Book Vs. Film: The Graduate

Book Vs. Film: The Graduate

 

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

 

Book: The Graduate, Charles Webb, 1963

Film: The Graduate, adapted by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, directed by Mike Nichols, 1967

So it's like this… If you happen to grow up with a Christian mom who likes to sing, is named "Mrs. Robinson," and got married in the '60s when the film The Graduate was all the rage, you're going to get exposed to the film's famous title song, Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson," early and often. (It helps that the film leaves out the caustic verses, which makes it sound like Mrs. Robinson is probably in some sort of asylum. Whereas the bouncy chorus is just about how Jesus loves her, and how "heaven holds a place for those who pray." My mom spontaneously sang the chorus a lot when we were growing up, usually just after someone referred to her as Mrs. Robinson.)

With that kind of family connection–and the fact that The Graduate was an era-defining film for my mother's generation, what with its shocking nudity and sexual frankness, not to mention its channeling of late-'60s social confusion and malaise–I wound up watching The Graduate for the first time very early in life, long before I had any basis for understanding of its wry, nihilistic tone, much less why that lady was taking off her stockings while that man watched. And I've seen it a number of times since; its importance in American cinema make it hard for a film major to avoid. And yet somehow, I didn't actually find out that it was based on a novel until this year. Maybe that's because of my astounding cultural ignorance, but I'm going to take the self-serving route and suggest that instead, it's largely because the film has completely overshadowed the book. And honestly? With good reason.

The story is essentially the same in both versions. Upper-class WASP Benjamin Braddock comes home from college as an award-winning success, and realizes it means nothing to him. He doesn't want success or recognition because it's all purposeless. The problem is, he has no idea what he does want. In his boredom and frustration, he lets a married neighbor, Mrs. Robinson, bully and tease him into a sexual liaison, which stretches into an affair that lasts throughout the summer. He doesn't like her, and he doesn't like himself for sleeping with her, but again, he has no idea what he wants instead. Eventually, he decides that what he really wants is her daughter, Elaine, a sweet and kind of vapid girl his own age–which is a problem, since he's done his best to alienate and disgust Elaine so his parents will stop bugging him to date her, and Mrs. Robinson will stop ordering him to avoid her. In the end, Benjamin breaks up Elaine's wedding to another upper-class WASP whom she doesn't love but whom her parents approve of, and the two of them run from the church and get onto a bus, heading nowhere in particular, but at least doing it together. Both book and film end on that graceless, uncertain, inconclusive moment, as the rest of their lives stretch out before them.

The difference is all in the execution. Charles Webb's The Graduate–his first novel, and still easily his best-known–is extraordinarily blunt and thudding, with endless circular dialogues where no one says anything meaningful, because most of the characters have nothing meaningful to say, and Benjamin outright refuses to try to communicate with them. Here are the first two pages of the book:

 

Benjamin Braddock graduated from a small Eastern college on a day in June. Then he flew home. The following evening a party was given for him by his parents. By eight o'clock most of the guests had arrived but Benjamin had not yet come down from his room. His father called up from the foot of the stairs but there was no answer. Finally he hurried up the stairs and to the end of the hall.

"Ben?" he said, opening his son's door.

"I'll be down later," Benjamin said.

"Ben, the guests are all here," his father said. "They're all waiting."

"I said I'll be down later."

Mr. Braddock closed the door behind him. "What is it," he said.

Benjamin shook his head and walked to the window.

"What is it, Ben."

"Nothing."

"Then why don't you come on down and see your guests."

Benjamin didn't answer.

"Ben?"

"Dad," he said, turning around, "I have some things on my mind right now."

"What things."

"Just some things."

"Well can't you tell me what they are?"

"No."

Mr. Braddock continued frowning at his son a few more moments, glanced at his watch, then looked back at Benjamin. "Ben, these are our friends down there," he said. "My friends. Your mother's friends. You owe them a little courtesy."

"Tell them I have to be alone right now."

"Mr. Robinson's out in the garage looking at your new sports car. Now go on down and give him a ride in it."

Benjamin reached into his pocket for a pair of shiny keys on a small chain. "Here," he said.

"What?"

"Give him the keys. Let him drive it."

"But he wants to see you."

"Dad, I don't want to see him right now," Benjamin said. "I don't want to see the Robinsons, I don't want to see the Pearsons, I don't want to see the… the Terhunes."

"Ben, Mr. Robinson and I have been practicing law together in this town for seventeen years. He's the best friend I have."

"I realize that."

