The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 4

Closer to the Beginning Than the End: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

by Eric Roth

Welcome. Three months after the birth of his only child, daughter Frances (Scottie), to him and Zelda in 1921, F. Scott Fitzgerald, needing some money and on a whimsy, wrote the short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." It is said the idea came from a notion articulated by Mark Twain about the end of life being such a pain in the ass, and why couldn't we in God's great design have grown in the opposite direction: from old to young. We needn't discuss how youth may be wasted on the young, but suffice to say the Mark Twain piece was given to F. Scott by his editor, one Maxwell Perkins. That, along with dandling a new baby—with all the sights and smells an infant brings—and an empty pocket or two, must have twirled around Fitzgerald's fertile brain and a story was born.
     Once finished, it was sent out to the two leading publications of the time: the gold standard, The Saturday Evening Post, of Norman Rockwell fame, and the forgotten Metropolitan. I don't remember which was which, but one didn't like it at all and the other thought it was too strange for its audience. So Collier's Weekly picked up the literary scraps as they were and paid a large amount for the day, $1,000, hoping to have F. Scott in its stable, thus affording him and Zelda ample diapers and a drink or two or three.
     I mourn for what our literature was then—the short stories in magazines that let readers in the sweetest of time dream about love found or lost, about success or failure, about people forgotten or remembered, about roads walked on or returned from; a thriller or a mystery; and a great, grand whimsy like this—a place where our most wonderful writers put down their dreams for those lying on a beach or on a rooftop on a hot summer night in the city, riding a train home or to the country, or waiting in a doctor's office, their companion a finally dog-eared and rumpled magazine with a story or two that was so much a part of the fabric of life.

Eighty-six years later, in a form that would be mostly alien to Mr. Fitzgerald, by people he of course wouldn't know and possibly wouldn't care much about, and in a place he did know well but wouldn't recognize anymore and might not care much about either—Hollywood—his short story has become a motion picture to be released on Christmas Day in the year of our Lord 2008. I happen to have written that movie.
     Whether, on viewing it, Mr. Fitzgerald would roll over in his grave I couldn't tell you. I hope instead he might lift his glass and say, "Not bad." The story would be unfamiliar to him in many respects because of the changes it has undergone—the degree that it's been spun on its own dime, in its own time, by someone who was paid somewhat more than $1,000 yet can't hold a candle to the great Gatsby. I would hope Mr. Fitzgerald would feel, as I do, that the heart of what remains is the glorious idea that tickled his fancy to begin with and makes us wonder still: What would it be like to age backward? The subject has been explored by others in literature and music and movies, but first in, as best I can tell, was F. Scott, with a rather large tip of the hat to Samuel Clemens.
     The present incarnation—directed by the enfant terrible David Fincher, who indeed has talent as big as the Ritz, and portrayed by Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and a cast of thousands—has been bubbling for twenty-odd years in lotusland and is the result of a number of screenwriters, particularly Robin Swicord, who made the most lasting contribution to what ended up with yours truly.
     Being either brave or stupid, I chose to tell the tale in my own form and fashion, and should you decide to pay a visit to the theater, I think you will see that it is a different animal—though with perhaps the same head and tail—than what you are about to read. But what a great thing you are about to read.
     So off you go. Take with you a large grain of salt, a drink or a joint or whatever suits your fancy, and settle in for a small ride from a grand engine. Come and sit with Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald and meet his Benjamin Button.

To read "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and other stories from the Winter 2008 / 2009 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.