Big Fish is my favorite movie. I actually wrote two papers in college about the movie. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty passionate about the story. And, well, it never fails to make me cry like a baby at the end. I knew that one day I would have to read the book, just to compare the two. For once, the movie is much, much better than the book.
Edward Bloom is dying. His son, William, tries to make a lasting connection with his father before he passes, but Edward cannot seem to tell his son his true life story. Edward has always been a grandiose storyteller, but William can’t take it any more. Edward’s stories, while fun, leave William with very little real information about who his father was. As Edward fades away from sickness, William desperately tries to understand his often-absent father.
I can’t help but compare the book and the movie, but I know that those who have not read or seen either will be a bit lost. So, apologies in advance. The book has many small chapters. Each small chapter tells a short story about Edward Bloom’s life. The stories are usually over the top and bordering on fantasy, but you can sense a grain of truth in each one. In between a few of the stories, we have sections in the present when Edward is on his death bed. During these present-day sections, William and his mother try to talk to Edward, but Edward has a lot of trouble opening up about who he really was.
The problem is that these short, magical stories just don’t feel cohesive. Characters and places come and go without any impact on Edwards’s overall narrative. The grains of truth do not connect or give much detail about what really happened. The book is much more open-ended, which feels unsatisfying. In the novel, Edward holds tight to his secrets and the moral of the story is a little muddled. The movie succeeds by filling in some of these blanks. For example, book-Edward befriends a giant, but we never hear from the giant again after his short story. Movie-Edward’s giant friend pops up here and there to help Edward on his life journey. The events and characters simply do not have as much development in the book. The stories feel isolated and lack the heartfelt, romantic, and fun moments portrayed in the movie. By the end of the movie, there is a sense of closure for the audience and for Edward’s son, William. The book lacks this, in my opinion.
Both the book and movie are an extended allegory about life, death, truth, and fiction, but the movie just executes it all more smoothly. I could not connect to book-Edward. He was portrayed as someone everyone likes, but his charm did not translate on the page. Movie-Edward is a charmer, but he is also more fallible. He is a bit of an ambitious underdog, while book-Edward never has much trouble getting what he wants. The book portrays Edward’s life a bit more realistically than the movie, but somehow, the movie feels more authentic.
If I say any more, I will probably spoil both the book and the movie. My recommendation? Watch the movie. Then, if you are still curious, read the book for a different perspective. In my opinion, the screenwriter for Big Fish took a good idea and made it into a great movie. For me, Big Fish the movie is a solid 5/5 stars. Big Fish the novel? Maybe three out of five, but only because I love the story itself so much.