Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Archive for January, 2009

Will the Real Benjamin Button Please Stand Up?

Recently I went to see the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Being a student of literature in addition to loving all things movies, I was excited to see this adaptation by Eric Roth, who also wrote the screenplay for Forrest Gump.


Since the storyline of the movie revolves around Hurricane Katrina, I knew that certain liberties must have been taken with the original source material, which was published in the 1920s.  So I decided to compare and contrast the two and see how close the movie was to the original.


What I discovered is that Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button is almost unrecognizable to the movie.  They both share the element of aging in reverse, but Fitzgerald’s Button is born and raised in the “social and financial” elite of Antebellum Baltimore, not New Orleans. He is also born fully grown (with a long smoke-colored beard) and is able to speak quite articulately and considered a type of Southern gentleman.  What Fitzgerald is probably doing here is using Button as a literary metaphor.  In short: Benjamin Button could be seen as an exaggerated symbol of the Southern social elite, a symbol of the Confederate mentality. 


Ironically, in the Fitzgerald story Button is raised primarily by his father (not abandoned) and wears a suit.  He tries to enroll in Yale, but he is rejected.  They wouldn’t take Benjamin Button when he appeared “old” at an Ivy League college, but they’ll take someone with Button’s mentality when he is younger at Harvard.  Remember, Benjamin Button was born in the social elitism of pre-Civil War South. Fitzgerald goes so far as to insinuate that Button is in fact John Wilkes Booth in disguise. (Note: John Wilkes Booth was born in Maryland). There is no love story with Daisy as in the movie, Fitzgerald’s Button marries into the blue blood family of Hildegarde Moncrief and they have a boy named Roscoe, not a daughter as portrayed in the film.  Fitzgerald’s Button is the wealthy owner of a hardware company (not buttons) during the Gilded Age and a Brigadier General during the Spanish-American War.  So it would seem, that Fitzgerald is drawing comparisons to all these different elements of American society through the metaphor of the Benjamin Button character.


So all in all, it makes for an interesting short story but would probably make a lousy movie if it were a faithful adaptation.  I was surprised however, how many story similarities there were with the movie version of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the movie version of Forrest Gump.  Here is an entry on the blog called “Madeinhead” noting the similarities of the two.  I do not blame Roth, however.  I’m sure he probably turned in a great first draft and a movie producer said something to the effect of, “Not enough explosions, give me Forrest Gump.” 



The real F. Scott Fitzgerald

The real F. Scott Fitzgerald

Why is a Horseshoe Considered Lucky?

American proverb:  “Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades.”


For Chrismukkah, I bought my wife a silver bracelet with a horseshoe charm.  With 2008 being such a rough time for us and others, I thought it was an appropriate symbolic gesture for good luck in the new year.  It did get me thinking, however, why on Earth is a horseshoe, of all things, considered a talisman of good fortune?


According to The Magic of the Horseshoe by Robert Means Lawrence, there are multiple theories as to the origin of the horseshoe as a good-luck charm:


Among the Romans there prevailed a custom of driving nails into cottage walls as an antidote against the plague.  Both this practice and the later one of nailing up horseshoes have been thought by some to originate from the rite of Passover.  The blood sprinkled upon the doorposts and lintel at the time of the great Jewish feast formed the chief points of an arch, and it may be that with this in mind people adopted the horseshoe as an arch-shaped talisman, and it thus became generally became emblematic of good luck. 


The same thought may underlie the practice of the peasants in the west of Scotland, who train the bough of the rowan or mountain-ash tree in the form of an arch over a farmyard gate to protect their cattle from evil.


Lawrence continued: 


The supernatural qualities of the horseshoe as a preservative against imaginary demons have been supposed to be due to its bifurcated shape, as any object having two prongs or forks was form thought to be effective for this purpose.  As with the crescent, the source of this belief is doubtless the appearance of the moon in certain of its phases. 


Lawrence’s conclusions make logical sense and seem to answer the question on a general level as to why a horseshoe is considered a talisman.  But here’s the $64,000 question: Is it considered luckier to have a horseshoe pointed up or pointed down over a doorway?  I was raised with the tradition of the horseshoe pointed up, so the luck wouldn’t run out.  However, my Italian-America father-in-law told me that his family tradition was to hang the horseshoe pointed down, so the luck would pour over those who walked under it.  Which is correct?



It turns out that the folklore of the horseshoe as a talisman often has traditions or characteristics unique to the ethnic background of its origin.  According to the Web site www.luckymojo.com:

In most of Europe, the Middle-East, and Spanish-colonial Latin America protective horseshoes are placed in a downward facing or vulval position . . . but in some parts of Ireland and Britain people believe that the shoes must be turned upward or “the luck will run out.” Americans of English and Irish descent prefer to display horseshoes upward; those of German, Austrian, Italian, Spanish, and Balkan descent generally hang them downward.

So which way is luckier to hang a horseshoe?  Let’s all hang horseshoes and compare notes this time next year.