Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Adapting Forrest Gump turned a caustic satire into a sentimental romance

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Is there a point where a film adaptation, by deviating too much from its source material, ceases to be an adaptation?

Consider The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, the film of which retains only the basic conceit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original short story—a man who is born old and ages backwards. Everything else, including the vast majority of characters and incidents, are original to the screenplay, making it hard to view it as an adaptation in anything other than a technical way. (Writer Eric Roth was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for it, while Dustin Lance Black won Best Original Screenplay for Milk, demonstrating the confusing delineation the Oscars makes between being bound by historical record and very loosely bound to the merest trace of the original story.) It’s no secret that things will change when something is moved from one form of storytelling to another; it’s also pretty clear that Roth did not tell Fitzgerald’s story.


Button may be an extreme example, but consider another Roth script that made it down the red carpet: Forrest Gump. As he would again 15 years later, Roth kept the basic thrust of his source material—Winston Groom’s novel, in which a singular Southern man lives an eventful life in the 20th century, participating in key events and interacting with the key figures of the age (you can see why some viewed Button as a ripoff of Gump)—while inventing freely. The divergence from the source material isn’t as dramatic, in that many of the same characters and sequences occur, but the tone, aim, and much of the plot are completely different, so much so that it’s reasonable to ask: did Roth actually tell Groom’s story? Fans of the book must’ve been mighty perplexed walking out of Robert Zemeckis’ unlikely smash, having expected something subversive and getting something uplifting instead.

The key change that Roth made, according to Zemeckis in his DVD commentary track, was to zero in on the mostly one-sided love story that occurs between the title character—a mentally challenged man played, of course, by Tom Hanks—and Jenny Curran (Robin Wright). This was “the glue” of the picture, Zemeckis said. The romance “was the tone.”

But it’s not the tone of the book, which is something of a nasty piece of work, far more vulgar and cynical than the film. Groom’s Gump plays like a broader version of Being There, which also featured a slow man reaching great heights by virtue of his slowness; just as Being There’s Chance becomes a potential presidential candidate because people mistake his simplicity for profundity, so does Gump nearly get elected to the Senate on the strength of his slogan, “I got to pee.” (His advisers insist it “signifies frustration and impending relief.”)


So it’s a satire, although Groom’s target varies wildly and never goes too far—Gump’s campaign implodes when the press learns of his strange history, for example, meaning it isn’t a swipe against the smarts of the American voter. (The only clear stand the book takes is against Richard Nixon, who in his cameo tries to sell Forrest a fake watch). Sometimes the book feels like an economic polemic of the Upton Sinclair variety, with Gump as a blank-slate working man whose body is exploited for the army, for football and wrestling (where his costume is a diaper and his stage name is “the Dunce”), as “Spam in a can”—a non-piloting astronaut from the dawn of the Space Age. (Yes, in the book Gump is blasted into orbit, along with a boy monkey named Sue. Somehow the film—which has the character uncover Watergate, create the smiley face logo, and inadvertently pen the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine”—is the more realistic of the two.)

But this idea doesn’t really hold because Gump is also presented as a chess savant and competent-enough business owner. His life isn’t dictated by luck or by his fundamental decency, as is the case for his cinematic equivalent (the book’s version isn’t especially decent), but by the guiding narrative principle of “one damned thing after another.” In a telling moment from the DVD commentary, Zemeckis reflects that producer Wendy Finerman read the book and saw an idea for a movie. “What it was,” he adds, “I don’t know.” (That Zemeckis, who was at the time known for commentaries on American society like Used Cars and Back To The Future, couldn’t find inspiration in the book is surprising in itself.)

Gump, truth be told, is not a very pleasant read, though it’s hard to view it outside the context of the film. (Like Goodfellas and Wiseguy, this is a case of a movie becoming so popular that it completely submerges its source material. The difference is, Goodfellas tells Wiseguy’s story exactly, only better, while the film version of Gump tells a different story. Neither source offers much to fans of the films.) Were some of Groom’s choices wrong, or do they just feel wrong in comparison to its far-more-familiar adaptation? Forrest’s mom is bitter and manipulative in the book; Sally Field plays her with boundless love and support. The book’s Lieutenant Dan is a thoughtful and philosophical man (who Gump doesn’t serve under, meaning he also doesn’t save Dan’s life), in sharp contrast to the Ron Kovic-esque figure played by Gary Sinise, who also feels more distinct for having an arc of finding peace. The film’s Jenny is a victim of abuse, which provides some texture to her wanderlust, bad relationships, and discontent (that the film creates this “motive” while judging her impulsiveness and the distance she keeps from Forrest is a mark against it). In the book the character is spacey and one-dimensional, sometimes on Forrest’s side, sometimes not, but never plausible as a lifelong romantic obsession.

As for Forrest himself, let’s look at how the versions depict him amid the racism of Jim Crow-era Alabama. The book has him casually using a variety of racial slurs, against both blacks and the Viet Cong, which suggests he picked up his prejudice from society. The film shows him as naturally tolerant, to the point of picking up Vivian Malone Jones’ notebook when she drops it while integrating the University Of Alabama. This posits an inherent goodness that would be the default for people, if they, like him, didn’t think too much about these things. (Oddly, given how it depicts the Gumps as an oasis of civility in turbulent times, the film keeps the detail of Forrest’s name coming from Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s hard to imagine Sally Field’s character wanting to honor that legacy.)


