Big Fish Book vs Movie Review

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallce (1998)

Big Fish directed by Tim Burton (2003)

This subscriber pick was suggested by John Oliveria!

Both book and movie follow Edward Bloom, a man who has gone on many adventures in life (certain aspects reminded me a lot of Forrest Gump). Through the story we hear about his experiences, but it is told in flashback as Edward is now an old man and dying and his only child, his son William, is caring for him and trying to get to know his father while he has the chance.

Edward’s adventures

Like the Forrest Gump adaptation, this movie took the book premise, and while it kept certain stories the same, most of them have been changed. In both we see him befriend the town giant who has been cast out from the town. In the book, he gets him integrated back into the town whereas in the movie, he suggests the giant join him in his travels to a bigger city. We also see him rescue a woman in a lake from getting bit by a snake, only to then see that it was a tree branch.

He also is in a town that tries to keep him there and prevent him from living out his larger-than-life dreams, though in the book this is a town that anyone who tries to leave their hometown has to pass through. The way they decide if you are allowed to leave or have to stay, is whether the town dog allows you to leave. If he decides you have to stay, he will bite off a finger each time you try and leave, this leaves everyone in the town missing at least one finger. Edward though is given permission by this dog to carry on his way.

I did find this part of the book really compelling, there is part where Edward point out how damp the town is and we read,

“You get used to it,” he said.
“That’s what this place is all about, Edward. Getting used to things.” “It’s not what I want,” he said. “That, too,”
he said. “You get used to that, too.”

It made me think of how we have dreams and aspirations, and when they don’t pan out we either keep trying, or we choose to just “get used to it”.

In the movie goes a different route with this part of the story. This town is called Specter and everyone has taken their shoes off and have them hung up in the town. This isn’t a town Edward had to pass through in order to leave, but one he ends up walking through after he takes a scary wooded route rather than the standard road.

They take Edwards shoes and try and lure him into staying by showing how perfet life here is, but he is able to resist the temptation to stay and leaves. In the movie he comes across a town poet who had left to travel the world but turns out he has been in Specter all of this time. He is played by Steve Buscemi and his scenes were fantastic. There is a young girl in Specter named Jenny and she makes William promise to one day return.

Later in life he does come back, but Specter is in ruins. Edward buys the town and brings it back to its former glory. He sees Jenny who is grown up, and he helps improve her home. She is in love with him, but he is married by this time and tells her they can never be. Jenny then becomes a witch with a glass eye that Edward had seen when he was a boy, bringing the story full circle.

There is a Specter in the book, but he comes across it later in life and he falls in love with it. He buys the town bit by bit, and after a few years, he now owns all of it. He will come and stay and random times and stay at whoever’s house he chooses. Then one day someone mentions to him that there is a girl who lives in a house on a swamp and he doesn’t own her land. He goes to see her and as in the movie, she doesn’t want to sell him the house and doesn’t see the point.

However, they end up falling in love and he moves her into the house he has in town. Whenever he comes to visit, he stays with her and they are seen as this romantic love story. But he is often gone, and so Jenny eventually falls into a depression due to the man she loves being away 99% of the time. The house eventually falls into disarray, and the swamp grows around it yet again. After this, when Edward visits, he will call out to her but she stays in the house and won’t come out.

We also have the woman with the glass eye in both book and movie, but in the book, there are a group of boys/men who keep the eye and pass it around as part of this special club in a way. She asks Edward to get her eye back from them, so Edward joins the club and when it is his turn to guard the eye, he gives it back to her.

Sandra

In both, he meets a woman who he falls in love with but she is already dating someone else, and it happens to be someone from his childhood.

In the movie, he gets a job at a circus and over three years learns more and more about her through his boss (who he finds out it a werewolf). He eventually finally talks to her and is able to woo her with his charms.

In the book, he is out with her when the other guy shows up and they are in car chase, which leads to a fist fight. Here too, she ends up choosing Edward.

The movie makes more of this romance. In the book, he wasn’t the type to be tied down in anyway. So even though he fell hard for her, he gets restless feet before long and he just isn’t around much. The book reads, “It was different with women, they were made to raise a family, they had the attention span for it. Men had to go out of the house and work, that’s the way it had always been, from the time of the hunter-gatherers it was so and still was today. Men were torn in this way; they had to be two people, one at home and another away, while a mother had to be but one.” I don’t know if this is the author’s opinion or Edward Bloom’s, but it is definitely a sexist way to think about things!

He even has that side romance with the woman in Specter in the book, whereas in the movie he stays true to Sandra and his love for her is a stronger force in his life. In the book, when Jenny has stopped seeing him, William says that whenever his dad would return home to them, he would be sad and tired and not have much to say to them.

The father/son relationship

In the movie, the son has a wife who is expecting their first child. They both go to see his parents during his father’s last days. In the book, it is just him.

In both, he feels he doesn’t know his father because one, when he was young, he wasn’t around a ton. But also because the father is always telling big fish stories and in the book he is also constantly telling jokes. When he is about to ask his father about something more serious, we read, “I stop myself. There’s an unspoken rule in my family that it’s best not to talk religion or politics with my father. When the subject is religion he won’t talk at all, and when it’s politics he won’t stop talking. The truth is, most things are hard to talk about with him. By that I mean the essence of things, the important things, the things that matter. Somehow it’s just too hard for him, and maybe a bit dicey, a chore for this very intelligent man who has forgotten more facts about geography and math and history than I’ve ever learned…”

When the son confronts him about how he doesn’t know what his father thinks of life after death, and that even if Edward doesn’t have any concrete ideas he would still like to know, Edward tells him, “…if I shared my doubts with you, about God and love and life and death, that’s all you’d have: a bunch of doubts. But now, see, you’ve got all these great jokes.”

