Fried Green Tomatoes (at the Whistle Stop Cafe?): Adaptation

Sorry for the long delay in posts – something great is going on IRL that I will be able to mention shortly.  In the meantime, an overdue post on a book and its film, with spoilers.

Evelyn and Ninny, Idgie and Ruth

As (I think) I’ve written before, I am interested in adapting works – manga to anime, for example.  Awhile ago I saw the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, which is adapted from the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.  Now, I saw it for a reason which is, ultimately, unrelated to why I like it so much. Well, tangentially related.  Every so often I see an actress or actor in something and just suddenly realize that whoa, s/he is goodNCIS: Los Angeles spurred that realization for me where Chris O’Donnell is concerned.  (Stay with me, I am going somewhere.)  In NCIS: LA, O’Donnell plays an undercover federal agent who is supposed to be one of the best.  As such, the show often features him, in particular, suddenly changing his character, onscreen, while O’Donnell himself is already in character.  It’s impressive to watch.

Okay, so I was inspired to hunt down a bunch of O’Donnell’s previous works.  Fried Green Tomatoes was one of the first ones I found (many thanks to my local library and IMDB).  It’s one of those insta-classic films, like A League of Their Own, that you watch and pretty much immediately know you want to own.  Not because it has Avatar‘s special effects, or Saving Private Ryan‘s gut-wrenching realism, but because you see yourself sitting down to it on a lazy summer evening some years down the road.  You need good acting for that sort of impact, but what I didn’t realize when I rented the movie was that O’Donnell’s character dies shortly into the film, after perhaps two minutes on screen.  Oh well, those were a good two minutes.  (The following minutes were all sorts of confusing, because I had rented the movie for O’Donnell, so they couldn’t have actually just killed him off, right?  Right??  … No.)

Anyway, I liked the movie and found it interesting enough that I returned to the library for the book.  Which I also liked, for totally different reasons.  Which I also found interesting, for totally different reasons.  Okay, to be honest, practically the only attraction the two shared was the Southern accent.  In the intervening months, I’ve thought off and on about how the book was adapted, why and to what effect, and now I’m going to share a bit of what I’ve observed.  A lot of the differences lie in little details, so the next two paragraphs will be relatively long descriptions of the two properties.  If you’ve seen/read them, the jump should take you straight to the analysis.

I saw the movie first, so I’ll start with that.  Fried Green Tomatoes is the twinned story of two pairs of women, Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison, in between-the-(World)-wars Alabama, and Evelyn Couch and Ninny Threadgoode in the mid-1980’s in the same area.  The movie opens with the middle-age Evelyn meeting Ninny, an elderly woman residing at the same nursing home as Evelyn’s cantankerous mother-in-law.  Evelyn and Ninny become solid friends over the course of the film, with Ninny encouraging Evelyn to turn her boring life around and Evelyn eventually inviting Ninny home to live with herself and her husband.  This turnaround involves Evelyn’s becoming a successful Mary Kay saleswoman, taking hormones for menopause, exercising, dieting and generally standing up for herself.  In part, Ninny encourages Evelyn by telling her stories about the tumultuous lives of Idgie and Ruth, which we see as flashbacks.  Idgie was incredibly attached to her brother Buddy as a child, so it deeply changed her when he (O’Donnell) died in a train accident.  She runs wild for a few years, until Ruth (depicted as Buddy’s girlfriend) is roped into trying to reform her one summer.  Things go well for awhile, but at the end of the summer Ruth marries, and Idgie returns to running wild.  Unfortunately Ruth’s husband beats her, and she eventually returns to Idgie.  They set up a household in town, and start to raise Ruth’s son, Buddy, Jr., together.  All goes well until Frank Bennett’s car is found in the river sans Frank Bennett.  Idgie and a black family employee named Big George are taken to Georgia (the husband’s home) to be tried for the crime, and it looks bad until a preacher perjures himself to get them both off.  They return to town; Buddy, Jr. loses his arm in his own train accident; Ruth dies of cancer.  There are grounds to think that Ninny is actually the elderly Idgie, and we later hear that Big George’s mother killed Frank Bennett while he was trying to kidnap Buddy, Jr., and Big George cooked the body and served it to the locals via the cafe.