"He has a client over in Los Angeles that he's put off seeing so he could be here and welcome you home from college."

"Dad–"

"Do you appreciate that?"

"I'd appreciate it if I could be alone!"

His father shook his head. "I don't know what's got into you," he said, "but whatever it is, I want you to snap out of it and march on down there."

Suddenly the door opened and Benjamin's mother stepped into the room. "Aren't you ready yet?" she said.

"No."

 

It's a 280-page book, but I read it in less than 90 minutes, because it all reads like that. One-sentence (or one-word) paragraphs. Choppy, snappish back-and-forths. People saying the same things over and over without listening to each other. I believe Webb is trying to communicate Benjamin's feelings of existential emptiness by showing just how empty communication between people can be, but while it's an effective trick, it's an endlessly frustrating one, and Benjamin comes across as a complete ass. Here, by contrast, is the complete dialogue from the equivalent scene in the film, beginning with Ben's dad (played by iconic St. Elsewhere actor William Daniels, who to me will always be the voice of KITT on Knight Rider) walking in as Ben sits alone:

Mr. Braddock: Hey, what's the matter? The guests are all downstairs, waiting to see you.

Benjamin: Dad, could you explain to them that I have to be alone for a while?

Mr. Braddock: These are all our good friends, Ben. Most of them have known you since, well, practically since you were born. What is it, Ben?

Benjamin: I'm just worried. [Sigh.]

Mr. Braddock: About what?

Benjamin: I guess about my future.

Mr. Braddock: What about it?

Benjamin: I don't know. I want it to be…

Mr. Braddock: To be what?

Benjamin: Different.

And then they go downstairs together, to face those meaningless accolades of family friends. The sense of alienation and uncertainty is the same, and so is the sense that Ben and his parents aren't really communicating, but they only go around the circle once instead of repeating the same irritating moves over and over, and Ben at least tries to say what's on his mind, even if there isn't much there. And in the process, he comes across as a much more sympathetic character. He's kind of a selfish, immature dick in the film, though to some degree that's understandable–he's trying to find himself, and no one will give him enough space to even begin to try. But he's utterly intolerable in the book, particularly when he decides he wants Elaine, and attempts to win her over by pinning her down with the same badgering, hectoring, yet completely uncommunicative circular dialogues he gets his parents into.

Of course, one of the main reasons movie-Ben is more sympathetic than book-Ben is that there's a real person there in the film. This was only Dustin Hoffman's second film role, and his first significant one, and his big breakthrough–he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. (The film actually garnered seven nominations, in all the big categories, but only won Best Director, for Mike Nichols; it lost Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay to In The Heat Of The Night.) And Hoffman and co-star Anne Bancroft (who lost Best Actress to Katharine Hepburn in, ugh, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner) essentially make the movie, simply by making their characters into characters rather than angry cardboard cutouts. In the book, there's always a question of what the hell either of them are thinking, since Webb doesn't tell us, and for the most part, they refuse to fess up either. In the film, they have facial expressions and vocal tones, and their emotions come through clearly even when their dialogue is blank, polite, and empty.

And throughout the film, Hoffman makes Ben into a much more vulnerable, sympathetic character than the book version. He stammers and stumbles; confronted with Mrs. Robinson's naked body, he sounds terrified rather than empty. (Sadly, there's a touch of Raymond from Rain Man in some of his stuttering, abashed, occasionally squeaky delivery.) At the same time, he makes Ben's frustration and incoherence palpable, and lets viewers inside a character whom Webb keeps opaque.

The changes between the screenplay and the book are actually fairly subtle; screenwriters Calder Willingham (Paths Of Glory, Little Big Man) and Buck Henry (better known as an actor, director, comedian, and Saturday Night Live vet than as a screenwriter, and in the news today because he's just been diagnosed with cancer) take most of their scenes and much of their dialogue directly from the book, abbreviating scenes but preserving both their thrusts and their specific words. Nonetheless, they soften Benjamin considerably. For instance, after the scene above, in the book, Ben goes downstairs and attempts to aggressively blow off all the family friends who want to talk to him. He gets more and more agitated as they won't take "I have to go now, bye" for an answer. Whereas in the film, he attempts, awkwardly, to smile and shake hands and put up with all the shallow accolades and fawning from people who only really know him as a set of grades and accomplishments, and are essentially praising him on his progress in turning into one of them. Again, that sense of alienation and revulsion is there, but Ben's desperate attempts to be polite make him a far more appealing character.

