Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Graduate - Charles Webb


The problem with The Graduate, meaning the film, is that the story is eclipsed by two things: firstly, the seduction scene and secondly by the soundtrack as performed by Simon and Garfunkel. It's quite understandable, however, as the seduction scene is a classic piece of cinema and the soundtrack is practically perfect.
So how does the book that the film is based upon fair? Well, of course, there's no music to attract/distract to or from the story but there's still the seduction scene which is perfectly written and exactly the same as depicted in the film, with exactly the same dialogue. In fact, it doesn't look as though the film's script writers had to do a lot of work on it at all as it was all there in the book; and seeing as the book is dialogue-led, all they would have had to do would have been to set the scenes and fill in the spaces - leading them to win a Golden Globe award for best screenplay...

The book brings much more attention to Benjamin's (as played by Dustin Hoffman, of course) disaffection and dissatisfaction with his life and the lives of those around him. Benjamin's experiencing an existential crisis rather like that of the narrator in Albert Camus' novel The Fall. He sees no value in the college education he's received and sees no value in the life mapped out before him. He sees no value in education or intellectualism per se and as he is now a beneficiary of the best education money can buy and viewed somewhat as an 'intellectual', he subsequently sees no value in himself.
At the same time, however, he sees nothing of any worth in the world of his parents and their friends and wants something else instead; the problem being that he doesn't know what.

So enters Mrs Robinson into Benjamin's life (played in the film, of course, by the brilliant Anne Bancroft) who shows her hand (and everything else, actually) and leaves him with an open offer: "Benjamin, I want you to know I'm available to you. If you won't sleep with me this time, I want you to know you can call me up any time you want and we'll make some kind of arrangement."
Benjamin goes away 'on the road' for a few weeks and on his return starts an affair with her.

The Graduate is set in early 1960s American suburbia and what author Charles Webb does is to shine a light upon the unhappy vacuousness of that world. All the prizes of the American Dream are on display: wealth, good education, big houses, swimming pools, fast cars. But at the heart there's something missing and it's the introduction of Mrs Robinson's daughter, Elaine (in the film played by Katherine Ross), that offers a hint of what that might be.
All that Benjamin's parents could wish for (and Mr Robinson too for that matter) is that he take up a career in Harvard or Yale and settle down with Elaine, so much so that he's coerced into taking her out on a date. Mrs Robinson, however, is not best pleased and tells Benjamin to promise he won't ever take Elaine out.

In as much as having an affair with an older, married woman (and the wife of his father's business partner to boot) is a potentially socially suicidal act, suddenly there is a more forbidden fruit, if only forbidden by Mrs Robinson. She does all within her power to prevent a relationship between Benjamin and Elaine developing, from chancing divorce from her husband by revealing the affair to even accusing him of rape; in the end successfully turning everyone against Benjamin and them wanting Elaine to have nothing to do with him.
Benjamin, however, is nothing but determined and the story ends with him gatecrashing Elaine's wedding and whisking her away from her husband-to-be, her family and his own mother and father. The book ends (just like the film) with them riding away together on a bus toward an uncertain (though actually very predictable) future. The paradox being that the future they're riding toward is exactly the same one his parents and all their friends wanted for him in the first place and exactly the same one that Benjamin was initially rejecting for being vacuous and valueless.

The film of The Graduate is nowadays viewed as a classic of American cinema and the book is now a Penguin classic, though author Charles Webb has over time been somewhat forgotten. Whilst the film has grossed millions, Webb sold the rights to the story years ago for just $20,000 and lives now in Brighton (having moved there from America) in relative obscurity and poverty.
If the story within the film is eclipsed if not even obscured by the seduction scene and the soundtrack, the story within the book tends to be eclipsed by the Mrs Robinson character. Webb's creation of this powerful character is the book's legacy and just as Anne Bancroft will always be remembered for that particular role so too one day should Charles Webb for his creation of it.
                                                                                                                                                                             John Serpico

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