This book to film comparison contains spoilers.
After loving this movie for so many years, I didn’t think twice when I saw the book going for a few dollars at a second-hand sale. It’s one of those movies that my entire family loves and can quote from at the drop of a hat. I remembered reading about some of the differences between the book and film but I didn’t expect this degree of difference.
I find the overall tone of the book to be incredibly negative and self-deprecating. Book Forrest is constantly putting himself down and thinking that he’ll never amount to anything. Movie Forrest, on the other hand, has always possessed an incredibly endearing blind optimism. While I struggled to come to terms with the change of tone throughout the book, there were a lot of things which were more black and white.
School and university
After his first year at school, Book Forrest is sent to a special school. He returns to a regular high school when someone notices that his size (‘six foot six and weighed two hundrit forty-two pounds’) would be an advantage for the football team. He reconnects with Jenny, who he hasn’t seen since the first grade.
Their separation in the book means that Book Jenny is not nearly as fiercely protective of Forrest as she is in the movie. Her early interactions with him in the book read as kind and tolerant but never overly friendly.
In the movie, Forrest’s whole college experience is reduced to a couple of football games, racial desegregation, beating up Jenny’s boyfriend, and a few other events. The book reveals the hideous conditions in which he’s forced to live in the so-called Ape Dorm, and his unusual aptitude for physics. Before flunking out of university, Book Forrest meets Bubba and becomes friends with him. It’s through Bubba that Forrest develops his talent and affection for the harmonica.
Though Forrest escapes enlistment in the army a few times, it is seen as an inevitability. His time in the army is largely brushed over and isn’t overly memorable for me.
Lieutenant Dan appears for the first time as a quiet, reserved, and philosophical person; Forrest wasn’t the one to save him and so bears no responsibility for the loss of Dan’s legs. Forrest develops his talent for ping pong in the book while he’s recovering, and he eventually goes on to meet Chairman Mao and save his life, much to the chagrin of the rest of the army officials.
The movie shows Forrest’s enlistment as a choice after his graduation from college. Lieutenant Dan is a stronger character with an interesting backstory, and Bubba’s death and Forrest’s heroism is more clear and moving. Though his talent for ping pong make an appearance in the movie, and there are clear references to Chairman Mao in the set, there’s no opportunity for Forrest to save his life or do anything other than play ping pong.
Running vs. everything else
There were huge chunks of the book eliminated from the movie: Book Forrest was institutionalised; he became an astronaut; he crash-landed in New Guinea with Major Fritch and Sue the (male) orang-utan; he spent four years living with a cannibalistic tribe; he made money wrestling; he was a chess prodigy; he met the actress Raquel Welch; he was reunited with his orang-utan friend Sue and just walked around America with the ape, unquestioned.
If you’ve only ever seen the movie, that list of things might be pretty surprising. All of that has been replaced instead with Forrest’s three-year run around America. Personally, I think that works out better for the story. Some of Movie Forrest’s encounters flirt with the boundaries of believability but they never seem outright implausible.
Lieutenant Dan and the shrimping business
As I’ve mentioned before, Book Dan is a quiet and philosophical guy that Forrest meets while they’re recovering from their respective injuries. He ends up on the streets before moving to Indianapolis with Forrest and living with him and Jenny during Forrest’s wrestling stint. His homelessness and general disenchantment with the world embitters him, making him closer to his character in the movie. Book Dan meets up with Forrest again in Savannah, towards the end of the book, but he is never part of the shrimping business. He’s happy enough to just get by with Forrest and hang out.
The movie shows Dan to be a rough guy from the start, and his willingness to die in battle turns him bitter much more quickly than his book counterpart. Forrest may have saved his life, but it’s not always a life Dan is happy to live. Though Movie Dan seems to have become an alcoholic, he never actually ends up living on the streets. He plays a large part in the development of Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and eventually finds happiness in the life that he leads.
Due to Book Forrest’s immediate success in shrimping (a matter of ‘growing’ the shrimp rather than trawling for them), a few corporations are formed, including Gum’s Shellfish Company, Sue’s Stuffed Crab, Inc., and Mama’s Crawfish Étouffée, Ltd. To my dismay, the book doesn’t have a Bubba Gump in sight.
Forrest and Jenny
The movie has invented a moving backstory for Jenny, including the details about her molestation at the hands of her father, and going to live with her grandmother after his arrest. In fact, Book Jenny’s mother is alive and well. Well enough, at least, to make a few appearances in the book and help set up Jenny and Forrest on a date in high school.
Forrest maintains a strong attraction to Jenny but it’s never entirely clear to me whether his attraction is due to her simply being kind. Either way, they’re nowhere near the best friends they are made out to be in the movie. Their on-again, off-again sexual relationship starts up in the book when Forrest is fresh out of the army but ends when Forrest develops an addiction to marijuana.
They reunite in Indianapolis, during Forrest’s wrestling career. It’s at this point that Jenny falls pregnant. She leaves Forrest knowing that she’s pregnant but refusing to stay and watch him make a fool of himself for money. In the movie, Jenny falls pregnant when she returns to Alabama of her own accord. The movie does a good job of making their meetings equal instead of Forrest constantly seeking Jenny out as he does in the book.
Jenny and Forrest sleep together only once in the movie. She leaves before she could possibly know she’s pregnant, driven by her own desires and perhaps because she knows that she doesn’t really love Forrest the way he loves her.
In both the book and movie, Jenny settles in Savannah to raise her child. The book has her marrying another man, and seeming to live a relatively happy life. She happens upon Forrest while he’s busking, and introduces him to his son. Unfortunately, the book ends soon after this scene: Jenny may not die like she does in the movie but there’s no marriage or happy ending in store for them as a family.
The book’s ending seems more realistic but, after loving Jenny for so long and finally becoming the kind of man she could be proud of, it seems a depressing note to end on. Then again, I’m not sure if Jenny would have married Forrest in the movie if she hadn’t known that she was sick. The marriage seemed to me to be an opportunity for Jenny to make her best friend happy and provide for her son, knowing that she didn’t have much time left to do either of those things. It was a kind act, but I don’t know if Jenny—in either the book or movie—ever truly loved Forrest the way he wanted her to.
This is one of the few times I can say with conviction that I enjoyed the movie far more than the book. The heart of each story is very different: the book is a chain of unlikely events with a love story floating in the background; the movie is a love story featuring a man who happens to step in and out of history’s gaze.
Tone really makes all the difference. Winston Groom’s novel might have been enchanting if it were written in a brighter manner. But upon finishing the book I felt strangely discontent. The movie managed to execute highs and lows, and show Forrest grappling with his condition in a kinder light than the book.
Doctors in the book proclaim that Forrest is an idiot savant in the book, yet he never seems truly happy or confident in his many talents or achievements. Winston Groom constantly has Forrest saying that he’s ‘just an idiot’ and by the end of the book you come to accept that mentality as well. In the movie, Forrest Gump is a human being displayed in all his complexities, achievements, and failings. Ultimately, I would rather remember that Forrest than the deeply unhappy character I encountered in Winston Groom’s book.