Why Does Everybody Still Talk About Fight Club?

David B Morris
10 min readApr 12, 2022


My Long, Complicated and Frustrated Relationship With One of the Most Overrated Books and Movies of All Time

Was His Being Shirtless The Only Reason People Watched This Movie? newyorker.com

When I was growing up, I subscribed to that already dying out art-form, a literary magazine. Story was a quarterly publication that published short stories and novellas by up and coming authors. I still have hidden in my room old copies of those journals that I would devour and often reread.

I don’t remember what issue it was in, but around 1995, I read a short story called ‘Project Mayhem’. Fairly Spartan, in roughly ten pages, it told the story of an urban terrorist group run by a man known only as Tyler that had very strict rules and was bent on utter destruction. The last line was: ‘The last rule is, you have to trust Tyler.’

I’ll be honest: I didn’t think this story was any more special or better than any of the ones I read before or afterwards. It did the job that any short story should, but it didn’t show any mastery of the craft or that it could be part of something bigger. I don’t even think that I noted the name of the author at the time, and I’m certain that I didn’t even save the copy of the magazine — which could have been worth of a fortune by now given what the story represents. I moved on to the next issue.

Some time in 1996, I was going through a book store in Penn Station and I saw Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. I had long since forgotten his connection with the original story and I had no reason to think this novel was any more special than anything else. I was waiting for a train, so I leaved through it. I wasn’t impressed. It was only about 200 pages, and even then I only trifled with long books. The prose wasn’t particular impressive and it didn’t strike me as imaginative. The blurbs did nothing to impress me; even then, I knew enough to know that you could find critics to say anything about any book. I walked away.

Now at this point, everybody considers Fight Club the movie to have been a cultural sensation. We forget it was a box office bomb and like so many movies in the 1990s only became part of the Zeitgeist after going out on home video. Currently, it is ranked as the twelfth greatest movie of all time. When I was in college, I took a course in Literature when I had to read and analyze the book and see the movie. I did so again later in a film course I was taking and it was used as a subject of analysis in a continuing education course I took in my early twenties. At one point when Entertainment Weekly was doing a list of the 100 best movies over its first twenty-five years, I’m relatively sure it was in the top 50, probably higher. There have been parodies, treatises, even a couple of graphic novel sequels, and its dialogue has entered popular culture. And all of this strikes me as astounding considering that no matter how you look at it, Fight Club is one of the shallowest and least imaginative books and films I’ve either read or seen. Everything that everybody seems to see in it is on the surface, and there’s nothing beneath but ugliness and grime.

Start with the book. Part of the reason I think it has such popularity is that it was designed for the MTV Generation; it’s short, most of his vocabulary is either simple or an obscenity and its plot appears smart without actually being smart. Palahniuk has written seventeen subsequent novels after Fight Club, but I know of only one other film that has been made out any of his works: Choke starring Sam Rockwell. ‘

That’s a rather poor track record for a man whose first novel has become a part of pop culture and who has had countless best-sellers since then. Considering how simple so many of his novels are compared to the complexities of Philip Roth and John Irving, it’s kind of bizarre that he has fewer literary adaptations then either of them. You could argue it’s because his novels are so bleak, but we live in the age of the dystopian adaptations for teenagers. No I think the reason almost none of Palahniuk’s other novels have been adapted is far simpler: they’re all as nihilistic and graphic as Fight Club, but none of them very good and essential all of them have the same message. Lullaby is about a man in a quest to try to follow a beautiful woman to follow a monstrous creature using a culling song to kill across America. Survivor is the story of a suicide cult who is planning to crash the plane he’s in, and is telling his story into a black box. Haunted is a series of short stories about a group of aspiring writers invited to a ‘camp’ that turns out to be a prison. All of them escape, but they’re waiting for enough people to die so they can sell the stories to the media. Others novels in his repertoire you can pretty much tell where they’re like by the title and cover art: Damned, Doomed, Rant, Snuff. The few pages of them I’ve managed to read are bleak and full of disgusting images with unlikable characters and no hope at all. Palahniuk does not strike me so much as a writer as he is someone who throws his bodily functions on the page and calls it literature. I’m not sure what it says about our society that so many critics praise works and so many readers buy it.

As to the film adaptation of Fight Club, which has no doubt given Palahniuk the continued financial freedom to tear down forests to write works in which he taunts the world for tearing forests, there is even less in it than you’d everyone says there is. I should make it clear I have the utmost respect for David Fincher as a director. I think the two films he did preceding Fight Club were bleak and unrelenting visions that were clever and engaging. Seven remains one of the great thrillers of our time (in his last book on Great Movies Roger Ebert justified calling it a classic) and his 1997 thriller The Game, a criminally under-seen masterpiece featuring Michael Douglas as a billionaire whose life because upended by a mysterious organization, is one of the cleverest films of the 1990s. Furthermore, I think most of the films he has made in the 21st Century — Zodiac, Gone Girl, The Social Network and Mank — are classic and I’ve expressed on more than one occasion my admiration for his work in TV series like House of Cards and Manhunter.

