Rarely do I prefer film versions of a book over the book itself, but there's no contest here. Love or hate The Graduate - the cult 1960s film - you gotta agree it has heart, or at least that almost intangible something that burns it into memory.
To me that something has always been the very ending of the film, that final scene that adds a new dimension to otherwise lovely but okay film - those last moments on the bus with Simon and Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence in the background, with close-up on the faces Ben and Elaine, so exhilarated from their on-the-spur-of-the-moment decision - but, as the camera lingers, we see eventual slow fading of the happy grins and uncertainty setting in, and the slightly confused awkward apprehensive glances at each other - now what? - the scene that is the most perfect conclusion of any film ever, and subtle enough for generations of college students to misinterpret it.
Add to it amazing performances by Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, breathing life into what otherwise could have been wooden characters, and the rest of the lovely soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel - and the cult film is born.
This heart, this humanity, this something is what Charles Webb's first novel The Graduate completely lacks, even though superficially it is not that different from the film based on it. The plot is the same - a bored and disillusioned affluent recent college graduate starts an affair with an older woman, then promptly falls in love with her dishrag-personality daughter, madly pursues the above mentioned daughter and breaks up her wedding to another affluent young man, all while unsure of his place in life in the 1960s. The scenes are the same as in the film, the dialogue very similar - but where the film soars, the book drowns like a brick.
You see, separated from the humanity brought to it by the amazing Hoffman and Bancroft performances, the book feels desolately empty and meaningless. It's seems to mostly consist of awkward circular dialogues that go on forever, full of filler with nothing actually being said, with people droning on an on meaninglessly, constantly asking each other, 'What?' The attempts at communication are empty because no one actually has anything to say - a smart literary move, perhaps, if used sparingly and to the point, but the overabundance of the non-communication quickly becomes tiring, irritating and shallow. By overemphasizing emptiness around Benjamin, the book becomes quite empty itself.
Nobody in this book listens to anyone else, especially Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist, a selfish privileged young college graduate who, after a life handed to him on the silver platter, has a case of ennui and is lucky enough to have parents rich enough to allow him to parasitically waste his life in the pathetic self-pity while openly despising everyone around him because, of course, everyone is inferior to his special snowflakeness. He refuses to understand anyone, refuses to have meaningful communication with anyone, places himself into the center of the Benjamin-centric universe, judges everyone except himself, sees no consequences for his actions, and, after deciding - arbitrarily, it seems - to fall in love, basically badgers the most vapid love interest ever to pay attention to him.
“Ben?” he said, opening his son’s door.
“I’ll be down later,” Benjamin said.
“Ben, the guests are all here,” his father said. “They’re all waiting.”
“I said I’ll be down later.”
Mr. Braddock closed the door behind him. “What is it,” he said.
Benjamin shook his head and walked to the window.
“What is it, Ben.”
“Then why don’t you come on down and see your guests.”
Benjamin didn’t answer.
“Dad,” he said, turning around, “I have some things on my mind right now.”
“Just some things.”
“Well can’t you tell me what they are?”
He is ridiculous in his pompous quasi-disillusioned snobbery, and very quickly progresses from annoying to simply just an ass.
The movie treats this scene as suffocated cry of a lonely soul. In the book, Ben Braddock is a bored and rude self-absorbed twit.
Throughout the story he sounds not like a talented almost-prodigy college graduate. No, he sounds like a perpetually pissed-off snappy overpampered fifteen-year-old teenager, angry for the sake of anger. Where film-Benjamin is confused and lost and humanly vulnerable, book-Benjamin is simply irritatingly full of himself.
Benjamin stood. “Now look!” he said, waving his arm through the air. “I have been a goddamn—a goddamn ivy-covered status symbol around here for four years. And I think I’m entitled to—”
Entitled is precisely the word to describe Benjamin. Exactly right.
Written by a very young (24 years old!) privileged man from affluent Pasadena about a very young privileged man from affluent Pasadena, this book to me seems a perfect testament to the well-known fact that if you are a privileged young man, you can do whatever the hell you want and mope around for a while while being fashionably disillusioned because you know at the end of it your convenient life will be handed back to you on the same silver platter.
The book is devoid of any kind of internal monologue of characters, of any hints at their mental state, their motivations - nothing except for what's on the surface and what gets across in the empty endless dialogue. I can see how that could have been conceived as a literary device, but too much of it makes the book too shallow and empty and meaningless. At least in the film Hoffman and Bancroft's acting brought life to the characters, filling in what was unsaid with body language and facial expressions, thus creating something behind the actions of the characters. Devoid of this, the book does not provide an alternative - it simply provides nothing.
The expressions of the bus people at the end were probably exactly what my expression was by the end of this book.
And the ending - MY film ending that brings in subtlety and subverts so much of the film - no, of course it was not here. It would have been silly to expect subtlety from such a dull book. It ends just as flatly as it began, woodenly and purposelessly.
"Elaine was still trying to catch her breath. She turned her face to look at him. For several moments she sat looking at him, then she reached over and took his hand.
“Benjamin?” she said.
The bus began to move."
So if you happened to find an old copy of the book The Graduateand, feeling nostalgic for college years, want to relive the experience, I recommend the following: get some nice wine, rent the film The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, and get comfy on the couch using the book The Graduate as a coaster for your wine glass.
Lovely evening guaranteed.
Half a star.