From Page to Screen: Fight Club

Danielle Ryan

Adapting a beloved text into a film or television series is a daunting task. In addition to pleasing die-hard fans, producers must also take into consideration those who have never encountered the property before. Some adaptations are good, some are better than the source material, and some are so god-awful that fans try to forget they ever existed. (Looking at you there, Tank Girl.) Let’s take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and just how one adaptation made it from page to screen. (Last week: Watership Down)

Fight Club book cover and movie poster

The Source Material

Fight Club, the first novel by Chuck Palahniuk, was published in 1996 and was well received by critics. While there were some individuals who felt the book promoted violence and should be banned, the novel instead became a hit.

The unnamed narrator of the novel is an insomniac car recall specialist who finds comfort in support groups for people who are dying or very ill. After another “tourist” named Marla Singer starts hanging around the support groups, the narrator meets a soap salesman named Tyler Durden on a nude beach. When the narrator returns from his trip, his apartment has exploded because of a supposed gas leak and he’s forced to move in with Tyler.

This all happens within a few chapters, and the story spirals into mayhem from there. In an attempt to get the narrator’s attention, Marla overdoses on Xanax and calls him. Tyler answers instead and the two begin an affair. All the while, Tyler and the narrator have started a fight club and are beating the tar out of one another and other men in the city. The fight clubs begin to grow and spread until they have a nationwide reach and Tyler can begin the second phase of his plan, Project Mayhem.

Fight Club reads like few other books. The narrator’s biting sense of humor and unreliable nature makes an eventual twist ending work very well. Palahniuk’s tight pacing keeps the story feeling like an adrenaline rush, and his descriptions of certain things are both disturbing and comical. Fight Club is one hell of a novel and can be enjoyed multiple times; in fact, a second read reveals hints leading up to the twist ending.

The Adaptation

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden

Fight Club was directed by David Fincher  and released in 1999. The movie was considered a box office failure but developed a significant cult following.

The movie features an all-star cast, including Brad Pitt as Tyler, Edward Norton as the narrator, and Helena Bonham Carter as Marla. All three of them give fantastic performances, and the casting of singers Jared Leto as Angelface and Meat Loaf as Bob actually works well. Fincher clearly understands the satirical tone of the novel and has a blast using visual gags to heighten the comedy already existing within the scene.

Fight Club struggled to get an R rating from the MPAA and a few scenes had to be re-shot to avoid a dreaded NC-17. The cult following the film gathered made it have quite a cultural impact, and Fight Club is included on two American Film Institute best lists.

The film has allegedly inspired a number of real-life fight clubs to pop up around the world, and stories of Project Mayhem-like activity have also been reported.

What’s Different?

Marla and the Narrator

Warning: Spoilers ahead for both the film and book. 

One of the most incredible things about Fight Club is that both the book and the film are fantastic, but they have significant differences. The endings are completely different, for starters.

Both the film and the novel share the twist plot point that Tyler Durden is actually the narrator, as he suffers from split personalities and lives as Tyler when he is asleep. In the film, the narrator chooses to shoot himself in the head to “kill” Tyler. The bullet exits beneath his ear, and with Tyler effectively gone, he stands and watches with Marla as all of the financial buildings in the city explode before them – the final step in Project Mayhem. Pixies’ song Where is My Mind? plays as Marla and the narrator hold hands and the credits begin to roll.

The novel ends with Marla and some of the other people from the support groups interrupting Tyler and the narrator’s final confrontation, forcing Tyler to disappear temporarily. This gives the narrator enough time to think and he “kills” Tyler by shooting himself. He later wakes up in a hospital and believes he is actually in heaven. The buildings never explode because the bombs Tyler made were duds.

Each ending is different enough that the entire message behind the story is changed. Marla’s role as the narrator’s savior is somewhat more muted in the film adaptation, but is more obvious in the novel. Marla’s story is also more fully developed in the novel, as she is described talking to ghosts on the phone, and some of the fat Tyler and the narrator use to make soap is actually from Marla’s mother’s liposuction. In a chapter not adapted into the film, Marla and the narrator have a fight regarding the fat and it spills everywhere. Palahniuk’s fans learn quickly that the author loves to gross people out, and his first glorious gross-out is the fat fight in Fight Club. 

There are a handful of small changes made either for practical reasons, as the book contains a lot of adult material and only so much could make it to screen without the MPAA throwing a fuss. One of Marla’s lines, in particular, was cause enough to require that a scene be reshot. (Neither version ended up being family-friendly, and the MPAA actually allegedly wanted Fincher to change the dialogue back. He didn’t.)

Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer

The importance of side characters was also much greater in the novel, as Angelface, Bob, and the other “space monkeys” each play pivotal roles in the narrator’s downward spiral. There are scenes in the film where the actions of these characters are given to Tyler instead, and this makes the twist ending a little bit more difficult to swallow. (A scene on a highway where Tyler swerves back and forth into oncoming traffic is one example: in the book, it’s actually a mechanic trying to impress the narrator/Tyler and join Project Mayhem that swerves dangerously in traffic.)

Fight Club works as a novel because Palahniuk’s satirical tone is spot-on, and stories with an unreliable narrator often work better in novels than in their film adaptations. This is a book with serious bite, a transgressive novel that pushed boundaries and began Palahniuk’s career as a bestselling author.

Fight Club works as a movie because it’s funny, it’s dark, it’s absolutely gorgeously shot, and it uses the medium to most fully execute the story’s punchlines. Fincher spliced single frames of pornography into the film, just as Tyler does within the film and movie. There are splices of Tyler just long enough to make the viewer feel uneasy. There’s product placement everywhere, ironically done to further expand on the story’s themes of consumerism.

Both versions are amazing, and anyone who appreciates one should definitely seek out the other.

Danielle Ryan
A cinephile before she could walk, Danielle comes to Fandom by way of CNN, CHUD.com, and Paste Magazine. She loves controversial cinema (especially horror) and good cinematography; her dislikes include romantic comedies and people's knees.
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