1The often passionate debate on filmic adaptations of literary works tends to focus on the way canonic novels (essentially) by famous writers such as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens are translated to the cinema and the way in which their main characters (Elizabeth Bennet or Pip for instance) are interpreted, in both senses of the word. What is interesting in the case of Forrest Gump is that this approach is reversed. Rather than relying on the fame of the book to guarantee the film a sizeable audience, director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Eric Roth chose to adapt a fairly obscure novel by a then little-known writer, Winston Groom, whose best known work up to that point, Conversations with the Enemy, a finalist for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, was a nonfictional exploration of the controversy surrounding Robert Garnwood, a Marine who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and was later accused of collaborating with the Viet Cong. Forrest Gump the film was a huge financial success: it grossed $149 million at the US box office and $480.9 million worldwide (Lavery 6) and it propelled the book to best-seller status. By the end of 1995 the novel, re-issued with the film poster on its cover, had sold 1.4 million paperback copies worldwide whereas it had sold “a pretty respectable 30,000 copies in hardback” (Grimes). Almost overnight, thanks to the film and its six Oscars, “Forrest Gump” had become a household name on which the novelist and Pocket Books, his publisher, quickly drew to release a thin companion volume (Gumpisms: The Wit and Wisdom of Forrest Gump, 1994) and then a sequel, Gump & Co (1995).
- 1 Alternative Cinema, “Interview with Winston Groom.”
2Of course, whenever literary works are adapted and when their characters migrate from the pages of the book onto the silver screen, their literary entity is necessarily altered to fit in with the requirements of the new medium. For example, in the case of Forrest Gump, once Tom Hanks had been cast in the central role, it was obviously impossible to make the Forrest Gump of the film almost 2 metres tall (six foot six) and about 110kg (242 pounds), as he is in the book, where it is as much his enormous size as his amazing speed that first gets him into the All State Football team. As Groom himself said in an interview, “there weren’t any movie stars that fit Forrest’s description. You know, we’re talking about a John Wayne size character here… .So we realized we were going to have to downplay the character’s physical size”1. This is not of course the only difference between the two Gumps. “Several major developments in the movie plot are purely Hollywood inventions, such as Gump having polio as a child and then ‘miraculously’ running faster and faster until his leg-braces fall off” (Hugo): no “run, Forrest, run” in the novel, then.
3The Forrest of the novel is indeed very different from his cinematic avatar, and his migration from novel to film has radically altered his characterisation. In this paper, I shall be concentrating on three main areas of transformation. I shall deal first of all with the question of Forrest Gump’s idiocy, before moving on to his relationship with the other main characters, and finally to the respective endings of the film and the novel. I shall attempt to suggest reasons why the screenwriter and the director chose to completely re-write the novel for its screen version.
4First, even if both Forrests are idiots, there is a sizeable difference between them. The opening sentence of the novel (“Let me say this: bein a idiot is no box of chocolates”, 9) brings to the reader’s attention the central question of Forrest’s idiocy, which is going to be used throughout in its medical sense, as Forrest himself explains in the second paragraph in his … idiosyncratic style:
I been a idiot since I was born. My IQ is near 70, which qualifies me, so they say. Probly, tho, I’m closer to bein a imbecile or maybe even a moron, but personally, I’d rather think of myself as like a halfwit, or something – an not no idiot – cause when people think of a idiot, more’n likely they be thinking of one of them Mongolian idiots – the ones with they eyes too close together what look like Chinamen an drool a lot an play with theyselfs (9).
5Whereas the filmic Forrest is a nice, lovable but ordinary idiot, the Forrest of the book is diagnosed early in the novel as a rare case of idiot savant, that is “a mentally defective person who exhibits exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary), in the case of Forrest, mathematics and music. The idiot savant is defined within the novel by Doctor Mills as
a person who cannot tie a necktie, who can barely lace up his shoes, who has the mental capacity of perhaps a six-to-ten year old […]. But the mind of the idiot savant has rare pockets of brilliance, so that Forrest here can solve advanced mathematical equations […] and he can pick up complex musical themes with the ease of Liszt or Beethoven (41).
