Manliness, Consumerism and Confusion in “Fight Club”

No matter how well made a film adaptation may be in terms of capturing the atmosphere and characterization of a good book, nothing beats reading the book first before watching it on film. The book provides the reader turned viewer with an army of pre-context and understanding of the story even before he/she steps into the theatre. This pre-understanding allows the viewer to accurately judge the quality of a film adaptation, utilizing their book knowledge in being able to assess quality in terms of context, casting and depiction.

Fight Club is one of those films that could be better understood if the viewer chose to read the book before seeing the film. It’s one that doesn’t fit into a specific genre, with characters that are as ambiguous as the film itself. This lack of clarity can mislead the average viewer into losing interest in the movie, thus the need to read the book in order to better grasp the story, its characters, and the need for a rare addition in most Hollywood films: a voiceover.

The movie tells the story of an unnamed narrator (Edward Norton), an average 9-to-5 kind of guy with an interest in IKEA and the inability to sleep (read: insomnia). He finds a cure for his lack of sleep in participating in clubs that cater to former alcoholics, addicts and cancer patients. Things are going pretty well for our nameless lead until one session, when he encounters Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) a fellow ‘faker’ who throws our lead’s rhythm off course. He develops a dislike for Marla and ends up negotiating session times with her as a form of compromise (so that they don’t bump into each other and expose one another as fakes). On a routine plane ride, Norton’s character meets his most interesting ‘single-serve friend’ so far: Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a soap salesman with a number of odd jobs to boot. Durden and the lead become friends on the flight, and the lead (Norton) shacks up with Tyler after his apartment explodes. A post-beer parking lot brawl turns into ‘Fight Club’, an underground form of ‘therapy’ that becomes a male-only form of respite and recreation and evolves into ‘Project Mayhem’ an anti-consumerist terrorist organization of sorts bent on the destruction of the champions of consumerism: material things, credit card companies.. you get the idea. The narrator tries to stop Tyler’s plans, but instead finds out that things are more complicated than they seem.

Norton is a less mainstream choice yet a perfectly pathetic lead. He’s a good cast up until the point where we find ourselves wondering whether he’s capable of a bad side (the answer: naaaah). Pitt looks like a male model gone wannabe badass in look and sometimes in attitude. He’s a far cry from the hypermasculine Hollywood actors of today: Pitt is slim where Tom Hardy is big and buff and boorish  (Putting the two side by side will provide enough room for comparison).  A particularly ironic scene has Norton point out a Gucci underwear ad to Durden, sarcastically quipping: [nonverbatim] “so that’s what a man looks like?”. Durden agrees with the same level of sarcasm, and yet here he is: chiseled and all. Strange. Bonham-Carter is the sole feminine presence in the film, an unpretty, cigarette-toting hot chick who is far from the standard female hottie. Her screen time is sparse, but she makes the most of it.

Punctuated by a fast-paced score that sounds more like the precursor of dubstep or EDM, Fight Club (as mentioned earlier), is not a cookie cutter film. One prominent interpretation (found in Wikipedia of all places) sees the movie as neo-noir, with Norton’s character as the fatalistic lead, Pitt as the villain, and Bonham-Carter as the obvious femme fatale. Other interpretations are discussed extensively in a surprisingly detailed Wikipedia article, but the one that seems most obvious is the neo-noir aspect. Gritty setting, dark lighting, all the well-known film noir stereotypes, the movie has it all. Yet how does one explain the consumerism aspect– the narrator’s former addiction with IKEA and his subsequent disdain for all things material? It is at this point we go back to square one… and the genre under which Fight Club falls once more becomes a mystery.

This is where reading the book comes into play in order to provide a better understanding of the story. Since I haven’t read the book myself, all I can do now is offer interpretations based on the content presented in the film (not always as substantial as some may think). Yet there’s one thing I can say about the film. At it’s core, Fight Club is a coming of age story for the clueless twenty something. At the start of the film, the narrator lives a monotonous life: office job, bland furniture, routine existence… he’s the epitome of the average guy. Yet the change manifests by the end of the film. Norton’s narrator is a changed man: gutsier, bolder, braver… he’s grown up. Beyond its layers of themes and noiresque  narratives, Fight Club does a stellar job of presenting the coming of age for the clueless man in an incredibly relatable way. There’s a reason men gravitate to this film. It uses very male things in its quest to present such a story, doing away with the mushy dialogues, ugly tears and hugging characteristic of films geared toward a female audience. There’s definitely nothing more traditionally male than balls, blood and brawls, and Fight Club deals a lot in those aspects.

At the end of the day, Fight Club is one of those movies that can only be characterized as an outlier in the world of conventional Hollywood, a cult classic perfect for the Guys’ Night In.




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