I am reluctant to call this a review. Let us instead call it a list of impressions, and some comparisons.
If you’ve never heard of Fun Home, it currently exists in two forms: a 2006 graphic novel, and its more recent adaptation as a Broadway musical. It is the memoir of Alison Bechdel of Bechdel test fame. Both versions are about Ms. Bechdel coming to terms with her own sexuality while at the same time realizing her father was gay (or at least bisexual; this is somewhat ambiguous). Only weeks after this realization, he is killed by a bread truck, an event which Ms. Bechdel considers a suicide. Having now seen the musical and read the novel (in that order), I have some thoughts to share on both.
Both versions contrast the younger Bechdel’s embrace of a gay identity with her father’s agonized closeting. Bechdel rarely idolized her father as children often do, but saw him as a distant, sometimes fearsome, figure. As she grew older, they began to bond over a mutual love of fine literature–Joyce, Camus, Fitzgerald, and others. Literary allusions, references, and quotes are littered throughout the graphic novel especially, though they make notable appearances in the musical, as well. In fact, Bechdel seems to relate her life most often to the novels she has absorbed. There’s a theme that weaves throughout the graphic novel in which she struggles to find legitimacy in her existence unless it can be connected to something larger–historical events, works of fiction, interesting coincidences. The graphic novel operates almost as a method for coping with grief–exhuming her father’s ghost, understanding him, and accepting that his death was, in some way, fated. Father and daughter are both symmetrical and opposed, yin and yang. Neither makes sense without the other, but even together, they are always far apart.
These themes are struck less aggressively in the musical, which trades many of its literary references for allusions to television and the stage. There are song and dance numbers–it is, after all, a musical! They are clever, colorful, and funny. As a whole, the musical is much lighter and funnier, despite its serious subject matter. That’s not to say that it lacks gravitas or is unaffecting. There was certainly crying by the end, but more by way of catharsis than trauma. Mr. Bechdel’s death is made more tolerable by the knowledge of his daughter’s new lease on life. Though he could never live as he truly might have wanted, as a man who openly dated and slept with other men, his daughter would not be so confined. Indeed, in both versions, the parents fret over whether Ms. Bechdel’s decision to live openly as a lesbian was a good idea. The real Alison Bechdel was out in the early 1980s, at a time when being gay was much less tolerated by society than it is now, and her parents–her father especially–must have known the potential risks.
On both page and stage, Ms. Bechdel must also explore and accept her father’s deep, family-rending flaws. Having made the choice to get married and have children, his urges for men led him to ply teenage boys with alcohol, and to drive drunk himself. The courts were lenient and mandated therapy rather than prison, but there’s a clear sense that he did not have these indiscretions once or twice. Part of becoming an adult is learning just how human your parents really are, and finding them to be complex, haunted, self-destructive, even criminal. Even in learning all this, Bechdel comes to sympathize with rather than condemn her father.
Where the two versions perhaps differ most is in their narrative style. The musical tells its story through three versions of Alison: as a child, as a college student, and in her 40s. The latter character serves to frame the story, as she examines notes, diaries, and other artifacts from her childhood and young adulthood. Different scenes play out to illustrate formative episodes in her life. The elder Bechdel tends to step back and observe these events. There are elements of the memory play at work here, in that the way she remembers things may not be as they truly were. The three versions of Alison Bechdel present her at markedly different stages in her life, jumping back and forth through her evolution as a person.
The graphic novel plays much looser with time. There is no framing story–only the narration of an older Bechdel–and the story darts from childhood memory to young adulthood and back. Nothing here is chronological. Instead, the Bechdel family is exposed in layers. In many ways, the story runs in reverse: early on, Ms. Bechdel receives the news of her father’s death, and it takes the rest of the novel for us to understand what it means, and why he might have jumped in front of a truck. The novel forms a kind of character puzzle, where the musical is a more straightforward examination of memories (punctuated by musical numbers).
The formats have different priorities, as well. Joan–Bechdel’s college girlfriend–is a minor character in the novel, but gets an entire (hilarious and touching) song devoted to her in the musical. Other episodes which occur almost in passing in the novel get expanded for the stage, while other aspects of the novel get dropped entirely. Her mother’s active stage life is a major element in the graphic novel, but is scarcely mentioned in the musical, for instance. Perhaps this was thought to be too meta for a show that is already narratively complicated for a Broadway production.
Both versions are quite worthwhile in what they offer. I consider the graphic novel to be more of a meditation on the father/daughter relationship as seen through allusions and tricks of memory, with the musical more of an emotional journey of self-discovery. They have ample resonance, too, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. These themes of self-acceptance, of learning to identify with and understand one’s parents, and to come to grips with a messy family history–they’re universal, and that’s what gives Fun Home its staying power.