- 2 John Lennon actually appeared on the Dick Cavett Show on September 11, 1971. Zemeckis used some of (...)
6That is why the novelistic Forrest is used by NASA as “’the ‘backup’ for the backup computer” (118) in a training mission to Mars, why he can study “coaxial coordinates, cosine computations, spheroid trigonometry, Boolean algebra, antilogarithms, Fourier analysis, quadrats an matrix math” (118) and draw the whole formula for Einstein’s theory of relativity (85), why he is an advanced chess player (chapter 21) and why he can play the harmonica in a band in Harvard (chapter 10), episodes which in the novel are directly linked to his condition. Music in particular has an important part in the novel: the traditional folk songs from the south of the USA that Forrest, Orpheus-like, plays on his harmonica generally have a soothing effect on people and beasts alike. For example, he plays over and over again “Way Down the Swanee River” for the dying Bubba (67) as well as the injured Dan (85) and “Home on the Range” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” to calm down “Sue” the orangutan (123). Throughout the story we also have insights into the protest songs of the 60s and 70s, as Jenny sings “Joan Baez music, an Bob Dylan an Peter, Paul an Mary” (39), all icons of the sixties who were prominent in the civil rights and antiwar movements and provide an anti-establishment background to the novel. They are replaced in the film by Elvis Presley and John Lennon. The King, a lodger in the Gumps' house, mimics the young Forrest's somewhat mechanical way of dancing and moving around with his leg-braces and makes it his own. John Lennon's lyrics for Imagine are inspired by Forrest's description of China as a country with “no religion” and “no possessions” when they are both guests in the Dick Cavett Show2.
7Moreover, the novelistic Forrest acknowledges from the start that he as an idiot is something of a literary trope. He firmly places himself within a literary tradition going back to the court jester or the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear and including some of the greatest novels from the south of the United States, as he quotes among others “Faulkner's idiot, Benjie, an even ole Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird” (10). The importance of the idiot in literature is emphasized in a mise en abyme with the course on the “Role of the Idiot in World Literature” taught at Harvard University by Doctor Quackenbush. The satirical overtones of his name notwithstanding, Doctor Quackenbush opens up new insights for Forrest and makes him aware of his social role as well as his satirical function:
‘The idiot,’ Doctor Quackenbush say, ‘has played an important role in history an literature for many years (...) He go on like this for a wile, an it begun to become apparent to me that idiots was not jus useless people, but was put here for a purpose (...) an the purpose is to make people laugh. At least that is somethin. (...) ‘The object of having a fool for most writers,’ Doctor Quackenbush say, ‘is to employ the device of double entendre, permittin them to let the fool make a fool of hissef, an at the same time allow the reader the revelation of the greater meaning of the foolishness (100).
8Thus Forrest’s purpose is not only to make the reader laugh but also to allow him/her to understand the foolishness and the absurdity of the world s/he lives in, and particularly of American history and institutions, for example American presidents, the Vietnam War, NASA and the cinema industry, which are fiercely satirised in the novel through the idiot's point of view.
