Big Fish

By Kellman, Steven G. | Southern Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Big Fish


Kellman, Steven G., Southern Quarterly


Holy Mackerel. Review of BigFish. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, based on a novel by Daniel Wallace. Columbia Pictures, 2003.

Daniel Wallace, who grew up in Birmingham, set his first novel in Ashland, a hamlet in eastern Alabama whose population currently numbers little more than 2,000. he now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Published in 1998, BigFish is the story of Edward Bloom, a man whose name befits a lush imagination, a raconteur who cannot help embellishing and fabricating the experiences he recounts. By the time he finishes relating an incident, the tale is as tall as Karl, a giant who mysteriously materializes in Ashland.

So it is probably appropriate that when Tim Burton-whose Edward Scissorhancls, Batman, and Sleepy Hollow are not exactly paragons of cinema verite-adapted BigFish into film, Ashland was changed to Ashton, a place not found on any map. But then you will probably not find a two-headed singer entertaining troops, as Edward claims he did after parachuting into a North Korean military base. According to his son, William, Edward is "just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined- -just as funny and just as fake. "The same could be said of BigFish, except that it is not quite as funny.

One need notjourney to Garcia Marquez's Macondo in quest of the literary grotesque; it grows wild in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha and in the Southern fictions of Flannery O'Connor and William Goyen. BigFish perpetuates the stereotype of Southerners as natural-born storytellers with scant respect for reality, as though telling the truth were the genuine Lost Cause below the Mason-Dixon line. A Dixie specimen of Magical Realism, Burton's film adaptation expects a viewer to swallow everything, hook, line, and stinker. It is hard to believe that Edward's Alabama contains only one black man, a physician, although a visit to an S & L in west Texas that has been looted by real estate speculators is entirely credible.

BigFish swims in the same waters as three other recent films. Like Barbarian Invasions, it is framed by the deathbed reconciliation of a father and his son. Like secondhand Lions, it celebrates a rambunctious old coot whose memories are more inventive than accurate. And like CoW Mountain, BigFish adapts The Odyssey to an American journey beset with dangers and temptations, homeward to a patient, loving woman.

A journalist in Paris, William, exasperated with his father's constitutional aversion to honesty, has not spoken to Edward for three years. …

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