Fans of the film Forrest Gump who were inspired to the read the novel upon which it is based are likely to be quite surprised at what they find. As originated by author Winston Groom, Forrest Gump physically resembles the college football star he became, is significantly less lovable and more emotional complex and rather than being a gentle innocent is a bona fide idiot savant compared to a human computer.
Lots and lots of changes occurred from the book to the screen. The most significant change relative to the vision of the story brought to the screen by director Robert Zemeckis is that few would ever have read the novel and seen in it a chance to make a film that was groundbreaking for the use of special effects. A movie made around the same time was also a landmark in the evolution of Hollywood effects, but anyone reading Jurassic Park could have seen that coming. In contrast, Zemickis may have literally been the only person on the planet who read the tale of Forrest Gump and was struck with the idea that his story could represent a transformative moment in the history of blending contemporary actors with actual historical moments caught on film.
Which is not to say that Forrest Gump stands alone as some kind of signature, one-of-a-kind watershed moment. More appropriate would be the assertion that Forrest Gump is the film which cemented the possibilities of what was already a minor trend. The two most famous representatives of this trend which preceded the release of Forrest Gump are Carl Reiner and Steve Martin’s fascinating experimental film Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Woody Allen’s absolutely dazzling Zelig.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid—while incredibly funny—is essentially a gimmick: make a modern day black and white detective movie in which mainly the Steve Martin character seamlessly interacts with legendary Hollywood stars in scenes from old black and white movies. The gimmick is effective, but simplistic in that technology does not really seem to put Steve Martin right into the existing footage, but merely uses clever editing tricks to create the illusion.
By contrast, Woody Allen’s character seems to be co-existing right in the actual archival footage of figures from the past, including being on the same stage with Hitler during one of the madman’s huge Nazi rallies. By any standard of measurement, Zelig is a breathtaking display of innovative cinematography, but the fact that the insertion of the title character into this footage is a visual embodiment of his unique abilities and speaks to the underlying psychological problem of a man so desperate to fit in that he has no actual personality makes it all the more stunning.
In the novel, Gump does lead an unusually interesting and eccentric life that takes him from college football star to rock star to ping-pong champion to chess champion to actor to astronaut. He does not, however, find himself crossing paths with too many famous moments in American history. Zemeckis made a film that seems to have inspired by the elements of the book in which Gump reveals a myriad of talents and abilities and those which made it intact into the screen appear to be the creative impulse behind his ability to see in the story a film allowing him to remain within the milieu in which he seems most comfortable. Zemeckis, after all, established his reputation with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit before staking out a position as Hollywood’s foremost director of films which blur the line between live action and animation such as The Polar Express and Welcome to Marwen.
Ultimately, the influence of Zemeckis was large enough to essentially co-op the character of Forrest Gump from his creator. By focusing more intently on the Candide-like experiences of Forrest moving from big moment to another while reshaping his character to fit that concept, the Forrest Gump of Groom’s novel has come to seem like the misguided adaptation rather than the other way around. What is essential to note is that had Zemeckis not seen the potential for this project to become one of his beloved experimentations with technique and effect and instead attempted to make a basic page-to-screen transition, he could not possibly have given the world the Forrest Gump that its 700 million dollar box office and six Academy Awards pretty much confirms is beloved by the world. That Forrest Gump simply doesn’t exist out of the special effects spectacular that Zemeckis somehow crafted from the original source.