The Curious Case of Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button

Life can only be understood backward.
It must be lived forward.~ Soren Kierkegaard

I read the short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" when I was an undergrad at Rutgers for a course on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was going through a Fitzgerald phase then - the taunting proximity of his Princeton was probably a factor. The story is the closest thing to science-fiction that he ever wrote.

It's the story of Benjamin who is born in 1860 and looks like a seventy-year-old man and speaks to his father. Benjamin is aging backwards.

I liked the scene where at "18" he attempts to enroll at Yale University. Because he ran out of hair dye the day of his interview, the admissions folks turn him away because his gray hair makes him look 50. (Later, he ends up at Harvard. Take that Yale!)

You'll hear more about the story because you'll be hearing more about the movie version that will be released December 25th. It stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette, so it will get attention.

There's a large type 64 page book version of the story and you can read it in several of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (That collection has 43 stories, but there are at least 160 in the Fitzgerald canon.) However, you can read the story online at and at

This post is not a movie review, but I will say that it's the kind of movie I see as a hit or bomb. It's not something I would have invested in, but I'll go see it anyway.

I think F. Scott Fitzgerald may have been the first author to have a character who could live backwards in real time which offers some interesting possibilities. I think the idea could sustain a novel. It's possible that Fitzgerald might have written this, as he did with many other stories, as a way to pay the bills in 1922. The premise allows him to address aging and how it is viewed by society, but especially how it affects family, relationships and marriages.

A movie from a short story means that some things that are "suggested" in the story will be expanded on the screen. Probably, there will also be some things in the film that have no connection to the story. I'm okay with that. You don't have much of a choice as a filmmaker in that situation unless you're making a short film.

My own favorite Fitzgerald is still The Great Gatsby which I think is a "perfect" novel. In that classic, one of my my favorite lines is at the end:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

The quote appears on Fitzgerald's grave and it inspired a song by Eric Carmen and it keeps coming back to me as I age in an un-Buttonish way into the future.

(Film Trailer)

Time Machines

When I was in second grade, I saw the film The Time Machine at a drive-in theater. It was directed by George Pal, starred Rod Taylor, and was released in 1960. It was scary. It was cool. It had "primitive" special effects by today's standards. But I loved it.

Eventually, it sent me to the library to get the novel by H.G. Wells. Twenty years later, I taught that book to a bunch of like-minded seventh graders that I had lured into reading its very 19th century pages with very 21st century imaginings about traveling through time.

Then, the summer after fourth grade, I tried to build a time machine in my own basement. I had a "lab" in a old coal bin that was full of chemistry sets, rockets, rocks, any tool I could find, model car kits and salvaged electronic components.

I had no idea where to start or what to do, but I just went at it. (Years later, I would jealously watch ET do the same kind of thing successfully.) I have never lost my fascination for time travel.

Last May, artist Paul St George exhibited an outdoor interactive video installation linking London and New York City in a faux "telectroscope."

Unfortunately, I only found out about it after it was over.

Of course, it wasn't any more real than the ones from earlier centuries - but it "worked."

It had a fictional "back story" that said that the device worked by using a transatlantic tunnel started by the artist's fictional great-grandfather, Alexander Stanhope St. George. People looking in one end in NYC could see and hear those at the other end in London.

telectroscope photo via my Flickr friend urbanshoregirl

I like the term "distant seeing" that was attached to the invention and has remained.

The installation art actually used a visual high speed broadband link between London and New York City that did allow people to see across the ocean.

You can't really call any of these "television systems" or "time machines." And the term telectroscope was replaced by the term "television." But, looking back at the original 1870s imaginings, it sounds like they were describing television or the Internet - or some merging of the two that is in progress right now.

Go Deeper

On the Book Wish List This Season

There's a blog post that I wrote on my Poets Online blog about a gift wish list for poets. The idea was that poets might like certain kinds of gifts, but I guess the obvious choice is books. Then, I found this neat little widget at Amazon that shows you a ferris wheel of the most requested books by Amazon users that they have added to their Wish List.