The cult classic that redefined a generation.
The film Fight Club had quite an effect on me over the years. I saw it for the first time when I was ten or eleven years old — too early for this film — and remember being blown away by the twist at the end.
In Fight Club, “An insomniac office worker and a devil-may-care soapmaker form an underground fight club that evolves into something much, much more.”
3 lessons learned reading Fight Club are:
1. How to write effective voice-overs.
2. How to edit my own work to add movement and cohesion.
3. The importance of a distinct voice.
From the first line of voice-over and opening shot of our protagonist with a gun barrel between his teeth, the reader is pulled into the script with questions. Adapting from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, screenwriter Jim Uhls does an excellent job at breathing life into the characters so that they feel authentic. These people feel real. Then the dry voice-overs throughout serve to put us inside the mind of the protagonist, “JACK,” Edward Norton‘s character in the film.
“JACK,” as he is referred to in the script, is not called by his real name, Tyler Durden, until the end of the film. Since the protagonist has a split personality (played by Brad Pitt), this would have ruined the twist. Using the name Jack becomes a funny element (an inside joke, of sorts) when the two characters are living in a dilapidated house and rummage through magazines left behind by the previous occupant. The articles are written in first person (i.e. “I am Jack’s colon”) and throughout the rest of the film, Jack uses the phrasing to describe his mental state. For example, “I am Jack’s cold sweat,” and “I am Jack’s smirking revenge” pop up later, at pivotal moments in the film.
There are many notable differences between script and screen. In the script:
INT. READING ROOM – NIGHT
CANDLES BURN. Tyler and Jack are seated across from each other on the buckled floor, reading MAGAZINES. Rain DRIPS from the ceiling. No furniture. THOUSANDS of MAGAZINES.
The previous occupant had been a bit of a shut-in.
Oh, a new riot control grenade…
“…the successful combination of concussive, 3000 foot-candle flash-blasts and simultaneous high-velocity disbursement of…blah, blah, blah…”
Tyler begins RIPPING the ARTICLE from his magazine.
“I am Joe’s Lungs.” It’s written in first person. “Without me, Joe could not take in oxygen to feed his red blood cells.” There’s a whole series — “I am Joe’s Prostate.”
“I get cancer, and I kill Joe.”
Tyler tosses his article in a pile of other articles, chooses another magazine.
What are you reading?
Soldier of Fortune. Business Week. New Republic.
In the film, however, instead of them sitting in a room together, Jack sits with a magazine in the dark house and Tyler rides around on a bike. “Hey man, what are ya readin’?” he asks. Jack explains the magazine articles as “I am Jack’s…” as Tyler rides around the house. There is no mention of explosives, most of Tyler’s lines are completely different, and the movement of Tyler keeps the scene cinematic and visually interesting. This was an excellent choice on director David Fincher‘s part because two men sitting and reading magazines is not all that captivating. Also, the change from “Joe” to “Jack” is noteworthy and cohesive, since Joe comes out of nowhere but Jack fits perfectly. Fincher does this throughout — makes changes to blocking and dialogue — and the film is all the better for it.
Reading this screenplay after having seen the film dozens of times, I was asking myself questions throughout about why certain changes were made. Much of the answers are speculation, but seeing the differences made me feel less defensive of my own work, especially as I edit. Academy Award-winning director Guillermo Del Toro once stated that someone is going to be harsh on your work, so it might as well be you. Fincher’s changes improved the Fight Club screenplay, and this inspires me to go through my own scripts to make them more cinematic from the get-go.
It is important to be adaptable with ideas.
Fight Club has its own distinct voice. This likely began with the novel and clearly shines in Uhls’s adaptation. Each of the characters has a unique voice and the overall screenplay feels written from Jack’s point of view rather than a god-like quality. This works well here because the audience is on this journey with Jack and neither know the split in his personality until the third act of the film.
Please return your seatbacks to their full upright and locked position.
The twist is effective, especially since there are hints throughout — like screen flashes of Tyler in the background of a shot and the introduction to Tyler’s character at the airport. Jack passes us, dead-eyed, and the camera pans over to see Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) in a red leather jacket and sunglasses, as the voice-over poses the question, “Is it possible to wake up as another person?” If a modern film tried to pull off the twist with the same kind of hints, it probably would not work because many other films have attempted to duplicate the effectiveness of Fight Club‘s twist and audiences are quicker to guess this sort of thing.
Twists are difficult to get right in films and, when done correctly, inspire repeat viewings. Fight Club is an example of a film that does this exceptionally well and was a great study for writing my current psychological thriller, Delirium.
Ultimately, I learned three things from reading the Fight Club screenplay: how to write effective voice-overs, how adding movement and cohesion can improve a screenplay, and the importance of using distinct voices.
Thanks for reading! Come back next week for 5 Ways to Diversify Character Voices.