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Curious Gump

Throughout the whole semester, we in CINE 495 have discussed the many manifestations of convergence and transmedia phenomena. We started off the semester with The Illusionist, a short story made into a film. With La Jette, we studied the effect of comprising a film of — with the exception of one brief moment whose meaning we debated — all still photographs. Transmedia in The Matrix series came in the form of the comics, animated films, and fan fiction inspired by the original 1999 film and how they informed the world of the story as a whole. A Scanner DarklyStrange Days introduced us to a futuristic new medium of entertainment: living a piece of others’ lives by “getting wired.” proved that the lines between animation and standard cinematography can be more blurry than we traditionally believed, and

Finally, we came to Forrest Gump this week, an Academy Award-winning film remarkable for its epic scope, its poignance, and its act of Photoshopping the protagonist into historic footage of actual events (talk shows, protests, presidents shaking hands, etc.). But for the sake of writing about a slightly less obvious transmedia effect, I began listing other instances where the film showed the influence of other media: pop art (Forrest invents the smiley face); pop slogans (Forrest inspires “Shit happens”); and even pop music (Forrest taught Elvis his signature dance moves). But perhaps more significant is the film’s allusion to a famous piece of children’s literature: Curious George.

We see Forrest Gump put the random floating feather in his Curious George book in the opening credit sequence; we see his mother reading the book to him as a child; we see a Curious George plush doll on Little Forrest’s dresser; and at the end, we see Little Forrest taking the old beaten book to school for show-and-tell. So what does it mean that the movie includes so many references to the book? Is it a random occurrence: maybe the filmmaker’s favorite children’s book that he thought would be cute to use? Considering how thoughtful the movie is, especially in the conclusion, and the fact that the Curious George references are placed conspicuously at the very beginning and very end of the movie, framing the story at large, they are likely a symbol. But of what?

Perhaps it might be easier to assess how the allusions to Curious George add meaning to Forrest Gump by doing some research. The following excerpt from the book publisher website[1] sheds some light:

Who isn’t smitten with Curious George? No matter your age, the inquisitive little fellow who always seems to get into one scrape after another has, in all likelihood, captured your heart.

Perhaps his popularity lies in the predictability of his unpredictability. You know that the second the man with the yellow hat leaves the house, warning George to be careful, George is going to get into trouble. And when George starts getting into trouble, he only digs himself deeper.

As [co-author] Margret Rey observed, “George can do what kids can’t do. He can paint a room from the inside. He can hang from a kite in the sky. He can let the animals out of their pens on the farm. He can do all these naughty things that kids would like to do.” One cannot give enough credit to the Reys. H. A.’s delightful illustrations and Margret’s clear and precise turn of phrase may appear effortless, but that’s only because they labored over each book to achieve that perfect look and tone.

Instead of relying on marketing surveys for book ideas, H. A. and Margret Rey each looked to the child within. “I know what I liked as a child," H. A. once said, "and I don’t do any book that I, as a child, wouldn’t have liked.”

Turns out there are quite a few parallels between the naughty monkey from the Reys’ children’s books and the charming hero of Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 instant-classic. Just as the Curious George books are about a well-intentioned creature whose curiosity ends up getting him into trouble, Forrest Gump often finds himself innocently meandering into conflict. Gump joins the military almost by accident, a recruiter finding him on the day of his graduation and encouraging him to secure a career for himself in the armed forces. He doesn’t seem to understand that by agreeing to enlist, he is sending himself into the midst of a hellacious and unpopular war with Vietnam. Likewise, when he hears about Jenny performing in Memphis after being kicked out of school for posing in Playboy, he cannot resist the temptation to come watch her sing. After all, it had always been her dream to perform folk songs on guitar before an audience. He comes to her show as a curious innocent, yet he ends up beating up a man in the audience for harassing Jenny. Same deal when he stops by her dorm and catches her necking in a car. And when he goes with her to a Black Panthers meeting. And so on.

And yet, for all the troubles George and Gump both have, they always end up finding a way out of the mess they got themselves into. The Man with a Yellow Hat always saves Curious George just in the nick of time, and Forrest always lives to see another day no matter how many fights he starts. And in many cases, Gump actually benefits from his curiosity. He just so happened to ride to basic training in a bus next to Bubba, who just happened to come from a shrimp farming family, and just so happened to find Gump likeable enough to offer a future job to him as his first mate on a shrimp boat. Then when Gump braves a hurricane with Lieutenant Dan in order to catch shrimp, it turns out his boat just happens to be the only one left standing, and he becomes the filthy rich owner of a major corporation practically overnight.

Or is it fate that saves Gump? I would argue that watching Forrest Gump actually teaches us something about Curious George, because if Gump equals George, then the Man with a Yellow Hat must equal fate/chance, and we’re intrigued to wonder if it was Curious George’s great luck to go on a lifetime of risky adventures and always come home safely, or if it was destiny. Thus we have a situation in which the mixing of two forms of media adds meaning to both.

Margaret Rey said children enjoy reading about Curious George because they like the fantasy element of him being able to do naughty things they would like to do. Children are encouraged to live vicariously through Curious George. I think that Forrest Gump is a charming character for the same reason. Many of us wish we could go through life as simply and easily as he does, involving himself in important historical events at every turn, getting into trouble, and ending up on top.

We also like Forrest Gump because, in a sense, even as a physically mature man, he is still a boy. His morality is untainted, he is blind to social factors of race and class, and he doesn’t even take a particular interest in sex. The only time we see him engaging in sexual acts are when others initiate (Jenny in her dorm; Jenny in Forrest’s house; the prostitute in Lieutenant Dan’s NYC apartment). I think part of why we like the movie and have to admire novelist Winston Groom, screenwriter Eric Roth, and director Robert Zemeckis is because “each looked to the child within” to create and present Gump’s character. If Forrest found himself making a major life change and adopting a cause after seeing the protesting Vietnam vets, the Black Panthers, or the hippies, the film’s audience would have felt alienated. Since Curious George is like a little boy, and Forrest Gump is like Curious George, we know that Gump championing a political cause would be unbelievable. Like Gump, children are surrounded by the politics of their times, but they don’t quite grasp what’s going on and don’t become participants.

Another theory is that although Forrest Gump wanders into Curious George-esque situations that he should avoid, he earns his way out of conflict by always remaining so honest, innocent, and true to himself. The film succeeds because it makes us wish we could be so permanently honest and innocent — that we could get wander into tough situations without consequence and without becoming jaded with experience. That we could be forever curious and live boldly without qualms and reservations.  



[1] [1] This web copy can be found at http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/features/cgsite/curiousaboutgeorge.shtml.

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