How Fight Club Became a Cult Classic? | The Adaptation of Fight Club

What would you do after a publisher rejects your novel for being too disturbing? Well, if you’re Chuck Palahniuk, you would write something even more disturbing and submit it. 

While working at Freightliner, a truck company, as a diesel mechanic, Palahniuk regularly carried a notepad with him while he worked. In addition to the details about fixing vehicles, the book also contained snippets of Palahniuk’s first published novel: Fight Club. 

Fight Club placed a mirror in front of the concept of masculinity during the 1990s, where males instead of being sent off to wars and take up arms in defense of something worth fighting for — were encouraged to take on cushy jobs and embrace commercialism. With nothing motivating men to step out of their comfort zone, they became caged animals, tamed… but still with feral instincts. 

Palahniuk’s story acknowledges the men’s movement and how every man is battling forces from two sides: one to abide by societal rules and one to break it. 

Yet without the adaptation, the story of Fight Club and the influence it would have on young men of that generation wouldn’t have materialized. Today, we’ll explore the story of Fight Club and how it went from Chuck Palahniuck’s debut novel into the cult classic it is today… and how it has continued to stay relevant after 20 years. Let’s talk about Fight Club. 

Palahniuk began writing fiction in his early 30s, after attending workshops led by American writer, Tom Spanbauer. It all began as an attempt to meet new friends, but he ended up getting inspired by the fiction form and Spanbauer encouraged him to perfect his minimalistic writing style.

Tom Spanbauer describes his teaching style as “dangerous writing”, saying on his website description:

I must listen for the heartbreak, the rage, the shame, the fear that is hidden within the words. Then I must respect where each individual student is in relation to his or her broken heart and act accordingly. when my relationship with the student is solid, and when the student has a strong foothold in his or her writing, I bring out my jungle red fingernails, play the devil’s advocate, be the bad cop, the irreverent fool–whatever it takes to teach perseverance, self-trust, and discipline.

With that Palahniuck pursued his craft head-on while holding a day job where he found time to write during work, at the laundromat, at the gym, and while waiting for his 1985 Toyota pickup truck at the shop. 

Invisible Monster, originally titled “Manifesto” was the first novel Palahniuk tried to get published… years before Fight Club. It was shot down because the publishers didn’t have an appetite for a story about a disfigured model with multiple identities. Powered by indignant persistence, Palahniuk set off to write a novel even further from the norm. 

During a camping trip, Palahniuk was involved in an altercation that left him bruised and swollen. Upon returning to work, he realized that none of his co-workers acknowledged his visible injuries or showed any interest in his personal life. That indifference from others was the spark for Fight Club.  

With a journalism background, Palahniuk claimed that all his stories begin with a truth and through his boredom, he infuses it with his imagination.

Fight Club’s Project Mayhem is loosely based on The Cacophony Society, where members are self-designated and gatherings are randomly pitched and sponsored. These events usually involve costumes and pranks, as well as venturing into areas that are restricted. Palahniuk is a member — and was a victim of a prank once when the members of the Cacophony Society showed up during one of his readings in San Francisco. 

In 1995, Fight Club, a seven-page short story, was published in a compilation entitled Pursuit of Happiness. These seven pages ended up being chapter six in the full-length novel. Excited by the proposition of finally being a published author, Palahniuk sold Fight Club to publisher W. W. Norton for $6,000

On August 17, 1996, Fight Club was published. It was a positive reception and won Palahniuk the 1997 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Oregon Book Award for Best Novel. Critics praised Palahniuk for his unique writing style: caustic, outrageous, funny, violent, and unsettling. However, others found issues in the novel’s heteronormative themes and the violent aspects of the plot. Yet even with the publicity, the hardcovers for Fight Club didn’t perform greatly in sales with only 5,000 copies sold. 

In the rerelease of Fight Club in 1999 and 2004, Palahniuk says that all he did was update The Great Gatsby. He describes the two stories as apostolic fiction, where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero. In both tales there are two male characters and one female — and in the end, the hero dies. 

Even though the book didn’t make it onto any top sellers list at the start, a copy of the novel made it to movie producers Ross Grayson Bell and Joshua Donen. Bell remembered reading the novel and getting to the twist in the story, which caused him to reassess everything he just read. He stayed up all night, too excited to sleep. He was about to produce his first feature film, but to affirm what he felt about Fight Club, he hired a group of actors to read the book out loud, restructuring it and cutting out the excess in the novel that couldn’t be presented in a film. 

Bell recorded the reading and shared it with 20th Century Fox producer, Laura Ziskin, who produced such films as Pretty Woman, What About Bob?, and As Good As It Gets. During a drive to Santa Barbara, Ziskin listened to the recording that Bell shared. As the current executive of the mid-budget division of 20th Century Fox, Ziskin saw potential in the story of Fight Club — she herself was uncertain of how to approach it, but she was confident that Bell was the one to lead it and hired him as the producer. 

