It’s a funny trick of human existence that achievement contains, hidden beneath its pride and self-satisfaction, the seeds of discontent. Complacency is typically untenable, particularly to any culture so infected by impulse and the drive for instant gratification. As the industries of construction finally began to give way to more powerful industries of distraction, a vague realization slowly crept into our midst. This idea, a growing awareness of the lack of a genuine sense of fulfillment, led some to a rather simple question: “So what’s next?”
Enter author Chuck Palahniuk, literary agent provocateur, and his answer, in the form of his incomparable debut novel, Fight Club.
Fight Club is the rare sort of novel that is so perfectly entrenched in the times in which it was written, it seems absurd to suggest that Palahniuk had anything but the most direct of intentions, seeking to address the oft-ignored problems inherent to our society’s corporate, consumerist nature. However, in a twist befitting the author’s own style, the novel actually began as a project of spite. After rejecting his first effort himself, Palahniuk submitted Invisible Monsters for publication, only to be rejected by the publisher due to the book’s disturbing content. The author began crafting a short story, born of his own reticence regarding a weekend brawl, meant to disturb the publisher even more than his rejected novel. Eventually, this story was expanded and, to the author’s surprise, accepted for publication. Fight Club was published in August of 1996.
Well received by critics and readers alike, the novel nevertheless received minimal attention. For many, the work remained obscure, if not unheard of. That would change when 20th Century Fox producer Laura Ziskin saw in the novel the potential for a gripping cinematic experience. With screenwriter Jim Uhls in charge of adapting the novel and director David Fincher at the helm, Fight Club was crafted into a movie every bit as disturbing—and enthralling—as the novel itself.
Both novel and film begin in media res, just before the climax, as the characters await the destruction of several office buildings at the hands of underground fighters turned militant anarchists. The reader is then led through a semi-linear retelling of the events that lead back to the precipice of that climactic moment. In the novel’s case, the sense of linearity is much less rigid; affecting a much greater impact on the reader’s thought processes, Palahniuk’s minimalist, conversational tone makes for a superior connection between material and reader. To compensate for the depth lost in translation from page to screen, Fincher’s film makes brilliant use cinematography—sweeping, impossible camera shots and brief flashes of images thrust into otherwise normal scenes—to imbue the unstable mentality of the narrative.
The anonymous protagonist and narrator, played by Edward Norton in the film, is a 30-year-old recall campaign coordinator for an unspecified auto manufacturer, leads a life of quiet desperation. Norton’s deadpan delivery emulates the novel’s narration, establishing the character’s malaise with aplomb. It should be a satisfying life, as the narrator’s followed social convention to the letter in virtually every respect; from his job to his clothes, his IKEA-supplied apartment to the Audi he drives, everything he has achieved is as it should be. Noticeably absent from this lifestyle is the expected gratification of living it. Thrown headlong into an existential crisis, the protagonist begins to suffer an extreme case of chronic insomnia. Living with insomnia, he explains, makes it so that “everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy.” Through Fincher’s direction, this addled state is put on display to brilliant effect in the film, offsetting the necessary linear nature that so contrasts that of the novel.
To address his insomnia, the narrator attends support groups for the terminally ill. In these groups the narrator finds, rather than a sense of perspective, a catharsis that allows him to purge enough neurotic tension to allow him to sleep at night. Allowing members to believe what they will of his condition by remaining silent, he begins attending numerous such groups throughout the week. Though effective, this unusual method of treatment doesn’t completely resolve the dark thoughts that result from his continuing crisis. After two years of combating his insomnia through meetings, Marla Singer (brought to life by Helena Bonham Carter), another such ‘tourist’, begins appearing at each meeting as well. As Marla’s lie reflects the narrator’s, his path to nightly catharsis is thwarted, and the insomnia resumes. The two eventually resolve to split their schedules, and a complex love/hate relationship ensues. Despite the removal of Marla from the meetings he attends, this brief lapse in sleep triggers an unraveling that continues throughout the remainder of the story.
The account of how the narrator comes to meet Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) differs between page and screen, though the change is likely a practical one. The core of Tyler’s character is transferred perfectly and intact to the cinematic portrayal. Tyler is described as the complete opposite of the narrator’s character. Where the narrator is constrained by his lifestyle and neuroses, Tyler leads a life of relative freedom—not to mention slight insanity. Unlike the narrator’s responsible office job, Tyler’s professions are several: he works as a movie theater projectionist—and splices frames of pornography into family films; he works as a waiter at an upscale hotel—and befouls the food before its served; he makes homemade bars of soap—out of fat stolen from the medical refuse bins behind liposuction clinics. Representing everything that the narrator is not, Tyler is an utterly fascinating, seductive character to behold.
When the protagonist’s apartment mysteriously explodes and effectively destroys everything he had made of his life, the narrator calls Tyler, asking for help. Tyler welcomes the narrator into his home, but only if he’ll do something in return. “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” Neither man has ever been in a fight before and, to Tyler, this is an unacceptable condition in which to live. As the movie Tyler asks, “How much can you really know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” In the moment those first few awkward punches are thrown, Fight Club is born.
Before long, the thinking behind Tyler’s antisocial existence finds fertile soil in the minds of the men who join Fight Club, and blossoms into a fully-fledged philosophy. Completely in awe of Tyler, the narrator is at the forefront of those swept along as club events begin spilling out of the basement and into the rest of the city. In both novel and film, the emerging school of thought is spelled out in such a way that even readers and viewers find themselves similarly swayed by Tyler’s apparent wisdom. But when ritualized self-destruction leads to widespread anarchy, the narrator begins to harbor misgivings. The question becomes, is there anything he can do to stop it?
While the novel, as is usually the case, possesses far more depth and intricacy than that for which film typically allows, the film loses none of the story’s potency in the adaptation process. Much of the dialogue in the film is transferred verbatim from the novel, capturing the essence of Palahniuk’s style, and subsequently his genius. Though the endings of the two formats differ, both are quite apt. Debate continues to this day as to which is superior, though the author himself has, in interviews, expressed some regret that he had not conceived the film’s version of the ending himself. Fight Club performed poorly at the box office, owing in part to its publicity having been stifled by the studio. However, both novel and movie have gone on to achieve legendary status as cult favorites, with fans emulating the story’s ideals in countless amateur fight clubs across the country. With a plot twist so mind-blowing as to warrant only passing reference, lest the surprise be spoiled, and a gripping narrative that is every bit entrancing as it is disturbing, Fight Club is a truly compelling story, and one of the very best examples of adaptation from page to screen.