9“These various and in some ways sophisticated understandings are a far cry from the exceedingly limited comprehension of Forrest Gump the film character” (Allen). The novelistic Forrest’s particular brand of idiocy was totally written out of the script, perhaps because his profile would have been seen as too similar to Raymond Babbit’s in Rain Man, Barry Levinson’s 1988 drama film with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. On the other hand, what director Robert Zemeckis, producer Wendy Fineman and screenwriter Eric Roth did instead was to capitalize on the new – at the time - technical possibilities of the medium and “to give themselves maximum opportunities to exploit the device of using digital technology to have Tom Hanks interact with film clips of historic characters such as JFK, Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace and Richard Nixon” (Hugo, n. pag.). The aim was to show how even an idiot could be part of American history (the integration of the University of Alabama, for instance) without his realizing it, or even unwittingly trigger major historical events like the Watergate episode. The film director and producer thus privileged cinematic technical innovation and played down the satirical dimension of the novel. Indeed, “in the Hollywood lexicon, Zemeckis [was] synonymous with ‘special effects’. Not the spectacular effects associated with Spielberg, but rather the sleight-of-hand tricks accomplished by combining animation with photography” (Ross 23). Resorting to newsreel footage and inserting actors into it had been done before, for example by Woody Allen in his 1983 “mockumentary” Zelig, “in which the trick photography was an essential aspect of the film rather than a clever embellishment of an otherwise simple story” (Ross 23). When Forrest Gump was produced, the use of digital technology was revolutionising modern filmmaking. Until that time, special effects, especially those assisted by Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) “were the domain of science fiction and fantasy genre. Forrest Gump was the first film to apply them for the purpose of recreating history or simply to save on sets. Here those effects create surreal and, until that time, unimaginable images of dead historical personalities interacting with present-day actors” (Antulov, n. pag.) and in the bonus DVD, a whole section is devoted to explaining how this technological prowess was achieved. And even though now, perhaps, “those scenes look less than perfect, in some ways almost laughable,” it “just shows how the technology progressed in a relatively short amount of time” (Antulov, n. pag.).
10As Glen Allen shrewdly noted, moreover, because the film follows Forrest's point-of-view as an idiot who does not really understand the various situations he finds himself in,
[t]he Forrest of the film seems to merely accept each of these events; to be, in a sense, no more than a sum of these events, without the will or comprehension to recognize patterns in them or to draw any lasting lessons from them. Each of the historical moments for which Tom Hanks is present are just that: moments, historical tableaus which are intended to capture the essence of America at that particular time and circumstance by representing it in popular, recognizable iconography--usually through the iconography of celebrity. (n. pag.)
11Noting that the film does not provide any historical or social background whatsoever to the momentous events witnessed by Forrest, he then goes on to say:
But all of these 'celebrated' moments are nominalized to the point of interchangeability and presented without explanation or context. Thus Wallace on the schoolhouse steps is basically undifferentiated from Kennedy in the White House, and both are equated with the smiley face logo on a muddy t-shirt and the bumper sticker phrase 'shit happens.' No historical moment is any more significant than any other moments, and all are merely moments, without the connective tissue some encompassing historical narrative. Other, that is, than Forrest's presence at them all. (n. pag., author's italics)
12Another famous episode not to be found in the novel pulls out all the cinematic stops: it is Forrest's mindless running across the United States, which provides the film makers with “another opportunity for wide-screen extravaganzas” (Hugo, n. pag.). As well as a mild and amusing reflection on some aspects of American culture (the fact that Forrest is seen as a sort of guru by his followers, for example), it is also a visual hymn to the beauty and diversity of America which is clearly at odds with the much more satirical background of the novel.
13The film is also often criticized for its somewhat Manichean and revisionist version of modern American history. For example the Vietnam War
which occupies, directly and indirectly, the majority of the narrative--is portrayed as a time and a crisis which divides people into only two camps: the protesters, who either over-react to it or attempt to hypocritically exploit it; and the heroes, who, through reasoning which is unrelentingly sentimental and binary, survive it, though not unscathed (Allen, n. pag., author's italics).
14Allen then analyses with great insight the rather simplistic ways in which those in the two camps are shown on screen:
The war protesters are all portrayed as either confused and neurotic (his virtual girlfriend, Jenny), violent and neurotic (her boyfriend), or exploitive and neurotic (the huckster-like presentation of Jerry Rubin at an anti-war rally--a rally where Forrest's speech is, appropriately enough, entirely dead air); while those he soldiers with are either sentimentally simple (his friend Bubba), or sentimentally grandiose (Lt. Dan, who wishes to die with his troops to continue a family tradition). (n. pag.)
15He then makes an interesting and convincing point about the ideological premises on which the film is based, which privileges emotions over political reflection:
Thus the logic of the film seems to be that if one has dearly-held political beliefs, those beliefs are a nothing more than a symptom of insanity, in that they represent a commitment to an idea; but if one engages in obsessive emotional attachments, then one is engaging in the noblest aspects of what it means to be human (Allen, n. pag., author's italics).