(Incidentally, the iconic film scene where a family friend takes Ben aside and whispers to him "Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There's a great future in plastics." That's one of the few instances of dialogue that isn't cut-and-pasted from the book.)

Bancroft's riveting performance is iconic as well, though Willingham and Henry do much less to humanize her, because she was never meant to be human. She's a force of nature and a mystery that Ben never really solves, and the filmmakers don't try to make her sympathetic, or even really human. She's a conundrum, chilly and unapproachable, yet infinitely sexually available, and the film leaves this as confusing–yet as appealing–to the audience as it is to Ben.

Two other things make the film stand out: First, there's its sense of visual humor and creativity. Director Mike Nichols, of Nichols & May comedy fame, seems to have a great deal of fun with this film, with little comedy moments abounding. For instance, when Ben tries to enter the hotel where he plans to sleep with Mrs. Robinson for the first time, he opens the door and a flood of senior citizens pour our, taking the open door as an invitation. Meaninglessly polite and awkward as usual, he just stands there and watches uncomfortably, unsure what to do. When the torrent of old people finally stops, he tries to step forward, and is pushed aside by a group of excited, formally dressed young people going in. It feels like a moment out of a Chuck Jones Wile E. Coyote cartoon, with a train unexpectedly boiling out of nowhere. Nichols never lets this kind of comic moment overwhelm the film's sense of dread and discomfort, but his sly humor pops up over and over–in the ridiculous scene from Ben's POV, where he obediently tries out his new diving gear for his parents, or when a shock cut transforms his lunge up onto a float in his family's pool into a lunge onto Mrs. Robinson's body in bed.

And then there's the moment where Ben first sees Mrs. Robinson naked, which he's utterly unprepared for. Nichols obscures her body from the audience, showing only her shoulders and Benjamin's horrified, nervous reactions. But he flashes shocking close-ups of naked breasts on the screen, detached from any sense of a larger body, and tied visually to Ben's nervous glances downward, as he tries not to look, and can't help himself. The aggressiveness of the direction here makes the whole scene much more nerve-wracking than a simple naked lady would be.

The other thing that people remember about the film, of course, is the Simon & Garfunkel music. The film opens with the first half of "The Sound Of Silence," as Benjamin glides along on a mechanical people-mover in an airport. The song resumes some 35 minutes later, building to its crescendo as Ben's affair with Mrs. Robinson gets fully underway, and giving way directly into the gentler but equally melancholy "April, Come She Will" as the relationship continues in montage. And so forth and so on. Musical scores are generally used to underline a scene's mood, but in the case of The Graduate, they underline the entire film with a powerful set of complicated emotions–sadness, isolation, and in the case of "Mrs. Robinson," a sort of gritted-teeth, hyperactive, sarcastic, bouncy cheer–that stand out as much as the performances and the playful camera angles.

All of which leaves Webb's book feeling pretty pallid and bare-bones by comparison. It's absolutely essential to the film, and shouldn't be underrated–Webb lays out the whole story piece by piece, and the film is really just a more colorful and accessible version of his novel, with very few and very subtle alterations. But reading it is still an unsatisfying, brief, and generally empty experience.

Incidentally, a few years ago, Webb wrote a sequel to The Graduate, set some years later, with Benjamin and Elaine married and dealing with their own children. After some legal wrangling over the right, it was finally published in the U.S. in January 2008. And in spite of the 45-year gap between the books, Webb's writing style hasn't changed much. The sequel, Home School, is just as flat, choppy, curt, and ungiving as The Graduate, and just as prone to endlessly repetitious conversations where no one listens to what anyone else is saying. In the book, Ben and Elaine want to home-school their kids, but the school system won't permit it, so Ben contacts Mrs. Robinson and persuades her to sleep with a local principal so they can blackmail him into permitting the unorthodox arrangement. Then Mrs. Robinson moves in with Elaine and Ben, and refuses to move out. Again, it's a generally unsatisfying book that makes no real allowances as to why people do things, or what could possibly be going on in their head, and it demystifies Mrs. Robinson to a sad degree by showing far too much of her as a character. Once she's front and center, being a lying, manipulative, solipsistic, Cruella de Vil-style villain, she's suddenly a lot less interesting as a character. But who knows–Mike Nichols is still an active director. Maybe he'll tackle this one too. Stranger things have happened.

So. Book, or Film? The film. This one goes on the shortlist of movies that make simple books into rich tapestries, and mine all the potential out of them rather than throwing it away.

Next in Book Vs. Film: You wanted to know a lot more about Stacy's abortion, right?