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. Continue reading


History Quotes

A historiography course that I took got into a habit of discussing whether a given historian thought a period was dark or light. It was meant as a sort of informal check on the historians’ general views, so we never defined precisely what being dark or light involved. This led to some rather interesting discussions…

On which period E.H. Norman thinks is darker, Meiji or Tokugawa:
“Which is darker?” – Prof. D-
“What colour is Meiji?” – ibid.
“I think it’s… dark blue?” – student’s response

“Could we throw the same question at Frank? Not to put you on the spot, but [what about Prof. Karen Wigen]? – N-
“So, darkness or light? That’s not really a colour question, but a question of… tone?” – Prof. D-
“Gradation, yeah.” – N-

That class had a number of fun discussions, which, of course, led to some more fun quotes. At one point, the professor talked about historians’ tendency to make any work on pre-World War Japanese history lead up to the war, even if the topic was completely unrelated to it. He praised that day’s reading for not following that tendency, only to be immediately contradicted by the students. We pointed out to the section at the end which clearly discussed WWII, and after some thought, he came out with:
“Yeah… This is, uh… an unfortunate two pages, here… ” – Prof. D-

On grad students’ concept of concise writing:
“I want to say that he has a paper circulating online. It’s very short – only 26 pages.” – S-

On giving fair warning:
“My next question is about Professor D-” – J-
About Professor D-?” – Prof. D-
“Yes.” – J-

Fair warning, part II:
“Yeah, you said something about your grade suffering; that was a good – uh, I mean… ” – Prof. D-

A non-native speaker having trouble with English:
“He doesn’t like the term transnational history. He thinks it’s misleading. He prefers, um… eternal history.” – Z-
“Eternal?!?” – Everyone
“Etern-, uh, itern, uhm, itin… ” – Z-
“Itinerant?” – Prof. D-, the mind reader
“Yeah, itinerant history.” – Z-

And a native speaker having trouble with English:
“It’s kind of like if you consider the history of war as groping.” – J-
“Groping?” – Prof. D-
“Yeah.” – J-
“Do you mean grouping?” – Prof. D-
“No – groping.” – J-
“Let’s not do that… ” – Prof. D-

And a random quote from another class:
“It’s the Hitler-liked-dogs theory.” – M-

More history lessons, wrapped in a spoilerific discussion of Gilgamesh

Don’t read this if you don’t want to know how the anime Gilgamesh ends.

There is a relatively unknown anime called Gilgamesh that I like. I bought it way back when (okay, only a few years ago), but I just wasn’t getting around to the end of it. Over the mass of holiday days (off work, that is) around Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s I finally got up the necessary impetus to finish it off in an orgy of about twelve episodes over a long weekend. I know that that doesn’t sound that hard – I mean, I’ve seen twelve episodes of different things in single days, and then gone back for more – but this series has a few things working against marathon viewing. For one thing, it’s bleak. The ending of the series is “gather the main dozen-or-so characters in one place, kill them off one by one except for the last two, then bring on the apocalypse”. Seriously, that is an exact description of it. The rest of the series, well, is in line with the ending.

The other factor against watching this one in marathons is the animation. They either put a lot of money into it, or not much at all, and I honestly can’t tell. At first I thought it was rather well funded, but when I started marathoning the end, I was struck by what looked like cheap animation. Did they run out after spending most of their budget on the earlier episodes? Was mediocre animation covered by cool character/world designs from the start? Was I just rushing to the point where everything became a blur in my eyes? All are equally possible.

I finished the series a few weeks ago now, but it still haunts my mind. I had trouble figuring out why, until I finally made the connection with history/the past. One of the things that attracts me most about anime is the way it serves as a sort of gateway drug for students. You like the cartoons? You would understand them better if you spoke Japanese. You adore Rurouni Kenshin but have no idea who these ishin shishi and shinsengumi are? Why not try a little history? That’s how I got into it all, and even the most casual fans are often interested in hearing someone explain juuuust a bit of Japanese language/culture/history/et cetera if it makes them understand their favorite series more.

So, what’s the connection with Gilgamesh? Gilgamesh takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. (I know – I said that the show ends with an apocalypse. It does; there are TWO apocalypses. As I said, it’s dark.) We find out the reason for the apocalypse in the last episode, and it is…

A woman’s jealousy.


We can call down apocalypses now.

(You know, for all that I’m outraged as a feminist, I’m rather attracted by the thought of having that power. Perhaps it’s for the best that this is a load of hogwash.)

Anyway, when I first heard this, I was appalled. I mean, seriously!?! In this day and age, we’re supposed to believe that a brilliant, beautiful young scientist can be so consumed with suppressed jealousy that it takes on a life of its own and destroys most of the world? And then goes on, some years later, to destroy the rest of it? Naaah, I don’t think so.

But then I got to thinking. That’s what we scholars are supposed to do, and it shouldn’t have taken me so long, but there you go. Woman+jealousy=death. Where have I heard that before? Lady Rokujou, perhaps? Tale of Genji, anyone?

In the Tale of Genji, Lady Rokujou becomes so jealous of Genji’s other women that her spirit leaves her body – without Lady Rokujou’s knowing – and kills one of them. The other woman in question is below Genji, class-wise. This parallels Gilgamesh fairly closely. The Countess (Lady R-) becomes jealous of the brilliant Terumichi Madoka’s wife. In this case, class isn’t the issue so much as intelligence. Both the Countess and Madoka are brilliant scientists, the wife is simply a sweet girl – a photographer. In addition, though I said earlier that the Countess’ spirit causes the apocalypses, it’s more complicated. The Countess’ jealous spirit enters into and then is embodied by an ancient power called Tear. The Countess knows nothing of this for years afterward. So you could say that the Countess’ spirit went wandering just like Lady Rokujou’s.

I’m not really sure what to do with this, though. So the story riffs on the preeminent work of classical Japanese fiction, so what? It’s still horribly sexist. But this one bit of history gives us a handle on the rest of the series.

Leave out the ending; simply consider the rest of the series. Do bad things happen to women? Yes. Do bad things happen to men? Yes. Are they comparable? Often, or at least that appears to be the intention. (I’m thinking here of some characters’ issues with finding out that they are clones. Wouldn’t bother me, but it was presented as horribly scarring to those characters.) And there appears to have been some editing. From the copious material that came with my DVD’s, I learned that one scene was originally intended to be a rape scene. I also learned that that episode was given to a female director and suddenly it was consensual sex. That’s not definitive proof of anything, but I’ll still cheer a little for involving women in the industry at decision-making levels.

There’s also the issue of history/legends in the story overall. As you might guess from the title, Gilgamesh is a new take on the legend of Gilgamesh. The legend of Gilgamesh doesn’t have female characters that I know of, but Gilgamesh has them in spades, and in important positions too. The anime isn’t a direct take on the legend, but builds off of it. So I can see tying the question of arrogance in Gilgamesh to the issue of jealousy in Gilgamesh. After all, what is jealousy if not the arrogance to argue that you are better for your beloved than anyone else? The past runs through Gilgamesh like water in Kyoto. Understand that past and new meanings open up for you. But I don’t think that that denies the previous meanings; jealous-women-end-the-world just doesn’t sound right to me.