16Allen concludes his article by stating that “the movie itself does construct an ideology about the historical events in which it deals; and that ideology is disturbing. To protest the war is seen as indicative of a personality disorder; in fact, to protest anything is characterized as a psychological flaw, a self-destructive, self-indulgent neurosis” (n. pag., author's italics), almost leading Jenny to commit suicide before she eventually renounces drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll to give birth to and bring up Little Forrest.
17Furthermore, the movie also deliberately sanitizes and even bowdlerises some aspects of the novelistic Forrest that might have offended the typical ‘feel good’ or more puritanical moviegoers. Forrest is characterized as a basically pure, upright and clean-living young man, a good son and a faithful friend who “never utters a single unkind word or commits a single selfish act in the entire film” (Ross 24). In the novel however, he smokes marijuana and at one point he even becomes, as Jenny puts it to him, a totally stoned vegetable head. He also has quite a few sexual experiences, the first one as a teenager with one of his mother's lodgers called, characteristically, Miss French. His relationship with Jenny is also much more physical than in the overly romantic movie: indeed, in the words of a critic, their first sexual encounter in Boston would be “far too wild for PG movie ratings” (Hugo, n. pag.). They also live together for several months during his stint as a wrestler (another episode omitted, probably quite rightly, from the movie) in Indianapolis, where Little Forrest is conceived. We are far from the one-off sexual encounter of the film in which a virgin Forrest is seduced by the much more experienced Jenny who consequently, albeit somewhat improbably, becomes pregnant. Moreover, Forrest also cheats and takes bribes since the wrestling matches are fixed and eventually he loses all his savings as well as Jenny in the process.
18Forrest is also depicted as a farcical character: even if only one “I’ve got to pee” episode has been retained in the movie when he meets President Kennedy (another scene which was added), it is recurrent throughout the novel where it even becomes in the end a sort of satirical political slogan in Forrest’s unsuccessful campaign for the US Senate. In keeping with this farcical aspect are the “farting” incidents which were left out in the script. For the film’s target audience, references to peeing, with their childish connotations, were probably acceptable whereas farting on screen was clearly not. In the same vein, Forrest’s use of swearwords – his frequently reiterated graphic description of the Vietnam War as “a bunch of shit” for example – was written out of the screenplay. Another aspect of the novelistic Forrest which is considerably played down in the film is that he definitely has a callous streak. Moreover, he is always complaining and is very satirical about American institutions such as the army, the university, the cinema industry, the Presidents and more generally politicians, or the NASA. The NASA scientists, for example, who are supposed to be the top brains of the country, are ridiculed: not only do they send into space a male ape instead of a female one but they also stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their obvious mistake, and keep on calling the male orangutan “Sue”. To sum up, Forrest in the book is anything but the passive, naive and intrinsically nice idiot of the film. There is clearly a pattern to these alterations, to what was added as well as to what was left out, and all point to a general smoothing and polishing of the eponymous character to make him more consensual, and the way the story is told “amounts to a major rewriting of [recent American] history to fit the longing of the current generation for a comforting shelter from the questions raised in the ‘60s and 70s” (Ross 24).