Ooookay.  The book follows that general structure – scenes of Evelyn and Ninny interspersed with scenes from earlier on – but encompasses much, much more.  The movie is increeeedibly simplified in a variety of ways, and the reasoning behind that is clear.  In addition to the stories of Idgie, Ruth, Evelyn and Ninny, the book includes an awful lot about Big George’s family: his mother (who we find out adopted him), his wife, their kids and even their grandchildren.  Big George and his mother are prominent in the film, but the family as a whole is covered about evenly with Idgie and Ruth in the book.

Idgie, Ruth and Buddy

Aside from that family, Buddy Threadgoode’s story was also simplified rather a lot, as was his impact on Idgie or the reflection of him that you can see in Idgie.  In the film, Buddy is portrayed as the perfect son, a bit of a rascal and a horrible flirt, but ultimately a good boy who is devoted to Ruth.  In the book he is more complicated.  He and Ruth do not have a relationship – he never even meets her.  Instead, he has a long-running, serious and somewhat scandalous relationship with a woman called Eva Bates, a loose woman from a lower class who is devoted to him – and is later devoted to Idgie and then Buddy, Jr.  She doesn’t show up in the film.  The book has many sections about hobos and hobo life, and excerpts from various newspapers and newsletters that illuminate life in that time and place.  Finally, the book goes into more detail about Frank Bennett’s character – namely, in addition to beating Ruth, he also impregnated and beat a number of women in his own town, which helped convince a judge to sweep his maybe-murder under the rug.  As for the contemporary sections of the book, we mostly learn more about Evelyn’s trials and tribulations, including her time at a fat farm.  Ninny is clearly not the elderly Idgie, whom a short chapter shows selling honey at a roadside stand, and she dies at the end.

Summaries over, let’s move on to some analysis.  Both book and movie heavily hint that Idgie and Ruth are more than friends, though neither explicitly says they’re lesbians.  Both works show women throughout their lives – starting with a young (pre-pubescent) Idgie, moving through the young adult and adult Idgie and Ruth (among others), checking in with the menopausal Evelyn and working up to the elderly Idgie/Ninny.  Through the ties between all of the characters (all in or related to the Threadgoode family in some way), the locations and the long expanse of time covered (about 70 years), both book and movie have change and continuity in the American South across the 20th century as a theme.  However, the movie’s emphasis is more specific than the book’s.  The book equates the Threadgoode family with the town of Whistle Stop, and then launches the Threadgoodes on a slow, steady decline while showing us the rise of the cities.  Flagg tells us how wonderful Momma, Poppa and Buddy Threadgoode are early on, and then continues to mention it throughout the book through an assortment of characters.  Momma and Poppa are pillars of the community, owning a beautiful house, running the only general store, et cetera.  Meanwhile Buddy is the charming rascal who has all the girls a-flutter, when he isn’t working at his father’s store.  The stage is set for Buddy to grow up into the next Poppa Threadgoode, but the general store is forced to close, and then Buddy dies, and then Poppa, until finally Momma dies and the beautiful Threadgoode house is left empty and decaying, mirroring the decay of Whistle Stop itself.

We’re seeing the decline of the genteel, small-town South which Flagg glamourized for us early in the book, and it is replaced by big cities with whirling parties, black girls who try passing and end up having to deny knowing their own uncles, black men getting thrown in jail for attempted murder because they saved dogs from dogcatchers and so on.  Meanwhile, small-town Whistle Stop is becoming lonelier and lonelier with the exit of the trains and the depletion of the Threadgoode ranks.  In the midst of its decline, proud Threadgoode scion Idgie risks getting jailed to help save Big George from being executed for murdering Frank Bennett.  It’s clearly stated that Big George, as a black man, wouldn’t have stood a chance at trial if Idgie hadn’t voluntarily taken on the risk of the trial as well.  She is depicted as – in her own, wild way – taking over for Momma and Poppa Threadgoode.  She runs the cafe in place of their general store; she feeds hobos and black people where her father ignored others’ debts to the store; and she takes the (moral) stand for Big George as her parents were looked to in the past.  At the same time, she takes after her brother Buddy, even going so far as to have a relationship with his lover.  When Whistle Stop is finally too run down, too decayed, we get a little vignette of Idgie selling honey at a roadside stand in some other part of the South.  The book ends with Ninny – Evelyn’s connection to Whistle Stop and its people – dead and the last head of the Threadgoode family gone.  Evelyn, however, has begun a new life for herself.

