Monday, May 6, 2013

From Page to Screen - Big Fish

In John Ford’s classic 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, journalist Maxwell Scott delivered the oft-quoted line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The statement is one of resignation to the power of myth over the minds of men, regarding a fictional account which has irrevocably usurped the truth on which it had been based. In his 1998 novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, Daniel Wallace deftly explores the premise of Scott’s statement, by recounting the mythological story of Edward Bloom, and his son William’s struggle to peer through the veil of his ailing father’s legend and find the truth of the man at its core. 

Prior to the novel’s publication, the manuscript found its way into the hands of screenwriter John August. The novel, which explores the topic of grief as much as it does the relationship between father and son, struck a chord with August, whose father had passed earlier that year. After approaching a number of directors, including Stephen Spielberg, August brought the screenplay to Tim Burton’s attention. Burton, who had recently lost both of his parents, found the story perfectly suited his preferences and style. With Ewan McGregor and veteran actor Albert Finney cast as the younger and older versions of Edward, respectively, and Billy Crudup cast as grown son William, filming began in January of 2003. 

In both incarnations, Big Fish is a story told on two levels. In the present, Edward Bloom is dying. William has returned home for what is expected to be his father’s last days. Though the strained relationship between the two is made plain through William’s narration in the novel, his estrangement from his father is explained much more overtly in the opening scenes of the movie: tired of Edward’s ceaseless performance as raconteur, William feels little connection to his father. William’s efforts to reconcile the relationship require a tremendous amount of progress, as he has only ever known the myth, never the man. 

In the novel, despite his distaste for his father’s stories, it is left to William to piece together the sweeping mythology of Edward’s life. Narration is left to a number of characters in the film, primarily Edward himself. Both novel and movie describe Edward Bloom as a man with a destiny, meant for bigger and better things than those for which is small hometown will allow. In the film version, a young Edward discovers the fact that goldfish only grow if given enough space. As soon as he reaches adulthood, Edward sets out to make a fishbowl of the world. 

As the storyteller’s son tells the story, Edward’s path to greatness is shown to have always been fraught with difficulties matched only by the man’s limitless ambition and courage. Confronting giants, fending off vicious wild animals, and even surviving the horrors of war, Edward’s story is more entertaining than thrilling, as the outcome is never really in question. This is as true for the reader/viewer, for the fact that Edward clearly lives to old age, and for Edward himself, who lives his life so bravely, in part, because he does so with the knowledge of precisely where, when, and how he will die. 

Wallace, a student of Joseph Campbell’s teachings on mythology, expertly weaves a combination of borrowed themes and new ideals to create an enthralling character in Edward Bloom. Burton’s treatment brings out even more endearing qualities, with much credit to the performances by McGregor and Finney. However, despite the wide wonders of Bloom’s life, and the love so many seem to have for him, the frustration that William feels at having never known his father is overwhelmingly palpable. What’s more, his complaint is so valid that it very nearly upends the story entirely.

As with all tall tales, only a small grain of truth is likely to be found at the heart of Edward’s story. Stripping away the incredible and impossible, one is left with a genuinely plain, sad tale of a simple traveling salesman, too busy for his family, and a boy who was raised on little more than fish tales to explain his father’s absences. Though the movie version maintains a virtuous image of Edward, devoted to his wife forever and always, the novel’s version includes a chapter describing a second home elsewhere, a second love, and neither household containing much happiness for all of Bloom’s grandeur. 

For all of this, Big Fish is an undeniably touching story. That Edward is human, complete with flaws and failings, comes almost as a surprise, and yet makes the man all the more real. The bittersweet elements of his life and story, though powerful, do not, in the end, overwhelm the fanciful. Friendship and family take a place of prominence throughout, as William and his mother grieve slowly over Edward’s impending demise.  As the movie nears its conclusion, the question of choosing between fact and legend is brought to the forefront, as much for the viewer to consider as it is for William. Given the option between a boring truth and a wondrous myth, which would you truly prefer? 

Whether or not William reconciles with his father is up to readers and viewers to discover. Each format presents the story in its own way, highlighting different aspects of the same heartrending tale. Even beyond the fictional world in which he lived, Edward Bloom is a character too large for life. Neither book nor movie contains him entirely—one must catch the Big Fish in one’s heart to truly capture the man in full. 

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