It had been years since I’d read Daniel Keyes original short story “Flowers for Algernon.” It was part of my middle school reading curriculum and I recall liking, but not necessarily loving the story. At the time, I was aware there was the expanded novel of the story and a movie based on it, neither of which grabbed my attention and demanded to be read or seen.
Fast forward more years than I care to think about to last year. After years of languishing on my to-be-read list, I finally picked up the novel Flowers for Algernon and was enthralled. I consumed the book, chronicling the journey of a mentally handicapped young man who is given a revolutionary surgery and becomes a genius only to have it all taken away, in two days. Where the short story had failed to engage me, the novel fully engaged me. The first-person perspective of Charlie, the man who receives this gift only to see it taken away when the procedure proves to not to be permanent moved me on a lot of levels.
It left me contemplating a lot of things long after the final page was turned.
And so it was that I decided I wanted to see the movie version of the book at long last. I was hoping it would be available on Netflix streaming but it wasn’t to be. Instead I added it to my queue but it quickly got bumped out by other films including lots of movies in which stuff gets blown up real good.
As part of Turner Classic Movies Oscar month, the movie aired a couple of weeks ago and I set the DVR to catch it. I have to admit I was equal parts eager to see it but also nervous about seeing it. I wasn’t sure the movie version could ever live up to the book…and after seeing it, I have to say that sadly, it doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong–the movie is still a good one and had I never read the original source material I might have enjoyed it more. Might being the key word here. While Cliff Robertson gives a superb performance as Charlie and shows the character growing and changing as a result of the experimental surgery, I still think on the whole the movie lacks a lot.
For one thing, there are a lot of montages. I realize that you can’t take every step with Charlie as you did in the book, but it feels like the movie really short changes the journey Charlie undergoes as his intelligence increases. Cut for time is the storyline about how Charlie’s growing ability alienates the guys he works with at the bakery. In the novel, Charlie slowly rises from janitor to a loftier position as the surgery takes hold and he slowly comes to realize the guys he thought were his friends were actually having some cruel laughs at his expense. The cruel laughs are still there in the first half of the film, but not the other half of the storyline.
The only real acknowledgement of this is a scene in which Charlie proves he can run the bakery’s machinery just as well as those who have tormented him. Charlie does mention later that the guys at the plant got a petition up to get him fired, but it feels like the movie really dropped the ball on this one.
Another montage shows Charlie going off the deep end, buying a motorcycle and growing out a goatee. For lack of a better word, he becomes a hippy. The sequence with Charlie following this path is almost laugh out loud funny. It definitely places the film as a product of the 60’s.
The problem is I don’t think this is necessarily what the director was going for here. It don’t think the sequence was meant to inspire guffaws of laughter from me.
The novel and short story are told in the form of journal entries by Charlie, allowing the reader to go along on this journey with him. As Charlie grows intellectually and emotionally, we are allowed to see how he’s changing–his triumphs and frustrations. As he slowly falls in love with his teacher Alice Kinnian, the novel allows us to experience Charlie’s frustration at not being able to express that to her and getting her to feel the same well as well.* While the movie addresses some of this, and Robertson does a masterful job of conveying this in his performance, in the end the movie as a whole falls well short of really allowing the audience to understand Charlie as well as we do in the book.
*It reminds me of another Charlie from the classic Star Trek episode “Charlie X.”
In the end, while I like Charly, I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. But I definitely plan to re-read Flowers for Algernon at some point.