Friday 19 August 2011

Devouring Books AND Films- The Graduate (1967)/by Charles Webb

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm going to let you all know that I read The Graduate last year (I think it was in November), but I honestly, as you will soon see, have no urge to read it again. So if my review is not entirely accurate to the way the book is then you have my deepest apologies, but really, it's so not worth the re-read...

There was a time, towards the time of my own graduation last year, where I became entirely obsessed with the movie of The Graduate. There were, of course, entirely obvious reasons for this- the disorientation that comes with a pretty huge part of your life abruptly ending, especially when you don't have any idea what to do next, other than thinking that you don't want to do anything that everyone else does. Other than that though, it's just a really charming, at times hilarious, at times heart wrenching film; and let's be honest, who doesn't love Dustin Hoffman? I can't even really tell you what this film meant to me, other than to urge you to watch it when you are in a transitional stage in your life, and then tell me that it doesn't mirror what you feel almost exactly.

I read the book thinking that, since the film is so impressive, the book must be at least equally as good, if not better, because of the ability books have to reveal the inner lives of their characters, as well as their external actions. With the book of The Graduate then, I wanted greater insight into just what the hell Benjamin was thinking when he decides to do everything he does (I was surely not the only person slightly disarmed by his sudden decision to marry Elaine?!) and that's really not what I got. The book of The Graduate really just reads pretty much like a script of the movie, which is no bad thing in itself, but, I should say, I didn't get anything extra from it that I didn't get from the movie. The following review then, I guess, although it's going to focus mostly on the film, will really be about both, because they are essentially exactly the same. Sound good? OK, good!

So The Graduate is essentially a comedy, even though it is also incredibly deep, and reflective of real life (for the most part). I think it's easy, especially for me, to forget just how funny it is when I get to thinking about how dramatic and true and honest I find it. This is complete and utter foolishness on my part- in his starting an affair with Mrs Robinson (hilariously endorsed by Mr Robinson, encouraging Benjamin to 'sow his wild oats'; not realising that he is in fact pushing Ben towards his own wife) Benjamin's behaviour is endearingly and amusingly nervous- it is clear that he has no idea what he's doing, and because of that we love him. Any arrogance in the situation in which he finds himself would immediately make him repugnant to the audience, but because he is so unsure of himself, we can't help but hope he finds himself and what he really wants. His nervousness also leads to exchanges like this, which make me laugh out loud at about half 11 at night:
Isn't there something you want to tell me?
Tell you?
Well, I want you to know how much I appreciate this. Really.
The number.
The room number, Benjamin. I think you ought to tell me that."
I mean, just hilarious, am I right? I also love love love the whimpering that Hoffman comes out with on occasion too- the situation is just really too much for him, so he has to whimper or do something or he'll probably freak out. I don't want to give away too much of the hilarity though, just in case you haven't seen it yet- I'm sure you'll find your own favourite parts with great ease!

So, the funniness aside, as I've probably mentioned about 50 times now, The Graduate has some much deeper parts to it that I want to explore (or possibly they're not as deep as I think they are, but either way- I'm an English graduate, I can make anything seem deep!) Starting from almost the very beginning, it is clear that Benjamin is confused, distracted and just plain lost about what to do with his future. He has gone, in a very short time, to being the absolute star of his university (at least in his parents' eyes) to being out in 'the real world', where what you did isn't important anymore, all that is is what you do next. His saying that, with his future he wants to "do something... different", is, I think, a rejection of what his parents have deemed important of an adult life, and of what is conventionally available to him, and an urge to do something else. He just doesn't quite know what this is. I link this feeling to a sort of sixties sensibility, a feeling that your parents, who you watched throughout the fifties fulfilling conventional gender roles, have been doing it wrong somehow, and that you can do things so much better, if only you knew exactly what that looked like...

So we have Benjamin, aimless and confused, falling into an affair with a woman he barely likes because it is the easiest and clearest path offered to him. This all changes when he meets Elaine Robinson, someone with whom he feels a deep and clear connection because she understands what he's going through as she is in the same stage of her life as him. It is this, and only this, I would imagine, that leads him to believe that he is in love with her, and leads him to do the crazy stuff he subsequently does. I think, most telling about the way he feels about Elaine, or the reason he feels the way he does about Elaine, is when he tells her that "you're the first person in a long time I could stand to be around" leading him to think that, subsequently, she's the only person he can possibly be around for the rest of his life. More telling of his mental state than his apparent love for her, I think, is what he says straight after the above, "My whole life... such a waste." Not only do I want to hug him for thinking that, because it's clearly not the case, but this kind of thinking is definitely indicative of some higher crisis- being left with so many exhausting options to make, he has kind of shut down and is now unable to see a clear future at all. This, more than the way he feels about Elaine, is I think what is at the root of his decision to marry her- it gives him a better idea of what his future is going to look like, which is infinitely more comforting than not being able to see it at all.

I can't really talk about The Graduate without talking about the ending. Turn away now if you don't want to know about it, but really you sort of should already- it's an iconic thing, something that has entered pop culture of its own accord, and I know I've seen a Simpson's version of it... But anyway, if you really don't know then you should definitely wait to see it. But, for those of you that do... Benjamin's race to the church to stop Elaine's wedding is definitely heroic (albeit a little selfish) and you do sort of want to cheer for both him and Elaine for ending up with each other. On Elaine's part, it is clear that she really did know what Benjamin was talking about earlier, and she too doesn't want the life of her parents. To Mrs Robinson's insistent "It's too late", she replies "Not for me!" hoping to avoid the miserable marriage that her mother has been stuck in for twenty years. On a wave of adrenaline, Elaine and Benjamin leave the church, running onto a bus that will take them away to their hopeful future. Mike Nichols could have left his audience with a sense that everything would turn out alright for that crazy pair, but instead he allows us to see the expressions of our two young lovers, as they change from a sense of crazy exhilaration and joy, to a look of anti-climax, of wondering what the hell they've done, and what the hell they're going to do next. Benjamin still has no clear plan other than getting married, and Elaine doesn't know what Benjamin even has to offer her, although he is certainly more interesting than the schmuck she's just married. The song that begins playing at the very end 'The Sound of Silence' is exactly the same as the one at the beginning, and there is a sense that Benjamin is really in the same state as he was then, wanting so much from his future, but not even knowing how to begin to get it.

I really really really love The Graduate (as you might have been able to tell) and would really encourage you to watch it if you haven't already. In a sense, you get more from the film than the book, as the lack of insight into the state of Benjamin's thoughts in the book means that you get more information from Dustin Hoffman's facial expressions than you do from the Benjamin in the novel. If you're feeling confused, bewildered, conflicted, or are just at a crossroads in your life, you will be able to relate to this movie so well, and although it won't necessarily give you any guidance of what to do (other than 'marry Elaine Robinson') you will definitely feel less alone in what you are facing. I honestly just can't recommend it enough, and if you watch it and think I've gone over the top in my analysis of it, then you should definitely come back and tell me that, and I'll take it pretty well, I think. Just don't tell me you don't like it, because that I wouldn't be able to take...


  1. We had to watch The Graduate for a Dimensions of Culture class in college. What I loved most about the movie was the music. Simon and Garfunkel are amazing. Now Dear Mrs. Robinson will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day. :)

  2. I'm embarrassed to admit that I've neither read nor watched The Graduate... Sad, I know... You're one of the many who have nothing but great things to say about the movie.