator asks Marla to document his behaviour when Tyler is in control of his body and report it back to him when he’s back as the Narrator, which she does accurately and in ways that corroborate what other characters (e.g. police officers and Project Mayhem members) report. Given all of this, it is very likely she is as real as the Narrator. The only alter seems to be Tyler. Penultimately, Palahniuk writes that when Marla comes to the roof with one of the support groups, Tyler vanishes, because Tyler was the Narrator’s ”hallucination, not hers.” This also points to the distinctness between the Narrator and Marla.

Finally, we have the evidence from Fight Club 2 and Fight Club 3, the graphic novel sequelae to the original novel, both written by its original author, Chuck Palahniuk. In Fight Club 2, the Narrator and Marla not only get married, but have a physical child, who gets kidnapped. If that isn’t evidence of Marla being as real as the Narrator, I don’t know what is.

The upshot? Fight Club (1996) is a phenomenal book that spawned an equally outstanding film. If you’re into dark, gritty, transgressive fiction, give yourself the gift of reading it. You won’t be disappointed.

Read More from Adam Pearson at http://philosophadam.wordpress.com/



Source: https://philosophadam.wordpress.com/2022/01/13/destroying-something-beautiful-in-fiction-and-film-reflection-on-a-first-reading-of-fight-club-1996-differences-between-film-and-novel-and-refuting-the-marla-isnt-real-hypothesis/


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