The film rights for Fight Club was optioned for $10,000 and the adaptation process was on its way.  Bell first sent the novel to up-and-coming director, David O. Russell, who was looking for his next project after releasing Flirting with Disaster in 1996. Unfortunately — or fortunately — Russell didn’t understand what the story was about and declined the offer. Later, Russell will admit that he obviously didn’t do a good job reading it. 

The manuscript made its way around town and got rejected from directors such as Buck Henry who directed The Graduate, Peter Jackson who directed The Frighteners, Bryan Singer who directed The Usual Suspects, and Danny Boyle who directed Trainspotting. Because of this lack of interest, the manuscript got a bad reputation. 

David Fincher, on the other hand, was attracted to the story at once. Coming off of projects such as Se7en and The Game, Fincher was establishing himself as a director who can apply a unique visual style to a story with an edgy theme. While his movies to this point were hits and misses: Se7en: a hit; The Game: a miss. He had come a long way from his days of directing music videos, some notable ones including Rolling Stones, Madonna, and Aerosmith. 

Fight Club attracted Fincher for many reasons, but it was the relatability to Palahniuk’s story that really moved him. Fincher himself was a man in his late thirties and he recognized the same anger evoked in the novel, where a certain breed of men was unable to evolve at the speed society required them to. 

Nevertheless, there was some hesitation for Fincher to sign on with 20th Century Fox. In 1990, Alien3 was in pre-production and things were not going well for franchise producers David Giler and Walter Hill and director, Vincent Ward. Due to creative differences, Ward would end up being fired — and Alien3, a movie with a $56 million budget and an unfinished script was now without a director

In comes 28-year-old David Fincher to save the blockbuster movie. Giler and Hill found Fincher through his music video credits, specifically Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” and hired him for his feature directorial debut. Yet, it wasn’t so much as saving the movie for Fincher, as it was surviving it. With no history as a movie director to back up his experience on set, he became a puppet for the production company. Even as an avid fan of the original Alien directed by Ridley Scott, and even having a cohesive story that linked everything together, the studio refused to budge and Alien3 became a piece of cinema devoid of key decisions from the director. Fincher was not proud of the result and he was not happy with his experience working with 20th Century Fox. 

It took Fincher three years to recover and at many points, he felt as though his career as a feature film director was over. 

However, 20th Century Fox opened the door to Fincher when he came knocking about Fight Club. Fincher saw the movie heading in two directions and gave the studio the options: 1) Fight Club could be a low-budget straight to videotape movie or 2) it could be one with a big budget and big stars. Obviously, he had very little interest in making a low-budget movie, but since Alien3, he had learned a few tricks and used it to negotiate. The studio didn’t buy in at once but were intrigued enough to give Fincher a chance. 

Screenwriter, Jim Uhls had been working on adapting the story of Fight Club from the beginning. He received the manuscript about the same time Fincher did from someone he knew who worked for a production company. He was told that every studio in Hollywood had already passed on it. Uhls was blown away by the story and even though he felt that it could never be made into a movie, he thought it would be a great achievement to be paid to adapt it, so he began to write. 

The story was deemed unadaptable by many — as the novel was essentially a long monologue. Where Uhls made a difference was building the scenes around those key moments inside the narrator’s head. Slowly Uhls began to gain some interest around 20th Century Fox, but what sealed it was his attendance at a large lunch meeting with the executives and David Fincher. Uhls sat strategically next to Fincher, who was somewhere between an acquaintance and a friend. It was there during the lunch meeting where the two talked about Fight Club and the obstacles of making it into a film, but it was more than a conversation and Uhls knew it: he was there to pitch himself. 

Much like how Fight Club was Chuck Palahniuk’s first credit as a novelist, the adaptation was Jim Uhls’s first credit as a screenwriter. 

During the late 90s, voice-overs have gotten a reputation as being a trite and uninspired technique to deliver exposition in a movie and many studios wanted to avoid it. However, Fincher recognized that the story hinged on the internal dialogue of the narrator. Without it, it would be a depressing story — and that was not what he was going for. It took Uhls and Fincher seven months to complete the script and still it required help from director, Cameron Crowe and screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker. 

During the casting process, producer Ross Bell had Russell Crowe in mind for the role of Tyler Durden, but it was producer Art Linson that began conversations with Brad Pitt. Having already worked with Fincher in Se7en and the studio’s desire to add a bankable star as the lead, Pitt signed on, hoping to wash the dismal failure of Meet Joe Black away. 

There were a lot of options on the market for someone to play the unnamed narrator: Sean Penn or Matt Damon were top contenders, but it was Edward Norton that won the role with his aligned vision with Fincher. Both Fincher and Norton saw the film as a satire — it was not an action movie, it was a comedy. And Fincher knew that Norton could give the type of “wink wink” comedic performance required having seen him in his previous role in The People vs Larry Flynt. 

Once cast, the two leading men took lessons in various martial arts, including boxing, tae kwon do, and grappling. Additionally, they took a course in soap making. 

Fincher wanted to cast comedian Janeane Garofalo as the role of Marla Singer, but she declined due to the sexual aspects of the film. Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, and Reese Witherspoon were up for consideration as well, but in the end, Fincher went with Helena Bodham Carter because of her role in the 1997 romantic comedy, The Wing of the Dove.   