The father in the book was kind of driving me crazy the way he couldn’t give a straight answer to be honest. In the movie he was a bit less annoying though, maybe because they to rid of him always telling jokes. We also got to see William’s wife interact with him, which was an addition the movie made.

The ending

Throughout the book, his dad has been going in the pool everyday despite having weird lesions on his skin. He eventually ends up in the hospital and William realizes this his dad is transforming to a fish. He drives him to a lake where he releases his father to swim away, and that is how the book ends. William telling a big fish story of his own, rather than telling the true version of his father’s death.

In the movie, he is in the hospital when Edward asks his son to tell him a story of the river. William then makes up the story of Edward turning into a fish, and how everyone from his stories are there at the river as William takes Edward into the water. His father then dies in real life, and at the funeral everyone from his stories is there-showing his stories had more truth than William gave him credit for.

We then get a final scene with William and his son who is now like 8 years old or so, and the son is telling his friends one of the stories that Edward would tell William. He calls out to his dad to see if he is telling the story correctly and in voiceover William says, “A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and that way he becomes immortal.” I loved this final scene with William and his own son, it even made me a little teary eyed! Seeing William embrace who is father was, and telling the stories to his own son, and seeing the son tell his own friends. And the detail of the son calling to his dad to check the details, ugh, part of me can’t even pinpoint why exactly I loved that moment so much, but I did. Even just thinking about it gets me warm and fuzzy.

Storytelling

Another book vs movie I have doesn’t that this reminded me of is Life of Pi because both are about storytelling. There is a story in the movie Big Fish that Edward is always telling about how he caught this giant fish the day William was born. William hates this story, and in a scene near the end the family doctor says, want to know about the day you were born? Your dad was out of town for work and wasn’t there for your birth, but considering husbands weren’t in the delivery rooms back then, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference whether he was he. He then tells William, “Not very exciting, is it? And I suppose if I had to choose between the true version and an elaborate one…I might choose the fancy version. But that’s just me.” But William replies saying he liked the doctor’s version.

We see that the boring reality isn’t good enough for Edward, just like living a “boring”, average life was never good enough for him. You can see why he wants to dress things up and exaggerate or tell straight up lies about his life. But I personally side with William, I would rather know the reality, but once you know the reality, you can be more open about different interpretations as time goes on. William has been hearing crazy stories all of his life, that the boring story is now the better one. But again, in the end he comes around and tells his own son Edward’s stories. However, I am sure that William tried to have a more honest relationship with his own son still.

There is a scene in the book when Edward tells William about a dream where everyone from his life is outside of his house, hanging out, setting up tents and what have you, in honor of Edward. However, Sandra is stressed by all of these people and asks William to tell them to leave. One of the men says to William, “See,” the old man said. “We all have stories, just as you do. Ways in which he touched us, helped us, gave us jobs, lent us money, sold it to us wholesale. Lots of stories, big and small. They all add up. Over a lifetime it all adds up. That’s why we’re here, William. We’re a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us. You still don’t understand, do you?”

This is Edward’s dream and seems to reflect that storytelling and jokes is who Edward is, and yet his son doesn’t accept that and wants him to be someone else. I know I am contradicting myself, saying Edward should be more vulnerable and open with his son, yet at the same time, William needed to accept that his father was who he was and not expect him to be something else.

Being a good person

As Edward is dying in the book, more than once he brings up the topic of whether or not he was a good person. William tells Edward what he thinks it means to be a great man, ‘“I think,” I say after a while, waiting for the right words to come, “that if a man could be said to be loved by his son, then I think that man could be considered great.” For this is the only power I have, to bestow upon my father the mantle of greatness, a thing he sought in the wider world, but one that, in a surprise turn of events, was here at home all along.’

Edward kept going into the world, needing to do one grand thing after another (whether they were things he really had done, or just stories he made up) because that is how he believed someone would be remembered as being great. But if you are great in the eyes of the world, and yet neglect your own family-are you truly great?

Book vs Movie

The movie is the happier version of the two-Edward is more committed to Sandra, we also got moments between the two as the elderly couple which showed their love, in the end we see that Edward was more truthful than William realized, we also have that final scene at the end. Hollywood tends to make characters more likeable so I wasn’t surprised by the changes. Most moviegoers want a main character who is clearly good and not feel conflicted about whether or not we should like them. While I am not totally sure how I feel about them making Edward’s stories true, the other changes I am neutral on.

I honestly feel like both of these are kind of middle of the road stories. I guess I will say the movie wins, but even so, I don’t see myself rewatching this any time soon. But we do get great performances and there are a lot of fantastical moments that are fun to watch, as well as some tender scenes.

Adaptations

The book I read had an interview with the author in the end which was done after the movie was made. I thought he made some good points about the adaptation process and when asked if he was sad about things from the book that didn’t make it into the movie he said, “…this is a necessary and welcome difference. A dogmatic adherence to a novel’s narrative is the death knell for a movie; each form does things the other can’t, and a writer who doesn’t figure out what those differences are will be stuck doing neither well… I don’t think of the adaptation process as one in which anything is sacrificed any more than when my jeans are sacrificed for Bermuda shorts on a hot day.”