19Somewhat paradoxically in this general ironing out process, there are more deaths of important characters in the film than in the novel. Bubba’s death in Vietnam is one of the most poignant moments of the novel and the film, but there are significant differences in the depiction of the friendship between Forrest and Bubba. First in the novel they are friends from the university football team, and it is Bubba who gives Forrest his harmonica. Moreover he is definitely not black, contrary to his filmic counterpart, who is a shrimp-obsessed African-American with a distended lower lip, just as dumb as Forrest. Making Bubba, Forrest’s best friend, black was probably an attempt at political correctness, considering that we are told in the novel and shown in the film through an extract of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation (in itself an ambiguous choice, for Griffith’s film, originally called The Clansman, is very controversial particularly in his depicting of the KKK as a heroic force for good) that Forrest’s mother had named him Forrest “cause of General Nathan Bedford Forrest who fought in the Civil War” and “started up the Ku Klux Klan after the wae was over” (Groom 10). In the novel Forrest is very critical of the Klan’s past (“startin up that Klan thing was not a good idea - any idiot could tell you”, he says, 10) as well as its present. It is clear in the very negative way he describes the Klan's local representative, who operates a gun store in town (10). Forrest's attitude to race relations, always a difficult topic in the American literature from the South, is quite straightforward:
It was always a big thing when we played against a team from up North cause for sure they would have colored on their side, an that be a reason for a lot of consternation from some of the guys - like my ex-roomate Curtis for example - altho I never worried bout it myself, on account of most of the colored I ever met be nicer to me than white people (43-44).
- 3 There was another similar episode which was cut in post-production when he plays with the police do (...)
20This is quite different from Forrest’s naive colour-blindness in the film. When he witnesses Governor Wallace’s attempt to prevent African-American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, he clearly does not understand what is going on: when he picks up a young African American student’s notebook and follows her inside the building to hand it back to her, he is just being helpful and polite as his mother taught him to be. He is not making a point against racial segregation3.
- 4 Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Orlando: Harcourt Brace. 1993. Print.
21Forrest’s mother’s death in the film is another emotional moment for Forrest and the spectator. Her words of wisdom – “Stupid is as stupid does,” or the famous opening line “Life is like a box of chocolates” - “provide the guidance by which Forrest steers his life. […]. He is at her bedside when she dies and grieves long and hard over her passing” (Lavery 4). In the novel however not only does his mother not die but Forrest is also far from being the good and dutiful son he is in the film. Even if in the end he gives her a job as a cook in his prosperous shrimping business (he also hires most of the other minor characters he has met in his adventures), he ignores her for months, and even years, on end. When, while he is in Vietnam, the family house burns to the ground and she eventually has to go and live in the poorhouse, he does not greatly care and when he is back in the USA he decides to go and visit Jenny instead of his mother. The loss of his childhood home, which is seen in the film as the place he can always come back to and where a lot of important events occur (his mother’s death, the loss of his virginity to Jenny, his wedding, to quote just a few) does not really affect him: the “there is no place like home” cinematic cliché is not the novelistic Forrest’s motto. He is definitely not a Dorothy (in The Wizard of Oz) or a Scarlett O’Hara (in Gone With the Wind) type of character. He clearly belongs to a long tradition of American picaros, from Huckleberry Finn to Augie March and Sal Paradise, and the novel is in fact a typical picaresque fiction, defined by M. H. Abrams4 as “realistic in manner, episodic in structure […] and often satiric in aim” and “concern[ing] the escapades of an insouciant rascal who lives by his wits and shows little if any alteration of character through the long succession of his adventures” (130).
- 5 Many thanks to Dominique Sipière for giving me his lecture notes on the film.
- 6 Interestingly, David Lavery sees this as a “variation on Ali McGraw's Disease” in Love Story (5).
- 7 It is one of many in the film. Another is the periodic appearances of the down-to-earth wise men in (...)
