The Graduate



It’s difficult to see the novel that lies behind the film of The Graduate, the last book in my Bexhill-on-Sea purchased reading pile, because Charles Webb’s original text from 1963 essentially is the film.  Not only is there very little in it that didn’t make the script, but it’s written with an economy of style that borders on miserliness, while it lacks any presentation of characters’ interiority, so that we only see its protagonist Benjamin from the outside.  We have no access to his thoughts, and so its only from his words and actions that we can understand who he is.  And from that evidence, who he is ain’t that special.  Without the performance of Dustin Hoffman to give him some sort of vulnerability, this is simply the story of an over-privileged brat who deserves a good slap.

If, by some quirk of fate, you haven’t seen the 1967 film version, The Graduate is the story of Benjamin Braddock, who walks straight out of university and into an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner.  He then falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s characterless daughter Elaine for no discernible reason, who also ends up falling for him, equally unfathomably.

The back cover blurb of the reprint describes it as ‘anti-establishment, anti-youth’, but it’s really nothing of the sort.  The establishment actually comes out of it quite well as, despite its banality, it’s presented here as having a core set of defendable values.  If anything, The Graduate is an anti-youth novel.

Benjamin rejects everything his parents have prepared for him, but despite his top university education, he can’t come up with any sort of informed argument as to why, fobbing them off with faux-naif petulance.  He then mysteriously readopts his parents’ values in time to hypocritically judge Mrs. Robinson, before embarking on a course of action that manages to shaft absolutely everybody.  There’s a fascinating subtlety here, but you can’t help but feel that Webb could have done more with it.

Overall, The Graduate is high on concept and potential, but low on execution, only truly coming alive when Mrs. Robinson makes an appearance.  Another example of a middling novel providing the source material for a good (although in my view, not great) film.  Maybe all bad novels are good films in their chrysalis stage, just waiting to be adapted and turned into a beautiful butterfly.  L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth is, of course, the exception that proves this rule.


One Response to “The Graduate”

  1. I read this a few years ago and thought exactly the same. Since then I’ve wondered if I underrated it, so I’m glad to read your view which suggests I didn’t. Surprised to see it is being reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic later this year – but then, if Ayn Rand fits, then anything goes.

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