Bill Cullen continues with his series on Hollywood actors as historians. As we noted last week, he is currently focusing on Tom Hanks.
Today Cullen takes on Hanks’s most famous role: Forrest Gump.
Here is Cullen on the relationship between the movie and Winston Groom’s novel by the same name:
The filmmakers took the core of the novel for their plot: mentally handicapped mid-century Alabama man stumbles into a series of famous historical moments while pining away for his childhood sweetheart. But in an unusual reversal from what one typically expects, Forrest Gump is a far more nuanced character on the screen than on the page. Even with a deadpan expression, Hanks manages to endow the character with more psychological complexity than Groom does. Screenwriter Eric Roth (and presumably uncredited collaborators) took the opening line, “Bein’ an idiot is no box of chocolates,” and refashioned it into the still trite, but more resonant, “Mama always said life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.” The signature line of the novel is variations on “I am tryin to do the right thing.” But “stupid is as stupid does” has a lot more zing. Both versions note that Forrest’s name, derived from Klu Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, was given by him by his mother (played in the movie by Sally Field) as a cautionary tale, but the movie hits this irony more cleanly. The filmmakers took a lot of incidents from the book and incorporated them into the movie, but left others, like Forrest’s stint as a professional wrestler, behind. (Would have liked to see him rescue Chairman Mao from drowning, though.) And they dropped his sweetheart marrying another man in favor of having the joylessly sybaritic, but unmarried, Jenny Curran (Robin Wright), who dies of AIDS, more dramatic choice that makes the story more relevant even as it somehow makes her a more pure character. They also replaced the hulking figure of the novel and clapping braces on his legs that he only sheds when fleeing bullies – hence Jenny’s famous line, “Run, Forrest Run!” With the proper support, literal and figurative, the film suggests, weak children can still make strong adults. So it is that Sally Field’s mama Gump resorts to sexual barter so that Gump can attend the local public school. The overall effect of these changes makes the movie a more deft, but also more sentimental, story.