Fight Club explained: What’s the shocking twist?
Fight Club spoilers follow.
Director David Fincher’s acclaimed 1999 movie adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s controversial novel Fight Club is well known for its shocking twist, which changes the way you view the movie (and makes it incredibly tempting to watch it a second time as soon as the end credits roll).
The iconic movie stars Edward Norton as a man who suffers from chronic insomnia and is dissatisfied with his job and his life. He goes to support groups for problems such as alcoholism and cancer, none of which he has, hoping it will give him some sort of therapeutic relief, and is alarmed when another fake sufferer, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), starts appearing at the same groups.
Then, on a flight back from a business trip, he meets soap salesman Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who tells him he is trapped by consumerism (“the things you own end up owning you”).
When our guy's apartment and his belongings are destroyed in an explosion, he moves in with Tyler, and the two end up having a fistfight in the parking lot of a bar. This attracts attention and leads to the creation of an underground fight club – “The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club” – where men can fight each other until one of them has had enough.
Things spiral out of control when Tyler recruits Fight Club members into Project Mayhem, an anti-consumerist, quasi-terrorist group. It’s not long before we discover that Project Mayhem has spread across the country and Tyler – who has disappeared – has a dark endgame planned.
So what happens next in Fight Club, and what does the ending mean?
Get ready for some major spoilers as we unpick that mega-twist.
Fight Club ending explained: What’s the big twist?
Before we go any further, this is your last chance to stop reading before we reveal the infamous twist.
After all, we don’t want to upset anyone like comedienne Rosie O’Donnell did a few weeks after the movie opened in 1999, when she accidentally spoiled it for viewers of her US chat show The Rosie O’Donnell Show.
“I was just talking because I didn’t think [Fight Club] was good and The Sixth Sense was out,” she remembered in a 2021 interview (via Indiewire). “I don’t know. It annoyed me, the movie. So I was saying – The Sixth Sense [twist] makes sense, but this one doesn’t make sense because of the thing at the end is sorta well, I don’t wanna say, but listen – that’s what I did.”
O’Donnell’s revelation annoyed star Brad Pitt to the point that he brought it up during the DVD commentary for the movie in 2000.
“I guess that is OK she hated it… But the deal was, she gave away the ending on national television. That’s just unforgivable.”
According to O’Donnell, Courtney Love (who dated Edward Norton in the late 1990s) told her a few years later that Pitt and Norton were both mad at her about the slip. “Apparently, I was loathed by the men in that for a long time, possibly still,” she said. “But I had no idea that I had even done it. I guess I ruined it for the people who worked so hard on it, and I should be more careful with what I say in a negative way about a movie.”
OK, no more putting it off – look away now if you don’t know the truth, as it’s time to explain the twisty ending of Fight Club.
The big twist that O’Donnell ruined, as many people know, is that Tyler Durden isn’t real. He and Edward Norton's nameless character are one and the same, and Tyler is the projection of the man that he wants to be.
All the things that happened in previous scenes of the movie – the creation of the fight club, the explosion at the apartment, Tyler having sex with Marla and the plans of Project Mayhem – were all carried out by Edward Norton's character, with Tyler just a figment of his imagination.
The 'Narrator' – as he's credited – uncovers Tyler's plan to blow up credit-card-records buildings to erase global debt. He finally realises the truth after he notices that Project Mayhem members refer to him as Mr Durden.
Unable to get the police (many of whom are members of Project Mayhem and so support the plan) or Marla to help him, he goes to one of the buildings to disarm the explosives and finds 'Tyler' there.
Once inside, the pair fight, which on CCTV is shown as the Narrator fighting the air (and even throwing himself down the stairs) as there is no one else there. The Narrator tries to shoot Tyler, but the bullets have no impact since he isn’t real.
Eventually, Tyler and the Narrator end up on a high floor looking out at the city, with Tyler pointing a gun at the Narrator. Realising that the gun is actually in his own hand, the Narrator fires it into his own mouth, and watches Tyler fall to the ground and disappear.
Marla is brought to the building by his followers (as Tyler, he had instructed them to do this). Bleeding extensively from the wound – he shot his cheek, not his brain – and with less than a minute to go before the explosions, the Narrator sends the men back downstairs, but Marla remains.
The pair stand together at the window. “You met me at a very strange time in my life,” he says, as they watch the buildings around them explode.
Fight Club ending explained: Is there an alternative ending?
The movie ending does differ slightly from the original 1996 novel, where the Narrator shoots himself but then wakes up in a mental hospital believing he is in heaven. The story ends with hospital staff, members of Project Mayhem, explaining to him that they expect Tyler Durden to return.
However, the biggest change to the movie came last year after a streaming platform in China changed the ending without permission.
In the unauthorised version shown on Tencent Video, Durden is still shot and killed, but the final scene of the buildings exploding is replaced with a black screen and words that say the police discovered the plan, stopped it, and sent the Narrator to an asylum.
“Through the clue provided by Tyler, the police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all the criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding. After the trial, Tyler was sent to [a] lunatic asylum receiving psychological treatment. He was discharged from the hospital in 2012,” fans who discovered the change reported it as saying.
Fincher talked to Empire Magazine about the change.
“It’s funny to me that the people who wrote the Band-Aid [ending] in China must have read the book, because it adheres pretty closely,” he said, going on to explain how the change happened. “A company licensed the film to show it in China with a boilerplate [contract]: ‘You have to understand, cuts may be made for censorship purposes.’”
“No one said: ‘If we don’t like the ending, can we change it?’”
The book’s author also commented on the change, writing on Twitter that: “Everyone gets a happy ending in China!” He talked in more depth about the unofficial edit in an interview with TMZ Live.
"The irony is that the way the Chinese have changed it is they've aligned the ending almost exactly with the ending of the book, as opposed to [director David] Fincher's ending, which was the more spectacular visual ending," Palahniuk admitted.
"So in a way, the Chinese brought the movie back to the book a little bit."
Fight Club is available to stream on Disney+ and Prime Video now.
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