How the Fun Homes Work

This blog post is pretty different from most of my previous ones. Like this one, it was originally an essay I wrote in undergrad. I’ve edited it to improve quality/accuracy and, uh, get rid of at least some of the run on sentences. It wasn’t phenoooooooomenally written, it does feel like a paper I wrote more than half a decade ago, but I’ve kept some of its flaws intact. As an example, there’s a somewhat overbroad overlong opening, though thankfully not quite “Merriam-Webster defines” or “since the beginning of time”. It also doesn’t connect back to the thesis very well at all, and instead evolves into a more general analysis of how the works were put together.

I have done media analysis posts before, but one of them related the work to utilitarianism, and another to rationalism, so they have always fit in somewhat with my usual repertoire. This one almost exclusively covers topics I have never really covered on this blog: queer literature, adaptation, graphic memoir, modernism, musical theater, family conflict. If you are here for that, welcome! Unfortunately this is an odd post out so you might not like the rest of my content as much. If you are here because you like the rest of my blog, welcome! Unfortunately you might not like this post as much. If you like all the aforementioned subjects, as well as analytic philosophy, bioethics, effective altruism, rationalism, political discourse, transhumanism, and veganism, congratulations on finding this weird little corner of the internet! You have come to the right place. Also, the way these works are set up means that the basic plot is revealed very early on in both so it is kinda hard to “spoil” either one, but insofar as it is possible to spoil them, this is your warning that I show absolutely no restraint in doing so. Now, please enjoy my analysis of the inner workings of my favorite graphic memoir and my favorite musical:

It’s difficult to figure out what makes an adaptation good just based on the common reactions to it you’ll get from fans of the source material, much to the detriment of movie studios that make most of their money off of adaptations of some sort or another 1. Too faithful an adaptation will get (often fairly) criticized for unoriginality, and too loose of one will (also often fairly) get criticized for failing to respect the source material. Just looking at this is misleading, because it might give you the idea that there is some sweet spot, an in-between required to make a good adaptation.

Landing somewhere in between is often a side-effect of good adaptation, though it isn’t always even that, but it is never what makes an adaptation good. While there is no simple way to think about what a good adaptation is, for the same reasons that there is no simple way to think of what makes a piece of art good in general, a good place to start is to remember that when someone produces a piece of media, it is not just the medium they decide on. There are countless choices about different ways to tell the same basic story, with the same basic themes and ideas. Some of them may be better than others, and, probably most crucially to cross-medium adaptations, some are better than others for different mediums. The most useful way to think about adaptation that I have found is that they are ways of crossing over to an alternate version of this material’s use. It doesn’t just all revolve around the source material, it recognizes the other places the material underlying even the source might have gone, and what different merits this could have brought. While it connects much more directly to the event of the source material’s creation than most adaptation, the musical “Fun Home” is unusually good at crossing over into a new presentation that feels completely native to its medium.

With a work of non-fiction like Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home”, part of this underlying material is pretty obvious to start with, because the story being told is itself based on something that actually happened. But the musical adaptation exemplifies more about this key element of adaptation than just the base story.

The most obvious and perhaps most important thematic stream of both the book and musical, is the way Alison and her relationship with her father Bruce served as something of an intergenerational parable about gay life. Alison’s repressive gay father went through life hiding his sexual orientation, and for most of his adult life only found sexual gratification through sporadic affairs with teenage students. Alison came out post-Stonewall, at a school with a gay union, numerous books about her experience to reference and relate to, and soon a steady girlfriend. Bruce killed himself, Alison, despite some adversity and humiliation, escaped what her father couldn’t, and lived the life he couldn’t. The difference was one generation.

While this seemingly simple base narrative is embedded in the story both works tell, it is explored practically in different indirect ways. One image given significance in the book, that also plays a role in the musical, is a map that appears twice in the book, showing the spots where Bruce was born, raised a family, died, and was buried, and showing that all of these places fit within a mile and a half diameter circle.

The circle image from the book Fun Home.

The fathers-life-in-the-circle image from the book Fun Home.

This somewhat conservative small-town existence Bruce ended up living, in the multigenerational trap that was their hometown, is implied to be, to some extent, symbolic of this trap of stagnation and repression Bruce couldn’t escape. Despite his failed attempt to escape it and possibly live in Europe during a more vital point in his life. Alison on the other hand was at points in both the book and the musical encouraged by her mother to leave, and she did escape, living in much more socially liberal places starting with Manhattan, and eventually Vermont.

