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Book reviews



Forrest Gump: the book of the movie

Category:Fiction; Movies

Bibliographic details: Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom.
London: Black Swan, 1994
ISBN 0-552-99609-2



REMEMBER the 'book of the movie' genre? In those pre-digital, pre-video days of '50s and '60s, there was a whole literary sub-industry dedicated to rendering the plots of blockbuster movies into spin-off novels. In my library I have a couple of dozen such efforts, varying in quality from reasonable reads to tacky transcriptions from celluloid to print by primitive cliche-driven hacks.

Having recently seen the film 'Forrest Gump' and noted that it was based on a novel by Winston Groom, I was interested to compare the mega-popular movie with its literary roots. So I asked my friendly local bookseller for a copy and, with the outstanding 'Gump' soundtrack CD playing, I devoured the novel in a single sitting. It's a fascinating exercise because the divergence from print plot to screenplay is vast.

Director Robert Zemeckis, producer Wendy Fineman and screenwriter Eric Roth seem to have fallen in love with the Forrest Gump character and then totally rewritten huge chunks of the Winston Groom novel plot line to give themselves maximum opportunities to exploit the devise 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. It's the movie's best trick and, no doubt, other directors will by dying to try it. I recently read of a movie being made starring Humphrey Bogart, resurrected via digitised and manipulated images from his old movies. Apparently the Bogart estate did give permission.

However, I wonder what Groom thought of what has been done to his novel in the name of cinematic innovation. I hope he gets fabulously rich off the proceeds of the film rights and rejuventated book sales. The novel is copyright 1986; the Black Swan edition was published last year as an obvious movie tie-

Seeing the film before reading the book sets you up for some surprises - until you realise that in the case of 'Forrest Gump', Hollywood has done what it is best at: pulling out all the visual stops and playing up the sentimental end of the emotional scale to the brink of cloying. The element that saves it is the humour and the whimsical wisdom of a self-confessed IQ-70 idiot.

At least in this, the movie is faithful to the book. The early chapters are so funny that I had members of my family coming from the other end of the house to find out what I found so hysterical.

Basically, Groom uses the same device as Mark Twain in 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' - a first-person narrator who is at once seemingly naive and acutely sussed. Hence there is great irony in Gump's many triumphs against the odds. In this rewriting of the American dream, anyone can succeed - even an absolute idiot.

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. In the book, Gump does save a bunch of his buddies in the jungles of 'Nam, but Lieutenant Dan is not among them - in fact, he meets him in hospital while recovering from being shot in the 'butt-ocks'. In the book, Gump's shrimp-farming venture is done in ponds - terribly uncinematic, so the movie makes it a sea-based enterprise, complete with a dramatic storm. Also there is no mention in the book of Gump's mindless running across America - another opportunity for wide-screen extravaganzas.

However, Eric Roth's screenplay also omits large chunks of the novel plot, including:

* Gump's career as an all-in wrestler, The Dunce.

* His part in the NASA space programme - shot into space with a woman and an urang-utan, he lands up crashing in Papua New Guinea, where he and his fellow astronauts are held captive for four years by cannibals. The ape, a male called Sue, becomes a life-long companion and a partner in the shrimp farm. Truly silly stuff.

* A brief career as a chess professional.

* His Hollywood acting career as The Creature from the Black Lagoon and a really silly romp with a naked Raquel Welch, who nobody recognises because she's just like any other bimbo.

What the movies also leaves out which is quite significant is the fact that Gump is an idiot savant, a mathematical genius with an IQ of 70 - hence his part in the NASA program as a human back-up to the space capsule's back-up computer, and his ability as an advanced chess player. Perhaps that got cut from the profile because it would be seen as too similar to 'Rain Man'.

The movie also sanitizes certain aspects of Gump that might offend typical 'feelgood' moviegoers: in the novel, while playing harmonica in a folk-rock group with his love Jenny, he does smoke dope - and unlike Bill Clinton he does inhale. In fact, for a while he is a totally stoned vegetable head. And his relationship with Jenny is much more physical than the overly romantic movie scenario. Indeed, their first sexual encounter is far too wild for PG movie ratings - 'Well, we done all sorts of things that afternoon that I never even dreamt of in my wildest imagination. Jenny shown me shit I never could have figgered out on my own - sidewise, crosswise, upside down, bottomwise, lengthwise, dogwise, standin up, settin down, bendin over, leanin back, inside out and outside in - only way we didn't try it was apart! We rolled all over the livin room an into the kitchen - stove in the furniture, knocked shit over, pulled down drapes, mussed up the rug and even turned the TV set on by accident. Wound up doin it in the sink, but don't axe me how. When we is finally finished, Jenny jus lie there a while, an then she look at me an say, 'Goddam Forrest, where is you been all my life?'

'I been aroun,' I says.'

It is those idiot-savant asides of Gump's that make the novel character so endearing.

However, some of the sillier events - the four years with the cannibals and the wrestling career - do go on too long.

Two aspects that the movie adds to the character of Jenny are most interesting - but unfortunately they are also somewhat downplayed and undervalued in the feelgood treatment. She is the victim of an abusive father, and then she returns to her hometown, she visits the derelict shack where she suffered his unwelcome attention. In a fury she throws stones at the shack, again and again until she collapses on the ground. As Gump comforts her he remarks: 'Sometimes there just ain't enough stones.' It's a very eloquent commentary on the anger that may well up in a survivor of childhood abuse decades later. Her self-destructive behaviour and weakness for abusive relationships is a logical consequence of that abusive past.

Gump is the faithful lover to whom she finally returns with their child and the knowledge she is dying. Although the word AIDS is never mentioned, it is strongly implied as the cause of her demise.

These two aspects add dramatic weight to the character and the movie, even if they are underplayed. In fact, this is where the movie scores over the novel, which kind of peters out without reaching a suitably cathartic moment.

So, although I find some of the more saccharine romantic elements in the movie just a bit too gooey, those responsible for the transformation of novel into screenplay and six-Oscar movie have taken the best elements from Groom's quirky but slightly flawed novel, and turned it into a memorable new cultural icon for the toxic, cynical '90s. Forrest Gump is the dumb nice guy who, like Huckleberry Finn, has learnt the lesson of compassion for those less fortunate than himself. He knows how to give without expectation of receiving.

Quite a welcome change from the icons of the '80s and '90s - the likes of Rambo, Madonna and Michael Jackson.

Review by Giles Hugo