Thoughts and memories of film adaptations and the novels that inspired them.
“The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.” And we still don’t. We talk about the culture that influenced it, and the culture it influenced. We talk about gender and sex and depictions of violence on screen. Masculinity. Politics. We talk about the style of the film, which placed David Fincher’s highly visual, gloomy, and unflinching approach to cinema firmly in the cultural consciousness. We talk about Chuck Palahniuk, the man, not as a writer of fiction, but as a great social commentator. We don’t really talk about Fight Club.
I watched Fight Club countless times before reading the novel (which I only got around to this year!). I always figured that with the ‘big twist’ revealed – and all my friends saying that this was the quintessential example where the film adaptation surpassed its source material – there was no real point. The social and political statement of Fight Club was clear: everyone was aware and we all agreed. What was to be gained? As I found out, reading the novel seventeen years after its original release, and knowing its core story backwards and forwards, by way of Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, I was truly free to appreciate it as a piece of art in its own right.
The film is emblematic of the early 2000s. It was released in 1999, but it was a couple of years later that I saw it. I was in my late teens, and I loved it. It was dirty and funny and disturbed, and it spoke to me about everything I was becoming increasingly uneasy about in the world. The style of the film was exaggerated, visually and aurally – an obvious reaction to society at the time it was made, and it informed so many movies that came after it. Fincher’s Fight Club was the romantic comedy we needed for the new millennium. It didn’t, as many critics argued, fill my young mind with a lust for violence. It did however change the way I look at society: the fetishisation of not only objects, but lifestyle.
I’m too young to really associate it with the monoculture of the 80s and 90s its source material sprang from, but I think the fact I could relate it to my surroundings in that present is a testament to the power of its message. Perhaps my anger was misguided – okay, it was misguided, I was a teenager – and my understanding shallow, fictionalised. Perhaps I even missed the point by fetishising the film itself.
In the wake of the film, my friends and I talked about Palahniuk, coz we got it, man. I read Survivor and Choke (which is still one of my favourite books, and we’ll talk about this another time). His wit spoke to me, as it did so many young men around me – and the fact I understood him and what he was trying to achieve with his writing was another reason to put off reading Fight Club. I already got it, right? Well, yeah, I guess so. It’s true, when I finally read Fight Club a few months ago, I wasn’t hit with any epiphany, no great mystery was revealed to me as it was when I watched the film at age seventeen. However, knowing the story inside out, and with Fight Club as a concept (it no longer matters if we’re referring to the book or film) existing as such a monolith in our culture (you could say we live in the ‘post-Fight Club world’), I digested the novel in a very specific way. Fight Club was no longer ‘mine’ in the same way it was when I first saw the film. Furthermore, I knew what was coming, so reading it was almost about analysing how well Palahniuk made the story work. And it’s near perfect. Writing a novel in first person, in which the narrator is unaware of his split
personality and a majority of his own actions, whilst most other characters are, sounds almost unimaginable to me.
But it’s unlabored, consistent, challenging, and hypnotic. Moreover, it treats the idea of psychosis and mental illness quite deeply. In the film, all we get are somewhat graceless (but very stylish) single frame flashes of Pitt throughout the first act. This level of skill in writing is one of those things that is hard to define, but easily recognisable. There are not necessarily singular instances of this brilliance – it’s moreso the whole piece just pulls off its trick flawlessly.
However lauded Fight Club is for its commentary, its lessons seem to have gone unlearned. It would be nearly impossible these days to lead a double life due to an unchecked case of multiple personality disorder. There would be photos popping up all over Instagram, friends tagging you – calling you by your real name, not the moniker your hyper-violent, anarchist alter-ego chose for you. The need for us to document every moment, to prove to others that, yes, we are living, would ruin any clandestine scheme to destroy the capitalist machine. In Fight Club, the problem was that “the things you own end up owning you”. Now, the obsession has extended to a need to tell everyone what we have, what we’ve done. If we are not seen having the things we have, do we really have them? I think about this obsession of having when I see a stream of homogenous Facebook statuses each night. I still get frustrated at this material culture that has extended now to attempting to materialise experience itself.
Fincher’s Fight Club created a trajectory for my taste in film and literature that lingers even ten years on. I still look for the little cigarette burns in the corner of the screen when I go to the movies (they’ve disappeared with the advent of digital film). It turned Fight Club into an idea, encompassed its multi-faceted commentary into a single, cultural artifact. It’s the perfect cult film. And it seems that enough time has passed, and this idea of Fight Club has become so monlothic that when I did finally read it this year, I was able to reclaim the experience. It felt like it was just me and the story again. This time, that experience was of a piece of purely focused writing. At the risk of sounding like a back cover quote, it is unrelenting in its goal, which isn’t a political statement or cultural commentary. It’s to create a piece of art, individualistic, with real characters, great scope, and it is executed masterfully. So perhaps I did have an epiphany when I read it. Yet maybe, purely by writing this column, I’ve tried to grasp hold of that experience, lift it up; “Look what I’ve got,” and I’ve missed the point. Maybe Tyler Durden would be supremely disappointed in me.