The blueprint for director David Fincher's brilliant controversy magnet Fight Club is Chuck Palahniuk's scathingly funny and bleakly violent 1996 debut novel, a howl of rage against the empty promises of American consumer culture.
The novel is narrated by a nameless insomniac, a white-collar nebbish who spends his workaday life at a "major" U.S. automobile company calculating whether or not defective parts warrant a recall. His free time is spent religiously scanning the IKEA catalog to carefully furnish his high-rise condo. Perfectly healthy, he attends a host of terminal-illness support groups where, immersed in collective anguish, he feels truly alive.
Palahniuk puts him on a collision course with the charismatic, fearless Tyler Durden, who proposes the genesis of the fight club: transcendence through pain.
As the book's narrator explains his experience: "Tyler said, ‘I want you to do me a favor. I want you to hit me as hard as you can.'
"I didn't want to, but Tyler explained it all, about not wanting to die without any scars, about being tired of watching only professionals fight, and wanting to know more about himself. About self-destruction. At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves."
These two anarchists begin organizing underground bare-knuckle boxing matches as a kind of alternative support group for men who feel lost in a feminized America. Words are replaced by actions, and after the no-holds-barred violence, the participants walk away bloodied but euphoric, beaten but empowered.
"The fighting, the violence," says novelist Palahniuk, "is a metaphor for destroying how we see ourselves, because once we get stuck in an identity, it's really hard to break out. This was just a metaphor for a way to live by a new paradigm."
"The fighting is absolutely metaphoric," agrees Edward Norton, who embodies the nameless protagonist in the "Fight Club" movie. This faithful adaptation uses Palahniuk's book as a foundation for a ferocious examination of millennial angst in white collar/service industry America, and goes one step further to show how apocalyptic nightmares bloom from tiny seeds of transgression and rebellion against the status quo.
"Tyler doesn't say, 'Do me a favor, let me just hit you really good once,'" Norton explains. "He says, 'Hit me.' What's not being proposed is, deal with your frustration and numbness by exorcising it outwards towards other people. It's about an inwardly directed violence and an inwardly directed radicalism. The fight club is a metaphor for punching through the insulation that you've put up around yourself and experiencing pain, experiencing life as a purgative, as a way of starting to connect to the fact that you are not defined by the things around you."
"Because in a way," Palahniuk adds, "acquiring things is not fixing the problem, it's masking the symptoms. I could come home to my little, tiny, perfect world and feel good for a moment, instead of fixing the fact that I hated the whole rest of my life. That's what consumerism becomes. ... A lot of people who have worked really hard and have gotten to a point in their lives where they can buy things, now they're going, 'I've been working 25 years, and I thought this was going to be it, and this isn't going to solve anything. This is just stocking up for my estate sale someday.'"
Brad Pitt, as Tyler Durden, is the yang to Norton's yin in "Fight Club," which director Fincher has constructed as an elaborate psychological battleground. The two actors (Pitt previously starred in Fincher's breakthrough film "Seven") spent a great deal of preproduction time discussing the book's provocative ideology with the button-pushing director, and their off-screen bond is reflected in the way they continue each other's thoughts.
"The line I go for," says Pitt, who quit college just shy of completing a degree in advertising, "is 'Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need.' Meaning, we bought into a form of life-style, we bought into image, as if we would receive some sort of spiritual happiness though home furnishings."
Adds Norton: "I wonder whether we've bought into it or truly been the victims of it. As a generation, we are qualitatively different in that we have been raised from the cradle with television as the arbiter of the value system. What the book articulates is the process of waking up to adulthood and realizing that all the things that had been promised by advertising/marketing culture as leading to happiness couldn't be fulfilled, and that you have this whole generation having its midlife crisis in its 20s."
"It's saying that we've become spectators," Pitt elaborates, "that we sit and watch other people play, but we're not in the game ourselves. We've so sequestered ourselves from any kind of possible pain that there's a growing sense of numbness. So, the spirit of the book as well as the movie is, let's get in there and address these things that we're actually frightened of and see how we come out."
What "Fight Club" frankly examines is the violent nature of everyday Americans. Palahniuk believes the brutality expressed in his novel and the film is a very specific kind.
"It's an honest, consensual violence," Palahniuk insists. "It's not victimizing violence. It's not a chickenshit walking into a crowded place full of helpless people with a gun."
It's precisely that image -- the way that the safety of the school, church, daycare center and workplace was shattered by events this past year -- that focused immense attention on the entertainment industry's effect on society. Yet the difficult "Fight Club" exists precisely to challenge simplistic, preconceived notions about the role of violence.
"If you pull back from making complicated discussions of cultural dynamics," asserts Norton, "and psychological dysfunctions and things that are unhealthy, then we wouldn't have any of the films that we look back on now as real windows on their time."