Okay. So I get asked this question about every other day, and it seems like I should update this page because my response before the movie came out is very different from how I feel after the movie came out. For a full history of Benjamin Button and Max Tivoli, you can look below. The executive summary is that the Fitzgerald story has nothing to do with the movie, the movie has nothing to do with my book, and my book was written before I'd ever heard of Fitzgerald or a movie in the works. All parties are innocent, and the story of a man aging backwards began with none of us; it began with Plato, and has been told in thousands of literary and science fiction versions over the years. Nobody stole anything. Nobody influenced anybody. It is just a story in the zeitgeist! Really! Honestly!
I think we are so caught up in the sense that the "idea" of something is the thing itself; that the "idea" of Impressionism is somehow the point, and therefore Monet stole from Cezanne or something like that. But anyone who makes art knows this isn't true. It is the act of creation, not the idea for creation, that is the difficult and amazing part. People who claim Nabokov stole the "idea" for Lolita from a fellow writer simply don't understand anything about literature, because let's be honest: it's a bad idea. A pedophile's diary? Very very bad. But that is what inspired Nabokov to create his greatest novel, one of the great novels. The idea of Lolita is not what anybody likes about it. The language, the description, the storytelling, the awe-inspiring invention of it-that's the joy. So let's be done with that. Whoever had the idea first-and you could argue Fitzgerald did, or Plato did, or because I wrote the first full-length version of it, I did-is not what any writer cares about. What matters is the art itself.
My line from the beginning was, for this very reason, to be as gracious as possible. Though Paramount Pictures did approach me with an offer for rights to Max Tivoli, presumably with the intention of burying it for all time (this is why I turned them down), I believe the screenwriters worked very hard to make something original. There is much that is similar to Max Tivoli, I admit; there is nothing that is similar to Fitzgerald. But I really think this was the honest production of writers at work. After seeing the film, I turned to a friend and said "Well thank God, I don't have to sue." In my interview in Newsweek, I said that watching it nominated for Oscars with no mention of my book was, well, bittersweet but not unexpected; movie people aren't book people. I congratulated the writer, Eric Roth. I said perhaps people would turn to my book with curiosity. And so on.
Cut to months later. I sit here at an artists' colony in upstate New York. Just about every other day I have to answer a question about Benjamin Button, and I explain the above. I've got my book here for people to read. But here is the upsetting thing: people return the book to me and say they can't get Brad Pitt out of their mind, that the movie actually ruined the experience of reading my book. They say this smiling. I have never been cut so deep in my life. I had expected to have explain the Button and Tivoli story. But I never expected the movie, coming out four years after Max appeared on bestseller lists, would retroactively destroy the book. People who recognize similarities in the movie and novel (his mind ages forward, sleeps with an older woman, travels the world, has three chances at love, etc) have begun to ask me if perhaps *I* was influenced by the movie! It is the strangest kind of science fiction: Brad Pitt's movie traveling back in time to do damage to a possible rival! Well I flatter myself. The point is that I'm hardly a rival; Brad Pitt has surely never heard of me, or Max Tivoli. This is the bitter truth of things: even dull movies reach millions, while bestsellers merely reach thousands.
The saddest part is that I have had to disown Max Tivoli, in a way. It's like coming from a beloved country which has been overtaken by strife; you dread saying your country's name, because people's reaction is so terrible. When asked what my novels are like, I always used to describe Max and they'd say "Oh that's interesting!" or even "Oh I heard of that book!" Now I don't dare talk about it. I had prepared myself for people to say "Oh is that the basis for that movie?" Instead, they invariably ask me if I was aware there was a great Brad Pitt movie....you get the idea. I know the screenwriter has had to deal with people asking about my book, and I hear he hasn't been very happy about it. But I doubt it has happened to him more than a few times. For me, it is constant.
My boyfriend tells me I'm young and will write a number of books, just to move on and let Max be himself. That's what I'm doing; my last novel came out in 2008, and I'm hard at work on another. But Max will always be special for me. It was the book I wrote when I thought no one would ever read my work; it is such a strange notion, written in overly lush language, unapologetically romantic, so in that way it is completely me-I stole from Proust and Nabokov, but never Fitzgerald! And, when John Updike reviewed it in The New Yorker (along with a review of Benjamin Button, the story) it changed my life. I am a writer because of that book. I am so proud of it. So it's terribly sad to have to walk away from it, because it isn't Max's fault. And it isn't my fault. It's not even Benjamin Button's fault. It's just the bad luck of things, and my inability (so far) to laugh it off. But I promise I will. Later. Just give me a little time.
Until then, if you see me and ask about Benjamin Button, I'm afraid you'll have to buy me a drink.
ON THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (October, 2008):
Koalas, it turns out, have fingerprints just like ours, though we share only a distant ancestor. Both evolved independently for gripping and holding branches, an example of convergent evolution-two unrelated species developing similar traits. Necessary coincidence. The same seems to be true of the film and my novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, about a man aging backwards. True story: When I began my book in early 2001, I had never heard of Fitzgerald's story or the movie (when my advance reading copies went out in mid-2003, and readers told me of the story, I had a panic attack, thinking Max Tivoli was done for); similarly, I believe the Button people had never heard of me when they began the latest version of their script. It was to my great relief that I discovered his satirical short story bore no relation to my novel, had no three-act love story, no epic scope, and involved a man born old in mind as well as body-utterly unlike my Max. I know nothing of the film, but can only assume it is similarly unlike Max Tivoli in structure, tone, and concept. Fingerprints, yes, but nothing else the same. In the spirit of full disclosure, the Button studio did indeed approach me with an offer for rights to my novel in May 2004. It was not an offer to make Max into a movie; they were already going to make Button, and other than that their motivations are hidden to me. I turned them down. No one has ever made me another offer. So it goes! Luckily, I happen to like Max on the page as he is.
The idea of man aging backwards is as ancient as literature—it turns up as early as Plato, and even Fitzgerald seems to have acknowledged Twain and Butler. My own inspiration was Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages" and T.H. White's Merlin; I would be happy to acknowledge F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I had never heard of his story! I have to admit: I always thought it was a rather bad idea for a book, and struggled with how to make it come to life as more than a gimmick. How could it become literature? My idea was to explore the experience of being trapped in a body we do not see as ourselves; that is why I had Max's mind age normally as his body ages backwards, which I later discovered Fitzgerald's Button does not do. As all artists know, it is in the doing, not the idea, that the art is made, and I think to see the film and read my book (and Fitzgerald's story!) is to see very different artists at work on the same idea. As to why the film and my book separately developed these fingerprints-at around the same moment-is anybody's guess. Maybe everyone wanted to age backwards in 2004?