Perhaps it is dangerous to think of works of non-fiction in terms of things like symbolism and metaphor, but aside from having some literal significance as well, the symbolic taste to this observation is very much at home with the rest of the book. One of the most conspicuous differences between the book and musical is that, unlike the musical, the book is overflowing with literary references, and attempts to find literary significance in even small facets of hers and her father’s lives. For example it equated his obsessive interest in architecture and design in their house with his general interest in image - in keeping up a façade of perfect family life, or in noting that there was only a three day difference in how old Bruce was when he died, and how old his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald was when he died, or in her attempts to try to describe hers and her father’s lives in terms of Greek myth. 2

The use of literature in general often served more direct purposes for the foundations of the non-fictional narrative as well. As far as the generational queer identity threads of the book go, there was reference to the lives and works of older queer writers such as Oscar Wilde, and particularly queer modernists such as Marcel Proust, Colette, and the publishers of the modernist magazine “Little Review” (modernist writing being one of the focuses of the book’s literary allusions in general). These are the examples of queer writing which Bruce, an English teacher and avid reader, was first steeped in and which he informed his self-perceptions on. When Alison discovers her own homosexuality through books, they are often more recent, such as the post-Stonewall 70s works “Word is Out” and “Flying”, the latter of which Bruce himself starts, and is refreshed by the openness of, shortly before his suicide. In general, books also serve as one of the connections Bruce and Alison come to share, once Alison goes away to college, something also briefly alluded to in the musical.

Other than that, the musical spends much less time talking about books than the memoir. While this may partially just be because it’s harder to do in the same depth on the stage, and would crowd the already complex musical too much, there’s also a strong structural connection to these books in the memoir, that is lost in the much different approach of the musical.

As I’ve mentioned, a large portion of the writing discussed and used for analysis in the book is modernist. The structure of the book at large is also full of modernist devices, such as the excerpting and inclusion of other works and media in the story. Among these are old reproduced photographs, diary entries (which are often less literally informative of events than they are of Alison’s state of mind through their tone), and several maps, such as the aforementioned map of her father’s claustrophobic life.

While these devices all premiered in earlier non-fiction comics, notably the almost certainly influential “Maus”, the structure of the work goes beyond just this, deeper into modernist ideals of thought and memory. Aside from the complex literary analyses, the book is also a non-linear, stream of consciousness, and detail-obsessed self-investigation, guided much more heavily by the flow of Alison’s thoughts and interpretations as they come than by order (or even perspective of events), often retelling and redigesting the same memories and thoughts over and over again throughout the book as parts of different analyses.

Overall there is much more continuous flow, and more substance in general, in Alison’s captions narrating her story than in the comic part of the story itself, which usually only has a few panels to a scene if even, before jumping around to whatever is being discussed next, often out of order in time. The drawing style of the book is also much less minimal and cartoonish than the art of “Maus”, the figures are often nearly photographic in realism, and even sometimes have a stiff quality to them, an impression vindicated by a look at Bechdel’s drawing process for the book, which includes reference not only to numerous photos from her own personal record and the internet, but also reference to photos she took of herself posing in the positions of every figure she drew.

In this way, “Fun Home” often reads more as a weird sort of avant-garde annotated photo album than a conventional comic. Even in the artwork you can see Bechdel’s obsession with honesty in investigation, something that seems to be alluded to in the book through her review of old diary entries from a time in her youth when she struggled with OCD, and started qualifying even the most mundane assertions in her diary with “I think”, to such an extent that she eventually streamlined the process by inventing a piece of punctuation that meant “I think”, which before the end of this period, she overlaid over entire diary entries, often more than once.

The diary entry overlay symbol image from the book Fun Home.

The musical has more of a central narrative, trading stream of consciousness for alternating plotlines 3. One plotline is assorted scenes from Alison’s youth that gain meaning or significance in retrospect, which don’t seem to usually have much of an order, and the other being about her early days of college in Oberlin, when she discovered hers and her father’s sexual orientations, shortly before he killed himself. In the general narrative, the removed and qualified observations of the book are traded in for direct thematic statements through musical numbers, often filled with emotion and investment the book avoids.

It also analyzes Alison’s own writing and thought process in making the book, by introducing the onlooking 43-year-old Alison, who watches and often comments on (and is occasionally embarrassed by) her memories as they play out and she figures out for herself what she wants out of the book she plans on writing from them. There are several notable lines and scenes that emphasize Alison’s attempt at removed investigation, and investment in the scenes unfolding around her, as an element of the musical as important as the others, despite not defining the tone in the way it does the book’s.