The correlation between movie-Forrest’s intelligence and decency can feel insulting as much as inspirational, and it wouldn’t be surprising if on this point the book’s more caustic version holds up better in the long run. Memorable though Hanks’ performance is, there’s something patronizing in the way the film coos over his childlike innocence, especially since he’s often depicted staring off into space, oblivious and indifferent to his surroundings.

The book’s Gump, who narrates in a garbled form of English, isn’t a passive observer. He has preferences over how his life goes and demonstrates self-awareness over being an “idiot” (his word, but, “Probly, tho, I’m closer to bein’ a imbecile or maybe even a moron, but personally, I’d rather think of myself as like a halfwit, or somethin’”). He even reads up on his predecessors in literature:

All the way from that Doy-chee-eveskie guy’s idiot, to King Lear’s fool, and Faulkner’s idiot, Benjy, an even ole Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird—now he was a serious idiot. The one I like best tho is ole Lennie in Of Mice And Men. Mos of them writer fellers got it straight—cause their idiots always smarter than people give ’em credit for. Hell, I’d agree with that. Any idiot would. Hee hee.


The Lennie reference is a constructive one, because like Steinbeck’s character Gump is a brute who doesn’t know his own strength. (There’s a moment where he tries to lift Jenny and tears all her clothes off by mistake, which has shades of what happens to Curley’s wife.) His sheer size is what gets him into football and the army, not, as in the film, the speed he discovers after breaking free of leg braces (there’s no “run, Forrest, run!” in the book).

The key difference between the book and the film is that the movie is about a divided society reconciling, while the book sticks with the decay. The astronaut sequence isn’t about the glory of the space race; Gump crashes immediately and lives among a tribe of cannibals for a few years. He lucks into a movie role—the monster in a Creature From The Black Lagoon remake—and is berated by hateful diva Raquel Welch. (She also has her clothes torn off; they scurry around L.A. with her prolonging her nudity because she doesn’t like any of the stores where she might find something to cover up with.) He saves Mao from drowning when he goes to play ping pong in China—to the anger of his Army handler. When Jenny surprises him with the news that she gave birth to his son, he observes from a distance, deciding to not get in the way of the boy’s adoptive father. In the end, he renounces the trapping of the modern world (and his shrimping fortune), finding a measure of contentment by working as a street performer.


The film foregrounds the love story, or at least Forrest’s affection for Jenny (he’s indifferent to women otherwise). In the two of them, who drift apart before reuniting, Zemeckis finds a metaphor for the country overall, a story of healing after Vietnam, political assassinations, and Watergate threatened to tear the country apart. The popular line on the film—that Forrest travels the clean-cut side of history while Jenny explores the counterculture—isn’t exactly accurate (setting aside how clean-cut Vietnam is, Forrest lives on the road for three years and grows a Grizzly Adams beard), but between the two of them all the boomer touchstones are hit, and scored to an expansive and on-the-nose soundtrack of radio favorites.

Forrest Gump not only covers the history and pop culture of America, but also its geography; Forrest’s multi-year run takes him from the bayou to both coasts, through the desert at sunrise and New England at peak foliage. It’d be impossible for any movie to encompass an entire country, especially one as large and diverse as the United States, but Zemeckis gives it his best shot.


That said, the way Forrest is fit into historical events is clever but cursory; the film doesn’t want to explain any more than its hero would understand. This means that complex movements, like the Black Panthers, are reduced to snapshots, which leads to clichés, which plays as stereotyping.


This also gets at one of the more troublesome aspects of the film: Jenny dying of a virus that’s hinted to be AIDS (she survives the book). Any survey of American history that goes through the ’80s would have to include the AIDs epidemic, but there’s something infuriating about the way the box is checked by tacking it onto her story, especially since the realities of the disease are hidden by her going from beautiful to dead without any suffering. And again, it plays as punishment for her being open to sex and drugs, a judgmental take that only seems more unfair with time.

The film almost works best if you view Forrest as separate from the mirrored storylines seen in Lieutenant Dan and Jenny. Unlike him, they’re both driven to the brink of despair by their paths through American history, only find a measure of peace when they deviate from the fixed way they’ve been living their lives. He learns to be more free spirited, releasing himself from his obsession with destiny (he joined the military to die in battle, thus upholding a family tradition), while she eventually grounds herself and stops being nomadic. The parallels aren’t perfect, but at least this reading avoids some of the questionable aspects of the film, as both Forrest and Jenny float through life like the fluttering feather that bookends the film, but only he is rewarded for it. For all its flaws, the book, at least, is an equal opportunity cynic.


Start with: The short answer is that I will probably rewatch Forrest Gump at some point. I can’t imagine rereading the book, which isn’t funny or insightful enough to compensate for how random it is.

That said, Forrest Gump is a curious movie, especially given what a phenomenon it became (a lot of the backlash against it now seems connected to the fact that it beat out Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption at the Oscars). I’ve long considered myself a fan, but this time its flaws were glaring to me in a way they hadn’t been on previous viewings. For a film with such big ambitions, it’s weirdly flippant, as with the smiley-face scene or other moments of magical realism that make it hard to take its emotions seriously.


Still, the highs in it remain high, the idea of national reconciliation is potent in these divisive times, and it’s hard to not have a Pavlovian response to every song or historical moment it recalls. Forrest Gump is about shared experiences, and there’s something poignant in that. When the film’s history, emotion, and scope align in sweeping moments like the reunion at the National Mall, that’s a kind of movie magic that can’t be denied.