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  • When the Movie Is Better Than the Book:Fight Club, Consumption, and Vital Signs
  • Teresa Heffernan (bio)

Film adaptations of novels have a contentious relationship to their origins, and adaptation studies have foregrounded this problem, a problem that is itself paradigmatic of the unresolved tensions between modernism and postmodernism. Traditionally, the book, the source, has been privileged over the movie, so that as both Robert Stam and Linda Hutcheon have argued, most discussions about film adaptations are “in negative terms of loss,”1 and the film versions are often dismissed with morally loaded language and accused of betrayal, bastardization, and infidelity.2 In other words, they are understood as weak, illegitimate, second-rate copies of the original leading to that predictable response, “the book was better than the movie.” In this slavish valuing of the original, hierarchies are established where literature is assumed better than film, and high art is pitted against popular culture, with all the implicit gender and class biases of “feminizing” markets and ignorant masses. The original work is vacuum sealed and stuck on a pedestal, removed from the messiness of a past life or afterlife. Hence, discussions of shifting cultural and historical contexts and questions of translation, audience, market, and media specificity are mostly absent from the more traditional approaches to adaptation criticism.

Yet, for well over a decade, adaptation theory has been turning away from this obsession with origins and fidelity and toward questions of remediation, mutation, creative reinvention, translation, and intertextuality as it recognizes the inherent instability and impurity of any narrative. Poststructuralism and deconstruction have, as Stam has argued, challenged the hierarchical binary between the original and the copy, and as Hutcheon points out, “there are precious [End Page 91] few stories around that have not been lovingly ‘ripped off’ from others.”3 Thomas Leitch, in his thorough review of the current state of the field, welcomes this shift even while observing that recent works are still haunted by their dependency on literature and literary studies, and “the notion that adaptations ought to be faithful to their ostensible source texts.”4 Despite this turn, however, I want to suggest a reason—apart from considerations of fidelity and evaluative judgments about film adaptations—for holding onto the question of origins and sources, and why they should continue to haunt adaptation theory.

What many contemporary writers these days are hoping is that their books will be optioned, as films generally garner a much wider audience and are more lucrative than publishing. Chuck Palahniuk, the now “celebrity” author from Washington with a large cult following, had an early work, Invisible Monsters, rejected by publishers for being too disturbing; in response, he wrote what he felt was an even more provocative work, Fight Club. Palahniuk got a six-thousand-dollar advance from Norton for this novel (first published in 1996), but ten thousand for the film option and a promise of a much larger fee on the first day of production. The film adaptation of Fight Club (David Fincher, US, 1999) follows an insomniac narrator (played by Edward Norton) who begins to rebel against the tininess of his life that is made up of his white-collar job as an assessor of automobile insurance claims and online shopping for housewares. To help ease his insomnia, he begins attending support groups for sick and dying people, where he meets Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter), the love interest. On a business flight, he also encounters Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), a soap salesman, who persuades the narrator to join his underground fight club, where men get together and express their primal aggression by beating each other. The club takes off and new chapters start to spring up around the country; under Tyler’s charismatic leadership, these men start to perform terrorist acts with the ultimate goal of taking down a capitalist system that has stripped them of their vitality. The narrator watches the escalation of violence with mounting concern only to realize that Tyler is in fact his alter ego, which he must kill off in order to stop the brutality he has unleashed.

Palahniuk is of a generation of writers that matured in a culture...