“Where is my mind?” asks the finale of Fight Club the movie. The answer to that question maybe doesn’t matter, as Jack and Marla stand together, rid of Tyler Durden, but able to see the fruits of his maniacal plan carried out as the buildings holding everyone’s credit reports explode. It is, in film language terms, a happy ending - Jack says “You met me at a very strange time in my life,” the Pixies song swells, they hold hands, they look at each other and outside the window is just sky, no more buildings blocking them from a limitless future.
And then, of course, the dick is spliced in - a final joke from Project Mayhem.
It could be argued that the ending is more ambiguous - Project Mayhem exists still in the world, after all - but there’s no questioning the feeling of strange elation with which David Fincher sends us out of the theater. It’s fucked up (this is Fight Club, after all), but it’s happy. It's even hopeful.
It’s also a complete reversal of the ending of the book and, in many ways, a total betrayal of Chuck Palahniuk’s work. The ending of Fight Club the novel is grimmer and hopeless, a finale that ties up the book’s themes in a way that the film doesn’t. Those thematic loose ends lead the film to be sort of thematically incoherent, and as such allowed it to become one of the most misunderstood movies of all time.
At the end of Fight Club the novel, Tyler Durden is looking to become a suicide bomber, to die in the explosions he is setting off. This is the end for him and Joe (The Narrator calls himself Joe in the book, as opposed to Jack in the movie), and so when The Narrator shoots himself in the head he is trying to save his own life. But even if he didn’t shoot Tyler out of himself it wouldn’t have made a difference - Tyler’s bomb doesn’t go off.
The book ends with Tyler’s biggest gesture being impotent, a telling finale to a book where the male characters are obsessed with masculinity and emasculation. The fact that the bomb fails to go off is the biggest refutation of Project Mayhem. But the book doesn’t end there - it ends with The Narrator waking up in the hospital, thinking he is free of Space Monkeys and Tyler Durden… until one of the orderlies reveals himself to be a loyal Space Monkey. “Everything’s going according to the plan,” he whispers. “We look forward to getting you back.”
In the book’s ending The Narrator is trapped, not freed. And while the bomb being a dud reflects on the futility of Tyler’s larger plan, the fact that The Narrator can not get away from his children - these Space Monkeys he has spawned - reflects on the book’s larger concerns about absentee fathers. Tyler and The Narrator are of a generation abandoned by their father figures, feeling abandoned by the patriarchy, abandoned by God. By creating the Space Monkeys they take on the role of father and God, and in the end The Narrator is not allowed to abandon them as his father did.
In Fincher’s film Jack simply continues the cycle of absentee fathers yet benefits from the fascism of Project Mayhem; while both the book and the movie leave open the door for Tyler to return, the movie does so using one of his most harmless gestures, a dick quickly spliced into a film. That’s a clever meta joke - Tyler is in the projection booth! - but it doesn’t carry the weight of that subservient Space Monkey. Maybe God abandoned us because He really doesn’t like us all that much, but we won’t let Him go. That’s the ending of the book.
Last week the first issue of Fight Club 2, the official comic book sequel to Fight Club, hit the stands. Palahniuk himself wrote it, with art by Cameron Stewart, and the author wisely picks up on his own ending (unlike, for instance, Michael Crichton, whose Lost World novel used the ending of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park). In this new comic Tyler Durden yet lives, but he’s only able to make himself known when The Narrator - now called Sebastian - undergoes hypnotherapy three times a week. The Space Monkeys are still out there, but Sebastian lives in exactly the kind of suburban hell he wanted to avoid. It’s worth noting, though, that he and Marla have a child together, and Sebastian seems to be there for the boy. Until the end of the first issue, that is, which is where I’m assuming the narrative of the comic series truly begins.
There are a lot of reasons why Fincher’s Fight Club is so misunderstood (much of it comes from the fact that fascism is so attractive on film), but I truly believe it all comes down to the ending. By having Jack defeat Tyler Durden personally while allowing Tyler’s plan to come to fruition, Fight Club the film ends up contradicting everything it had been trying to say.