What makes Fight Club far inferior to all of those films is more or less the fact that Fincher, who often balances his cleverness with subtlety, abandons even the pretense of subtlety for this film. The critical thing about Fight Club to its success as a book was that we couldn’t learn the critical twist until near the end. But throughout the first half-hour, well before the Narrator is supposed to meet Tyler, Fincher is telegraphing Tyler’s present through subtle and not-so subtle edits, leading up to him the two passing each other on an airport escalator. These aren’t subtle hints the way that the way that The Sixth Sense would telegraph its hints about the dead for viewers to see in retrospect: these are blatant references that we shouldn’t take anything seriously. And considering this comes from the man who kept his twist about the killer until he was ready to reveal him in Seven, it seems out of character.

But let’s not blame it all on Fincher: the problem with the movie is the problem with the book. Not the screenplay, the book. Both the movie and the book are very clever for the first half-hour. As we see Edward Norton’s character going to cancer support groups in order to cry, not saying anything so people assume the worse, hugging survivors who assure him its not unmanly to cry- its actually very funny. The arrival of Marla on to the scene, who is clearly a tourist through these groups (I like the scenes where she goes through Laundromats to go shopping) is also funny as she is clearly the most authentic character in the movie. (For all the films flaws, Helena Bonham Carter, completely cast against type, gives one of the best performances of her career.)

We watch Norton go through his daily life — flying from place to place, single serving everything including his friends, working through car accidents, applying the formula for ‘a major car company’ — and all of this fun. As we watch him go through his apartment dealing with things that have bar codes and lines from catalogues, that’s really fun. Even his initial conversation with Tyler is fun. And if the film had stayed in that vein, it really could have been a classic. But as we all know, then Norton’s apartment blows up and so does the movie.

Everything that we’ve seen so far is a subtle satire of life. As soon as Norton and Brad Pitt start living together, subtlety goes out the broken window and becomes a celebration of a toxic masculinity cult. Because no matter how you try to pretty it up: that is what Tyler Dearden is: a cult leader, apparently one so convincing that he manages to convince his followers to obey everything he says even when he will tell them not to obey everything he says. This is contradictory, considering how everything starts.

. The first rule of Fight Club (and as we all know the second rule) is ‘You Do Not Talk about Fight Club.’ That apparent is also the first rule of Project Mayhem. And despite Tyler making this clear at the opening of every session, both Fight Club and Project Mayhem become national, if not global, phenomena. This is a plot hole that apparently didn’t bother Palahniuk and the writers essentially had Tyler refer to it once and never again.

And what is the message of Tyler? That man is meaningless except when he’s beating the crap out each other. That capitalism is pointless, so we should utterly subvert. Fine when it comes to the kind of billboards he posts, but I’m not sure how urinating and defecating into restaurant kitchen or inserting images of genitals into children’s cartoons does that. And your life has no meaning unless you die, and then your body is something to be thrown away even he was a friend. Everything is meaningless, even him but you follow his orders anyway. This might be palatable if it came from Brad Pitt’s lips, but as we know it’s all coming from Edward Norton’s.

And I guess you can say all of this might be a brilliant satire if you know: all of the people involved in Tyler’s cult weren’t white men. I don’t remember seeing a single minority in Fight Club, and when Tyler goes to turn himself in the cop is African American and two other cops who are Project Mayhem…handle him. Leaving aside the racial issues of the film (which were even more common twenty years ago) you can’t deny that Fight Club is one of the most sexist movies in history. Like I said, there is exactly one female character in this movie: Marla Singer. And lest we forget, the flashback begins with Norton saying that everything that happened has to do with her?

Why is that true? Well, my interpretation is that the Narrator called Marla asking for a place to live after his apartment blew up, she refused and so he ended up calling Tyler. In other words, the plot to destroy America is all the fault of a woman who didn’t want to take in a strange man. A woman who the narrator spends the rest of the movie mocking because she’s screwing ‘Tyler’ and not him (take that in) and then when he learns truth, does everything to save her even though she has no idea what the hell is happening and who like everybody else, dies at the end. You do remember that part right? There’s still a bomb in the basement of the building that Norton’s standing it at the end. He defeated Tyler, but didn’t bother to get out of the building or you know, call off the plot he tried to turn himself in for. Just because the movie fades out before it happens, doesn’t mean he and Marla still don’t die at the end. Hell Fight Club the book has a more optimistic than the movie does.

I honestly believe that if this film had anyone other than Brad Pitt at its core, no one would have watched or celebrated it. It’s also my opinion that Pitt, who has since become a very good actor, has a habit of bringing out the worst in Fincher and Fincher in Pitt. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is in my opinion the absolute nadir of Fincher as a filmmaker, and while Seven is a masterpiece, Pitt’s performance in the climactic moments can be charitably described as problematic. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Pitt’s work in Fight Club, but is there anything about Tyler that really couldn’t have been played by any other movie star at the time? I have a feeling that while this is Pitt’s quintessential role as a movie star, there’s nothing in his performance that, say, Ben Affleck or Robert Downey Jr. (who would take leading roles in other Fincher films) might have been able to better. Did Pitt think this was a great role because he looked beat up half the time?

In honesty, that is by far the least of the problems with a movie that is clearly one of the most overblown and overvalued films of all time. There’s nothing to separate Fight Club from movies like Straw Dogs or A Clockwork Orange, movies that are considered artistic masterpieces even though they are glorifications of violence, toxic masculinity and have no roles for women except as objects. It is another celebration of style over substance, heralded because of its director even though its one of their weakest movies. Even its quintessential quote has no meaning: Despite the fact that there’s nothing there, everybody still talks about Fight Club.



David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.