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.
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 good. NCIS: 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.
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. Continue reading