As you’ve probably noticed, I’ll use any excuse (plausible or implausible) to throw props to Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, one of my all-time favorite books. So you can imagine my disappointment when I saw a trailer for the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, starring Brad Pitt as a man born in the body of an old man who ages backwards. My first thought when I saw that trailer was “So much for Max Tivoli getting a movie treatment — these guys totally ripped it off”. Then, when I learned that the Benjamin Button movie was based on a story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922, you can imagine my shock, dismay, and utter panic when I thought that Andrew Sean Greer had bamboozled me and had ripped off Fitzgerald; I had put my credibility on the line for a book that now looked like an imposter — a derivative treatment that I had dared anyone to contest the greatness of. I felt like one of the voters who awarded the Best New Artist Grammy to Milli Vanilli.
Fortunately I didn’t completely jump to any conclusions and actually read Benjamin Button. And I am relieved to tell you that, while Benjamin Button very well may have “inspired” Greer to write Max Tivoli (and let the author who wasn’t inspired by Fitzgerald’s work cast the first stone), the similarities are very topline and extremely limited. The idea of a person born with the body of an old man who ages backwards is such a unique idea that one cannot help but lump any stories with that basic premise into the same bucket. But the similarities between these two truly stop there. In fact, probably the most important element of Max Tivoli’s story isn’t present for Benjamin Button — namely, Max Tivoli is born with the mind of an infant, and his story revolves almost entirely around the disparity between his outward appearance and his emotional, psychological, and intellectual growth; Benjamin Button, on the other hand, is born as a crotchety old man, with a crotchety old man’s mind, and his backwards growth applies not only to his body looking younger, but also to his mind devolving into the mind of a child.
Benjamin Button is a short story, and so it certainly doesn’t take a lot of time to read. But it’s also not a particularly compelling story, in the sense that none of the characters are particularly endearing. Part of that may very well be because it’s a short story and so the characters don’t have as much time to develop. I know that I probably sound defensive, but if you don’t feel like investing any time in multiple stories of guys who age backwards, your investment in Max Tivoli has a much greater payoff.