In the show’s opening number “it all Comes Back” for example, soon after you are first introduced to the older Alison investigating her memories, she gives her apparent mission statement for the book,

“it all comes back it all comes back it all comes back, there’s you, and there’s me, but now I’m the one who’s 43 and stuck I can’t find my way through, just like you, am I just like you? I can’t abide romantic notions of some vague long ago, I want to know what is true, dig deep into who and what and why and when until now gives way to then”.

Or in the musical number “Maps” from closer to the middle of the show, soon after Bruce scolds young Alison for her cartoon-like style in drawing a map for school, when older Alison takes over, and talks about the map discussed earlier of Bruce’s mile-and-a-half diameter life and death, as well as more generally her motive for using resources like maps to tell the story,

“Maps show you what is simple and true, try laying out a bird’s eye view, not what he told you just what you see, what do you know that’s not your dad’s mythology? Dad was born on this farm, here’s our house, here’s the spot where he died. I can draw a circle, his whole life fits inside”.

She also reminds herself that this is supposed to be a surgical and impersonal process throughout the musical, as a coping mechanism, she says things like “I’m just remembering” and starts her observations with “caption”, to try to become the voice of her book, and not of its subject. Ultimately, she does become invested in her past in ways she tried to avoid in her observation. In what is arguably the climactic scene of both the book and musical, Alison and her father, shortly after Alison’s coming out and shortly before Bruce’s suicide, take a car ride alone together, and have their one chance to talk about their shared homosexuality, and in some way bond over it.

In the musical it’s represented by the number “Telephone Wire”, and although it’s college-age Alison who really took the car-ride with Bruce, older Alison takes her place in the scene of the musical, possessing her own memory. Sometimes during this scene she plays the part of her college-age self in the memory, and sometimes she is her 43 year old self, yelling at the memory of her father to talk to her, as well as the memory of herself to talk to him. At the end she finally relents, remembering that the car ride was more or less a failure:

Alison: “telephone wire, stop too fast, telephone wire, make this not the past, this car ride, this is where it has to happen there must be some other chances there’s a moment I’m forgetting where you tell me you see me, say something talk to me say something anything, at the light, at the light, this can’t be our last–”

Bruce: “Well that was fun, it’s earlier than I thought. Are you coming in?”

Alison: “telephone wire… that was our last night”.

It is a heartbreaking scene.

In the book, the scene is more deadpan, but it’s charged and immediate in a way no other scene in the book is, with a regular grid structure taking over two pages that gives every beat of the conversation its own panel, the comic’s time stretched thin with expectation, setting it notably apart from the photo-album aesthetic of the rest of the comic. Ultimately, this car ride is anticlimactic in both the book and musical, but while it lasts, it is given a thematic importance unlike that of any other scene.

The car ride panels image from the book Fun Home.

Weight is shifted and liberties are taken in other areas of the musical to serve a more linear structure while relaying roughly the same ideas. An example is the deep fundamental uncertainty you see in the book. As I’ve said, there is an apparent obsession with faithful retelling in the original, and concessions are made in even some of the most essential pillars the book is built on. The most important cases of this are probably Bruce’s sexual orientation, and his death. In the book Alison admits that her father might not have been gay, that he might have been bisexual, “or some other category”, but that she thinks he was gay, and takes comfort in thinking it, because it connects her to him more. She also admits that his death might not have been a suicide, that it could have been an accident and that most people treated it like it was an accident, but that she and her family agree that it was probably a suicide, and that she also takes more comfort in this idea because then his death was in a way a success for him.

The musical takes it entirely for granted both that Bruce was gay, and that he killed himself. It shifts Alison’s biggest dilemma and uncertainty to a different question, also unanswered by the book: Did she cause her father to kill himself by coming out of the closet? As an apparent reference to Alison’s other uncertainties in the book, she says that she’s actually afraid that she didn’t. She wants to have this specific narrative of her father’s death that she understands, and that all connects and means something, and there’s a certain morbidity to this she can’t avoid, and owns up to. Literary devices, as previously mentioned, sit uncomfortably in non-fiction, and the tension between her insistence on littering her book with them while qualifying every uncertainty she has is boiled down in moments like these. Moments where she is forced to face the degree to which she hopes it all means something important, not just to learn “what is simple and true”, or even to hear good news. She wants her father’s death to be a suicide, to be about her coming out, because then it was something refined like a tragedy, rather than just an absurdity. (Did I mention the book has a certain interest in Camus?).