22The characterization of Jenny, Forrest’s girlfriend, is also very different in the film and in the novel. As Professor Dominique Sipière once remarked,5 their psychology is totally inverted and chiastic. Whereas in the novel Jenny is the stay-at-home type of girl whose only wish after her somewhat turbulent youth is to settle down, “hav[e] a house and a family and g[o] to church” (183), in the film on the contrary she is the very epitome of the fugitive until she finally settles down with Forrest to die. As for Forrest, he keeps on travelling in the novel, within and without the USA, as a true picaro (even if his experiences abroad – Vietnam, China, New Guinea - are imposed), but in the film he regularly comes back to Mama and eventually ends up living with Little Forrest and Jenny in his family home. Moreover, whereas Jenny’s character is potentially much fuller and interesting in the film than in the novel, this is unfortunately “somewhat downplayed and undervalued in the ‘feel good’ treatment” (Hugo, n. pag.). The spectator is made aware that “her self-destructive behaviour and weakness for abusive relationships” (Hugo, n. pag.) with various violent and neurotic boyfriends is explained by the fact that as a child she was the victim of an abusive father. When she returns to her hometown, “she visits the derelict shack where she suffered her father’s unwelcome attention. In a fury she throws stones at the shack, again and again until she collapses on the ground” (Hugo, n. pag.). As Forrest comforts her, without understanding what her outburst was all about, he soberly remarks in one of his grumpisms: “Sometimes there just ain't enough stones”. Forrest, “as embodiment of ‘proper’ America, and Jenny, as embodiment of counter-culture, reconcile their differences in bittersweet ending” (Antulov, n. pag.). Forrest is seen as the faithful and innocent lover to whom she finally returns with their child to marry him in an idyllic, all-inclusive, totally stereotyped ceremony. Indeed, Lieutenant Dan arrives at Forrest’s wedding with a new pair of prosthetic legs and a Vietnamese fiancée: the healing of the trauma of the Vietnam War is thus seen as complete. Bubba’s mother is also present, as a representative of an integrated African-American community. Although the word AIDS is never mentioned,6 it is strongly implied as the cause of Jenny’s death and the disturbing implicit idea seems to be that she must die as a punishment for the promiscuity of her hippie days and “association with the California drug culture, which is the direct result of her anti-war activities, which in turn are a reflection of her independent, rebellious character” (Ross 25). As Giles Hugo somewhat ironically concludes, “in the book Jenny's punishment is more benign: she marries a roofing salesman” and they both bring up Forrest’s bright child, whereas of course in the film, after Jenny’s death, Forrest raises his own child in his family house as a single father. The film’s final scene shows him putting Little Forrest on the school bus, just as his mother had done with him at the beginning. The symmetrical repetition of the situation7 is strengthened by the fact that the bus-driver is the same. It induces a feeling of unity and continuity which is totally absent in the novel, where like the true picaros they are, Forrest, Dan and Sue the ape continue wandering through the south of the United States.
23In spite of the phenomenal popular success of the film, many critics disliked it intensely. Commenting on the fact that in the 1994 Academy Awards “in addition to winning the Best Adaptation Oscar, Robert Zemeckis's nostalgic view of American history since the fifties won the Academy Awards for Best Actor, Best Direction, and Best Picture of 1994-all awards for which its dark other, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, had also been nominated”, Thomas Leitch wrote that “the triumph of Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction showed that it was morning in America, that the sensationally violent vision of Tarantino’s film was finally, but decisively, un-American” (7). For indeed Forrest Gump seems to be a celebratory rewriting of the American dream, where anyone can succeed - even an absolute idiot. David Lavery for his part is very caustic about the reasons for the numerous changes induced by Forrest’s migration from novel to screen: “virtually every decision made in altering Winston's Groom's novel for the screen”, he says,
from Forrest's heroic (and very cinematic) overcoming of his childhood handicap, to his very un-90s moral uprightness, to his Hallmark Greeting Card good son persona, to his politically correct and southern stereotype-defying friendship with an African American, to his disease-of-the-week-genre inspirational influence on the courageously handicapped (but not deformed) Lieutenant Dan, to the Love Story death of the sympathetically child-abused Jenny, to Forrest's "new male" single-fathering--can be seen in retrospect as a kind of self-censorship-for-profit reconceptualizing of a Candide-like novel, appropriate to the era of the death of irony (6).
24Even if his comparison of the novel’s eponymous hero with Voltaire’s Candide seems to be somewhat far-fetched, Lavery’s concluding observation is, it seems to me, quite to the point. The ironical and even satirical tone of the book has been totally eliminated in the filmic version and replaced by a form of gentle humour. The fact that in November 2011 the Library of Congress selected Forrest Gump along with twenty-four other films to be preserved as “cultural, artistic and historical treasures” in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress has undoubtedly comforted many critics in their opinion that the filmic Forrest, contrary to his novel counterpart, is indeed the ideal American.