In 138 days, filming was completed, but not without hiccups. The movie was budgeted for $23 million and ended up costing $63 million. There were threats made by the executives from the partnering studio, New Regency, for Fincher to reduce the cost, but he refused. It was only when the executives saw the dailies during a  three-week span that they were convinced that it was money worth spending.  

It took over 1500 rolls of film, three times more than the Hollywood average, to capture principal photography. David Fincher affirmed his reputation as a director who liked to shoot many takes. 

While the movie was shot predominantly in California, there ended up being over 200 locations, in addition to over 70 sets. For a movie with only 300 hundred scenes, this was a lot. Fincher didn’t enjoy this aspect of the process and remedied it in his next movie, Panic Room in 2002, which was shot predominantly in one location.  

There were disagreements on many fronts on how to properly market Fight Club. The studio at first wanted to market it as an art film, geared towards a male audience because of its violence. Yet, when you have Brad Pitt as a star, it’s hard to not push him to the front of all your publicity material, however, Fincher resisted against that. Instead, he decided to film two fake public service announcements presented by the two lead characters. The studios were not thrilled with that creative stint and instead spent $20 million to create materials that highlighted the movie’s fight scenes, buying ad time during viewing events dominated by the male demographic such as WWE. 

On April 20, 1999, two students at Columbine High School entered their school and murdered 12 people before turning the guns on themselves. This incident rippled through the entertainment industry and the studio — claiming it wanted to avoid competing with the summer blockbusters — pushed the release of the film from July 1999 to October 15, 1999. 

The job of promoting the film was no easier for the actors. As Brad Pitt and Edward Norton did their circuit, they discovered the difficulty of explaining the movie without giving away the key parts. None of the marketing efforts properly communicated what Fight Club was, and most who initially went to see it in theatres expected to see a film about fighting. 

Fight Club bombed at the box office, earning only $37 million in domestic gross and $100.8 million worldwide. Fincher left LA to Bali during the opening weekend to escape the inevitable negativity and recalibrate his life. 

Yet, the movie’s failure didn’t banish it to obscurity like so many others. Word of mouth started to spread, a cult following was established, and in an age of growing sensitivity, real fight clubs were formed. Across America, from universities to the tech industry, from gentleman clubs to gathering of pre-teens, people were getting together to throw punches. Many of which were filmed and leaked online — thus breaking the number one rule and leading to arrests. On top of that, these gatherings began partaking in terrorist activities such as bombing attempts. Fight Club had reached critical mass and achieved longevity in many home entertainment collections, selling more than 6 million copies on DVD and VHS its first decade. 

While today, Fight Club is deemed to be Palahniuk’s and Fincher’s masterpieces, it’s said to continue to do damage as a cultural influencer of violence. In a world so politically separated, is this the sort of entertainment that encourages those with a lack of power to take matters into their own hands, often leading to dangerous results? 

One group that have latched onto Fight Club as their bible, is the incels, a collection of bitter violent men who harbor resentment because of their involuntary celibacy. The most recognized member is Elliot Rodgers, who in 2014, went on a killing spree at the University of California. When asked about the situation in an interview with the Guardian, Palahniuk stated, “the extremes always go away,” comparing the incels to radical feminist, Valerie Jean Solanas, who attempted to murderer pop artist, Andy Warhol in 1968. 

In a society many deemed to be getting overly sensitive, a term coined by the novel may best represent the toxicity that the story leaves behind. The term is “snowflake,” an insult now commonly associated with the alt-right movement, usually directed at the liberals and their inflated entitlement and sensitivity. 

20 years after the release of the movie, the message of Fight Club is as relevant as ever, but many of us are moving towards a more progressive viewpoint and want to put Fight Club behind us. Some now even deem it to be an example of a two-hour-long mansplaining episode and that it is nothing more than a childish representation of past. Albeit, we must recall what Fight Club was intended to be… it was not propaganda, it was satire. How it’ll be received in the decades to come? Only time will tell.  

Fight Club is a story of pent up rage, a clenched fist held too long and must be thrown. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen if we don’t find ways to release the anger in a peaceful manner. Fight Club is not condoning violence, it’s supporting all the other means of expression that isn’t violent, such as peaceful protest. 

After watching the film, Chuck Palahniuk went on to say that he believes the movie was an improvement on the book. Perhaps he saw what Fincher did… 

Many changes were made during adaptation, but perhaps the most notable is the ending. In the novel, the narrator wakes up surrounded by the members of Project Mayhem in a mental hospital after shooting himself. While in the movie, the narrator and Marla mend their relationship just in time to watch the city below crumble. The novel ends with the impending return of chaos that is Tyler Durden, while the movie ends with a new beginning — a new life with Marla. 

Which version did you prefer? And what are your thoughts on the impact of Fight Club in today’s society? Is it dangerous? Let me know in the comments below. 

For more in the series of adaptations, please check out this YouTube playlist here.

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