The movie changes this up a bit.  In the flashback scenes, we only see Whistle Stop and Frank Bennett’s Georgia hometown.  Since the city scenes largely focused on Big George’s family and a male hobo, they were heavily tilted towards depictions of racism, the black community and ostracism.  Those themes – which became stronger as the book went on – are largely absent in the film.  Additionally, the two characters who operated the most in the cities were both men.  When they were removed from the film, it became much more tilted towards depicting women’s lives, rather than the story of an area or way of life.

Cutting these characters, or shortening their roles in some cases, is necessary.  One of the book’s strongest points is its skilled characterization of a huge cast, but you simply can’t do as much characterization in two hours as you can in 400 pages.  Consequently, a lot of the changes from book to film are clearly character based.  To adapt the book, Jon Avnet (the director and uncredited co-writer) chose to try to carry over the level of skill in characterization that Flagg’s novel possessed by limiting the number of characters focused on, as opposed to trying to encompass the entire cast of the book without focusing too hard on any of them.  There were other options as well.  He might have focused on the Evelyn and Ninny story or centered the film on the town of Whistle Stop.

Personally, I think the decision to focus on the characters turns out well, and maintains more of the themes of the book than the other options would.  The cutting of Buddy’s role, for example, is done quite neatly.  Eva Bates, Buddy’s lover, doesn’t show up in the film at all.  While the book included several sly references to Buddy – Idgie’s continued friendship with Eva and some of her hobbies, as well as Ninny’s repeated musings on how great he was – the film references him rather well.  Ruth Jamison is introduced early and plays both her original role and Buddy’s one true love.  There are also a handful of jokes that are attributed to Buddy which Idgie repeats at different points, showing how his effect on her lasts throughout her life.  The movie seems to emphasize Buddy more than the book, actually, which suggests the theme of the death of Whistle Stop.

At the same time, these changes lead to one of the criticisms of the film, that the characters were polarized: all good or all bad.  Granted, there is a bit of that going on in the book (see Momma and Poppa Threadgoode), but it is far more distinct in the movie.  We don’t see Buddy taking his sister to a rowdy bar as a child so that he can sleep with his girlfriend in the film, for instance.  Instead, he’s a flirt who, it is said, is ultimately devoted to Sunday school teacher Ruth Jamison.  At least one change didn’t revolve around time constraints, however.  The character of Grady Kilgore, the local sheriff, is a genial Ku Klux Klan member who sticks up for African-Americans (sort of, without really wanting to, exactly) in the book, but he is given an opportunity to clearly declare himself not a Klan member in the movie.

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So what can one take away from all these details?  The book had to be simplified in some way to fit the movie medium.  Avnet chose to cut out a large number of characters and focus on four main women.  Where the book ends on a rather sad note with the death of Whistle Stop, the film suggests continued improvements in the lives of both Evelyn and Ninny, and hints that Ninny herself may be Idgie, the unconquerable, indomitable Idgie.  By hinting that Ninny might be Idgie, the film also ends by suggesting an optimistic circle of life.  In both book and film, Evelyn continues to become a stronger, more assertive and happy woman.  At the last moment, though, the film suggests that it was Idgie, in the shape of Ninny, who inspired Evelyn to change.  In the flashback sequences, Idgie often referenced Buddy through her own actions (using his jokes, for example), but Ninny’s only references to Buddy were to acknowledge how great he was.  If Ninny is Idgie, then she is an Idgie who has finally grown beyond her attachment to Buddy, and she can now help people without taking refuge in her dead brother’s influence.  In a way, the shadow of Buddy’s death which hung over Ruth and Idgie’s relationship – Ruth’s abusive marriage, Buddy, Jr.’s train accident – is expunged by the passage of time.  As the town of Whistle Stop died, its children spread, and the energy and wellbeing found in the old Whistle Stop was transmitted to people like Evelyn.  To underscore this idea, the sections on Evelyn’s path to happiness where she acts downright psychotic are toned down or cut.  In this way, the film manages to present a cohesive story despite significantly cutting down the source material.

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