Saturday, 23 February 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Graduate

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

6/19: The Graduate by Charles Webb

The blurb: As far as Benjamin Braddock's parents are concerned, his future is sewn up. Now he has graduated from college, he will go to Yale or Harvard, get a good job and enjoy a life of money, cocktails and pool parties in the suburbs, just like them. For Benjamin, however, this isn't quite enough. When his parents' friend Mrs Robinson, a formidable older woman, strips naked in front of him and they begin an affair, it seems he might have found a way out. That is, until her daughter Elaine comes into the picture, and things get far more complicated.

The review: you all know the story already, of course, such is the film adaptation's deserved fame, longevity and cultural impact. So what can I tell you about the source material, Charles Webb's debut novel, published in 1963? First of the bat, I can tell you how closely the film version sticks to the novel, especially the first half, and why shouldn't it when the novel in question is written so well? It seems incredible to me, as an aspiring writer, that this was Webb's first novel - it is so assured, so confident, so fully-formed. To quote fan Nick Hornby, Webb "writes with this lovely, spare style" and that's exactly right - he uses exactly as many words as are necessary and no more. As you may have gathered from earlier reviews in this series, that bare, concise style very much appeals to me. So sparse is Webb's style that the opening scene, which begins with our (anti-)hero Benjamin the reluctant star of a family party and ends with him being propositioned by Mrs Robinson, almost reads like a screenplay.

What else? The improbable yet oh-so-plausible dialogue the film's scriptwriters took a lot of credit for, well, a good proportion of that seems to have been lifted wholesale from the book. Yes, there are lines that aren't here and if, like me, you've seen the film more times than is healthy you'll look out for these variations and omissions (there's no "Plastics", there's no "You'll pardon me if I don't shake your hand"). But the book, and especially its dialogue, is a rich experience, and would be even for someone who hadn't seen the film.

Even for the aforementioned unhealthy cinephiles, there are elements of the book's story over and above what was shown on the big screen. For a start, whilst still painfully funny, the book has less humour than the film. More specifically, the character of Ben is a bit harder to like; as I mentioned earlier, he's more of an anti-hero in the book, a conventional hero in the film. In the book, he seems more petulant at times, and is a little harder to empathise with as a result. That you do still empathise is testament to Webb's storytelling, I think. There are other changes too - Ben is in Berkeley for much longer in the book, wearing Elaine down, and sells his sports car to finance that (so whilst he still gets to dash to the church in the final act, he doesn't do it in a Simon and Garfunkel powered red Alfa). And the final, final scene, which you all know so well from the film - well, I won't spoil it for you but the book's last page, last line pay-off is even better.

Webb's career as a novelist never really took off in the way this book suggested it might, though he did write other novels, including New Cardiff, which was adapted for film as Hope Springs. In 2007, Home School, the long-awaited sequel to The Graduate, was finally published, after much copyright wrangling. There is some suggestion that Webb only wrote this because he was in financial difficulties, which casts doubt on how good it may or may not be. Maybe I'll track down a copy and let you know. But for now, though, let's revel in the perfect, concise fiction of his debut.

The bottom line: I was prepared to be disappointed by this, such is my love of the film, but it is superbly written, lean, precise and insightful, with enviable dialogue and a page-turning narrative. Very highly recommended.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★★

Any excuse for a clip from Mike Nichols' film version, this scene is one of a number that remains very close to the book.


  1. Your voracious reading puts me to shame, Martin - I'm most impressed. Always sounds interesting to read the original book after having seen the film it was turned into; I'm trying to think if I've ever done things in that order but I'm drawing a blank at the moment.

    1. Voracious? Maybe. This is a short book but I belted through it in three sittings. Very highly recommended it is too.