The absurdity panels from the book Fun Home.

As is, while the musical never gives Alison the answer, it does apparently try to give the audience an answer 4 through the number after “Telephone Wire”, “Edges of the World”. The general answer seems to be that he saw the life he might have had through Alison’s coming out and openness, and both couldn’t handle the weight of trying to start a new life in middle age, and couldn’t unsee the way he had wasted the one life he had so far. The song is one of the most laden parts of the musical though, and underlying this there are connections to numerous other numbers and threads of the story.

For one there is the superficially bizarre connection to college-age Alison’s number about her awkward first sexual experience with her girlfriend Joan, “Changing my Major”, that in both numbers the characters ask the cryptic question of if they’re “falling into nothingness or flying into something so sublime”. This seems to reference script writer and lyricist Lisa Kron’s interpretation that Bruce ultimately killed himself because he couldn’t handle the vulnerability and humiliation needed to take the leap Alison did and fundamentally change his life in this way. “Changing my Major” is when Alison took this leap, “Edges of the World” is when Bruce failed to.

It also has thematic connections back to Alison’s mother Helen’s number “Days and Days”, in which she also describes the way her life has been wasted and damaged through Bruce’s repression, which has led her to recently ask him for a divorce (this is shortly before Bruce kills himself, and is frequently speculated on in the book as another likely contributing factor to his suicide). This is also when Helen encourages Alison to escape, though in a way that fakes out the audience into thinking she is disowning Alison at first,

“Don’t you come back here, I didn’t raise you… to give away your days like me”.

In the book it is implied that some of the greatest damage to their family was caused by Bruce’s obsession with keeping up an image and façade, leading him to treat his family in many ways like an alibi, like furniture. This is more viscerally hammered in in the musical through the reprise of the earlier song “Welcome to our House on Maple Avenue” in the song “Days and Days”. “Welcome to our House on Maple Avenue” is Bruce’s “I want” song, that describes this obsession with image and maintaining his house in the musical, without really explaining what it is he wants. It is at the end of this song that you first get the core of what the story is about, in older Alison’s summation,

“Caption: my dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay and I was gay, and he killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist”.

This façade and his interest in architecture, both essential to this first central song of his arc, also return in Bruce’s final number “Edges of the World” with the use of a difficult restoration project he’s working on as a central metaphor, and his ability to finally see around the façade he had so carefully built up around himself putting him in crisis. All of this culminating in Bruce’s final scene helps the case that this song could also be the musical’s climax, although the scene isn’t in the book at all. Most of the scenes from the show, in fact, aren’t in the book, and many of the ones that are aren’t given nearly as much focus in the book, which tends to skip from event to event with Bechdel’s train of thought.

The by-most-accounts central anthem of the musical, “Ring of Keys”, shows young Alison seeing a woman dressed in masculine clothes, and finding formative identification with her, long before she fully understood it. This is one of several early experiences only skimmed over in the book as being identifying or formative for her, despite her not understanding them at the time, such as her wanting a group of miners with a pin-up calendar to think she was a boy, or her seeing gay men in Manhattan when they went there to celebrate the bicentennial. These are all boiled down into this one scene, that is given much more weight and feeling in the musical.

The women-who-wore-mens-clothes image from the book Fun Home.

Throughout, the musical took the same story and themes, and fundamentally changed their structure of presentation, emotional resonance, pacing, focus, and even content. It is one of the most faithful adaptations I have ever seen and one of the least faithful, and neither description tells you anything about how it is as either an adaptation or a musical. The fundamental strength of “Fun Home” as an adaptation is that if you have only read/seen either the book or the musical, you can go through the same story and ideas again with the other while getting something entirely new from the different presentation of them.

  1. Though perhaps this isn’t as big a consideration as we may be tempted to believe, since the majority of many movies’ audiences don’t have any prior experience with the source material. ↩︎

  2. Ed. Note: Part of this seems to be a combo of “human vibes are sometimes actually related to causally-relevant things” and “degrees of freedom and/or bias with what you notice and point out”. ↩︎

  3. Ed. Note: This is how most mainstream movies/TV shows work, down to sometimes explicitly calling them the “A plot” and “B plot”↩︎

  4. Of course the answer’s role in the canon can be argued, whether it is supposed to be what the musical is asserting did happen, or whether it is supposed to be Alison’s imagining of it, is unclear. I favor the later interpretation as more consistent with the rest of the musical’s framing. ↩︎

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