Book vs. Movie: Big Fish
By Kim Hollis
September 21, 2004
If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.
And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.
Based on a short novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a mythic story about a bigger-than-life man named Edward Bloom. Throughout his life, his easiest means of communication is through tall tales and jokes. Suffering from a consuming case of cancer, his death is approaching. Edward's son William desperately hopes that the fact that the end is near will enable his father to open up about deeper emotions, but in the end, the man remains the sum of his stories and a great mystery.
This semi-autobiographical tale is told in episodic fashion, and almost reads as a series of stories that might be passed down from generation to generation. Some of the accounts are as brief as a paragraph, while others stretch on for pages. Such is the life of a man as sensational as Edward Bloom (and don't think for a minute that his name, an allusion to James Joyce's Ulysses, is an accident). Everyone who knows Edward, including his immediate family, is familiar with his life via these stories, so much so that it's not especially easy to separate the fact from the fiction.
Though Wallace was clearly influenced by Greek mythology and Joyce's Ulysses, his decision to simplify the tales almost as if they were being told for a childlike audience benefits the book enormously. It's not overly complicated, but at the same time the numerous metaphorical references to classic tales from the past are there for the digging. Most notable of these allusions is Edward's crossing through the Underworld and meeting a Cerberus-type dog that guards the path. This particular portion of the book is particularly impacting - the people who have been unable to break through are mired in their failure. It speaks pretty strongly to the natural desire that all people have to succeed, though it also does an outstanding job of drawing on those who have an innate fear of finding true kismet.
The story is narrated by Edward's son, William, who is struggling with the fact that he is having difficulty reconciling the man of legend versus the father. There are moments that are extremely tender - his father saves his life twice simply through an intuitive knowledge that his son needs help - and there are times when it is quite clear that William has a tremendous amount of suppressed rage over the way things have turned out. The emotions William expresses always ring true. It's only natural that a young man whose father was frequently away from home would be ambivalent.
Possibly my personal favorite aspect of the book is its setting. Edward Bloom comes from small-town Alabama and eventually moves his family to Birmingham, but it's a Birmingham of a simpler time, when people knew their neighbors and stood up for each other even unto death. Having had grandparents of my own who lived their entire lives in that city, it was a deeply personal experience for me to read the book and relate it to each of their lives.
Tim Burton turns Edward Bloom into an even more mythic and enormous character than the book even allows for - so big, in fact, that he is played by two different actors. The film plays with chronology somewhat and drifts back and forth from present day to the past (much like the novel does), meaning that we get a snapshot of Edward as a young man in his 20s and 30s and also as the dying man in his 60s. Ewan McGregor plays the younger version, and he is simply fantastic in the role. As someone whose family comes from Alabama, I was surprised to hear his accent be fairly authentic - an impressive task indeed for a Scotsman.
Taking the role of the elder Edward is Albert Finney, who is distinguished and believable as a man who has a lived a remarkable life. Billy Crudup plays the role of William, and he uses his range to
great advantage as a young man alternately angry and adoring of his father. There are a host of other fine actors in supporting roles as well. The most significant of these is Alison Lohman as young Sandra Bloom, Edward's wife and William's mother (Jessica Lange plays the older version). Helena Bonham Carter also has a role that is crucial to the story's development. Danny DeVito, Robert Guillaume and Steve Buscemi all have small but important parts as well.
Big Fish is a quintessential Burton film in that it celebrates people who inhabit the fringe of society. Much of the story dwells in Specter, a strange town with quirky inhabitants, but time is also spent at the circus, as Edward works his way up through the ranks under the big top. His boss (DeVito) turns out to be a weird beast in his own right. Edward also encounters a giant and a two-headed dancer in his travels.
Even as the film explores the people who humanity normally shuns, it also departs from the typical tone that Burton employs by being particularly bright, upbeat and sentimental. Not since Pee-Wee's Big Adventure has Burton employed so much color and positivity. Even the darker moments surrounding Edward's illness and William's conflicting feelings about his father are connected gently and seamlessly through the joyous journeys into the past.
John August's screenplay does take great liberties with the story detailed in the novel. Much is added or embellished, which is almost necessary given the brevity of the book. None of the expansion feels forced or off, though. It's perfectly in keeping with the story of a man whose life was truly monumental.
Even though I find the book to be a charming and engaging trifle of literature, the film is much more epic in scope. Where Daniel Wallace sets about creating the beginnings of a fascinating, bigger-than-big character, the Burton film takes things much further, spinning a yarn that is such a terrific fish story that it's completely irresistable. And while Wallace's tale is deeply ingrained in Greek mythology, Burton's feels more akin to a modern-day Wizard of Oz.
Another strength of the movie versus the book is that the film creates a character who is so fascinating and intriguing that it's easy to get very caught up emotionally in the events that unfold before one's eyes. The novel, on the other hand, maintains an aloof distance from Edward, which works for the purposes of the story (William doesn't really know his father that well, after all), but simply couldn't do for the development of the character in the film. Though some people
will certainly object to the sentimentality, it worked completely for me. Read the book to get the backbone of the tale and to understand Wallace's allusions and personal motivations, but for a complete and satisfying experience, you can't do much better than this wonderful film.