David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club (1996) rubbishes the old adage: “the book is better than the movie.”

The story revolves around an unnamed, young man (who often calls himself “Joe”; in the sequel written by Palahniuk, he is named Sebastian) who is exasperated with his dead-end corporate job and materialistic lifestyle. He cannot sleep and he wishes to die. At some point, he lets loose an alter ego, Tyler Durden, the lovechild of Loki, the god of mischief and the Nietzschean ubermensch. Durden looks, walks, talks and fornicates like the narrator wishes he could.

As Durden, the narrator mobilises huge groups of disillusioned men across the United States of America by bringing them into the fold of a “fight club” – where men can let go of their social, cultural and racial identities that they see as baggage and engage in bare-knuckled fighting. The fight club works as a release for its members, who otherwise want to fight the social responsibilities that they have to face as men.

Durden’s philosophy of breaking the self down to rock bottom in order to emerge as an ideal man is transported to a wider context: to remake the world as Durden sees fit. A terrorist movement, Project Mayhem, is initiated to burn down the world back to the Stone Age. It is left to the narrator to contain the monster he has unleashed.

The novel’s heroes have gone on to become representatives of two distinct types of American men: the disgruntled young, white male who feels emasculated in a neo-liberal world, and the preferred alpha-anarchist who does as he sees fit. Many of Durden’s quotes from the novel, made all the more famous by the film adaptation in 1999, are frequently quoted by alt-right websites. The novel, in fact, invented the alt right’s most famous insult: “snowflake.”

Fight Club (1999).

The film adaptation, scripted by Jim Uhls, is a technical marvel. Directed by a creatively unhinged Fincher high on two back to back successes (Seven and The Game) and a $67 million budget, the Fight Club is bursting with frenetic energy, both in content and form. State-of-the-art computer graphics, immaculate production values, go-for-broke physical violence, an iconic soundtrack – Fight Club is, perhaps, one of the last original and risky big-budget productions bankrolled by a major studio.

The casting works wonders too. Edward Norton sinks his teeth into the role of an inwardly deranged man on the verge of breaking apart. Helena Bonham Carter lives and breathes her role as Marla Singer, a character best described by the critic Roger Ebert as a “chain-smoking hellcat”. But the most important reason for the film’s iconic appeal is Brad Pitt’s performance as Durden: one of America’s most attractive men, lecturing other men to reject false gods.

Fincher’s film works wonders especially because of how strongly it embraces the novel’s writing and spirit. The novel is a jaggedy work of literature, a fractured monologue of an insane man who needs to be institutionalised. It moves like a fever dream propelled by the rantings of a man constantly slipping in and out of a fugue. To translate the events in the book into a cohesive, Hollywood-style, three-act screenplay is a big feat. In doing so, screenwriter Uhls never sacrifices the perverse humour of the book or lets go of its most manic parts.

Jim Uhls on screenwriting and adapting Fight Club.

The few changes made by Fincher and Uhls only make the story better. In the book, the narrator and Durden meet on a beach. The narrator dreams that Durden places five logs of wood in the sand under the sun to create the shadow of a hand and stares, Zen-like, at his work of art. It is a surreal movement, which if transported to the film, would have made audiences aware early on that Durden exists in the narrator’s imagination.

Palahniuk hints at the unreality of Durden’s existence right from the beginning – something the film avoids to make the big reveal have greater impact. That Durden is not real is made more evident by Palahniuk’s reluctance to describe Durden’s physicality, clothing and any palpable personality. At several times, the narrator and Durden reply for each other. The 20th chapter, where the narrator finally admits to himself that he has created Durden and is warning Singer, runs on for 10 pages and exhausts the story’s biggest “gotcha” moment by overexposition. The film, more trusting of the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, leaves behind this moment and rushes towards the climax.

Fight Club (1999).

The climax is where Fincher’s film gets better. The book adores Durden too much to give its narrator a chance at redemption. In the end, the narrator is in a mental asylum, but his minions in the outside world realise Durden’s vision. In the film, the narrator gets the courage to kill his toxic twin and move on.

Palahniuk’s novel is consumed by Durden. As Durden becomes stronger with each page, the narrator – the closest thing to the story’s moral core – begins to fade into nothingness. But to make Durden succeed in the film would have meant letting the wrong side win in this twisted class war. The movie takes no pleasure in showing how depraved Durden’s vision is in its last moments, unlike the book.

In the sequel to the novel, Durden takes over the narrator, creates a world-consuming end-of-days war, and is shown to be the mastermind behind the Islamic State, among other developments. That the film ends the way it does is as relieving as its commercial failure, which makes the prospect of a meaningless sequel based on Palahniuk’s Fight Club 2 impossible.

Behind the scenes of Fight Club.