Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of the film.
Most story failures go all the way back to the premise, even and including big budget epics like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Sometimes the failure occurs because the writer doesn’t develop the idea properly. For example, he or she may choose the wrong genre. But most often failures of premise occur because the original idea is weak, with huge structural problems lurking under the depths that don’t surface until the writer tries to write the script. Indeed, many of the premise techniques that I talk about in the Great Screenwriting Class are designed to show you which ideas simply will not work, no matter how good a writer you are.
The premise of Benjamin Button is certainly intriguing. A man is born old and ages backward. He meets a girl when she is ten, they have a great love in the few years when their ages intersect, and then their biology tears them apart. But the key question is: what does this idea mean structurally? Writer Eric Roth is trying to write a tragic, epic love story. This very powerful form has become rare because it is so difficult to make the case that even a great love can affect a nation. And because it is so much easier now for lovers to get together and so much easier for them to part.
Against such obstacles, this premise immediately feels like nothing more than a gimmick to make tragic love possible. If you can’t create real tragic love, just come up with a man who ages backward. Now that guy’s going to have some major love problems.
Fantasy always involves creating a unique story world with its own rules. But these rules must be allegorical; they must highlight the world we really live in, including its emotional reality. But that doesn’t happen here. For long stretches of the story, the two leads could be together. But one of them doesn’t want to. This does not have the makings of epic or tragic love. When the two do get together as a couple, they enjoy a number of apparently blissful years. But Roth knows he has to break them apart. And because the story is based on the gimmick of the guy aging backward, he is forced to concoct one of the phoniest scenes in recent memory. Benjamin tells his wife, Daisy, that he doesn’t want his new baby to miss having a real father, or his wife to see him as he grows into a child. So he just up and leaves, even though he has many years before he becomes a child.
Benjamin Button has an even larger structural problem embedded in the premise. A story that unfolds backward is extremely rare for a reason. It makes story causation virtually impossible. Or, to put it another way, you end up with the ultimate episodic story. An episodic story is one in which each event stands on its own – each scene in effect becoming mini-story – and does not connect with the other events. The whole becomes less than the sum of the parts.
One of the only stories to unfold backwards successfully is Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. But notice that Betrayal is built on a relationship between a man and a woman. It is an organic unit from first to last. With this as a foundation, the story’s backward movement, instead of being episodic, induces the audience to focus on the original causal forces that ultimately drive these two people apart.
Benjamin Button is the story of one man’s life. But his backward unfolding is based on the lowest form of causation, the biological. That’s not what we are interested in when we see someone’s life story. We want to see an unfolding based on the character’s life choices. We want to see how the character’s highest, most human qualities play out. It is these human elements that make plot possible, because plot is based, among other things, on the hero’s ability to plot his own course. Because Benjamin Buttontracks a man biologically getting young, he becomes nothing more than a freak who can’t make any choice at all. He floats through life, an observer of the world who holds little interest for the audience.
Benjamin Button, like Slumdog Millionaire, is a myth story connected to a love story. But where the writer of Slumdog Millionaire created a structure that would build inevitably to a convergent point, the writer of Benjamin Button, trapped by his premise, could only string together moments. We watch myth stories because they give us a lifetime perspective, and therefore let us see a model of how to live a fulfilling life. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the only life lesson we learn is: don’t be born old.