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The Book Behind the Movie: Forest Gump

Recently I watched a TV re-run of Forest Gump with my son. There were several notable things about the movie that set it apart. First, it was rich in details. There were lots of details I hadn’t recalled–like the fact that Forest wore braces as a child.

Second, the tone of the movie and it’s main character, Forest, being naive and hopeful and simple and the idea that that was exactly what made him successful in spite of all the cynicism and negativity and complexity around him. No wonder it was so heartwarming.

Third, the survey of recent American history and inclusion of so many seminal real life events spanning a time in our country that was full of them give it a special kick of nostalgia juice. And the soundtrack was fabulous!

Of course, like with so many great movies, this one was based on a book. But this is a case where the

movie was better than the book. That’s probably why I’d never heard of the novel or its author. Who was the novel’s author anyway? Winston Groom. Have you ever heard of him?

Naturally, being a novelist myself, I had to admire his accomplishment and felt he was neglected. He should be famous, right? So I did some research on Winston Groom and his novel to find out why the author with such an illustrious movie based on his novel was so non-famous.

The first thing I found out was that he was paid $300,000 for the movie that made about an $80m profit. The second thing I found out was that there was, not surprisingly, a controversy about this at the time because his contract granted his percentage as “net profit” rather than gross profit. But that wasn’t the real issue, because after all, it was a big movie and it had to have made a profit, right?

But no. At the time, studios were allowed to include a line item in their budgets for a given movie called “future potential movie losses”. This amount could be anything. Literally. With no way to dispute it. So naturally the studio claimed the amount in the “future potential movie losses” line-item was? You guessed it–$80m.

The producers ripped off the novel’s author, Winston Groom who had to settle for his $300,000 up front money. He sued and lost because the contract was iron-clad. The judge told him essentially that he’d been foolish to sign the contract. But never fear, the studio sort of made up for it when they bought an option on his next book for seven figures. That novel was entitled Gump & Co. Needless to say it was not a best seller. No one ever heard of it and it never got made into a movie.

Before we rail at the movie business, though, I also need to give credit where credit is due. The movie was better than the book. The studio added value to Forest Gump the novel by making some key changes.

For one, the movie producers changed the tone. In the novel, Forest was less of a nice guy and the tone was more cynical. This is a sea-change and one of the things that made the

move successful. To read the novel with a more cynical Forest Gump would have seriously disappointed this fan.

The other key change from the novel to the movie was to enhance the love story. Forest Gump the movie focuses on the love story threaded through it, gluing it together and giving it a more real life identifiable feel for the viewer. In the book, the love story plays a more secondary role to the snippets of historical moments and Gump accomplishments. No wonder the novel never made it.

This is a case of movie-maker brilliance and luck to first find the novel, then see its potential, and then re-work it into the story that it became–not to mention executing the production flawlessly.

This is an classic example of a movie classic based on a novel dud. A rarity. What do you think?

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