This is an essay on the film adaptation of Flowers for Algernon. It is several years old now, and the book for which I wrote it no longer seems to be a thing, so I’m putting it here.
Flowers for Algernon, one of the most powerful and affecting tragedies in science fiction, was first published as a novella in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and went on to win a Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction. In 1961 it was adapted for the live television drama series The United State’s Steel Hour as ‘The Two Worlds of Charley Gordon’, starring Cliff Robertson. Since Robertson had already seen other television dramas in which he had appeared turned into successful movies with other actors, in this instance he bought the movie rights to the story himself. Keyes subsequently expanded the novella into a novel, also titled Flowers for Algernon (1966), which went on to win a Nebula Award for Best Novel. The novel became the basis for the film, produced by Robertson and for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor.
The story is deceptively simple: a mentally retarded man takes part in an experimental surgical procedure which turns him into a genius, but the effect is short lived and he regresses to his original state. The novella and novel are narrated exclusively through Charlie Gordon’s ‘Progris Riport’, and Keyes uses orthography to indicate Charlie’s mental state: we first become aware that Charlie is regressing when apostrophes disappear from the text. The adaptation acknowledges this in its title (a form of the name absent from the book) and in the reminders that Charlie writes to himself on a little blackboard at the end of each day. When Charlie corrects the spelling of ‘school’ on the board, it is the first sign that the medical procedure is having an effect. In the main, though, the burden of this advance and retreat is carried not through text but through Robertson’s voice; slow and hesitant in the early part, more confident and fluent as the story progresses. Accordingly, some sense of Charlie’s first person narrative is preserved in the film’s dialogue.
In broad outline, therefore, and with due consideration for the different media, the film accurately translates the narrative events of the novel, though there are odd, minor differences: the action is transposed from New York to Boston, the male Dr Strauss in the novel has become a female Dr Straus, and so on. Nevertheless, the affect of the film, particularly in the way that intelligence impacts upon Charlie’s personal life, is very different from that of the book. In Keyes’s novel the acquisition and loss of intelligence in itself provides the trajectory of tragedy, but in the film this tragedy is vitiated and the focus shifts to the emotional (and, indeed, sexual) consequences for Charlie. Thus, although the film echoes the narrative structure of the book, it ends up telling a very different story.
The first hint of this comes in the opening moments of the film. The diegetic sound of children laughing introduces a montage of Charlie playing on swings and slides with children in a playground; he wears an irrepressible, smile on his face, his tongue protruding. Thus, the film frames Charlie as childlike in his mental development and in his behaviour. Nevertheless, he is having fun; his child-like condition is not a handicap to his socialization. The novel treats his situation very differently: Charlie is presented always as an adult with adult problems, never a childlike adult. The only instance when Keyes places Charlie with other children occurs when he recalls his own childhood, and specifically his relationship with his younger sister. Keyes describes Charlie’s sister as being spiteful towards him because other children tease her about him. More importantly, Charlie’s mother views him as a potential threat to his sister, partly because he doesn’t understand his own strength, and partly because his mother does not understand his disability. In the novel, therefore, childhood is neither a safe retreat nor a happy time.
The difference in the representation of Charlie’s condition means that in the novel his operation represents a desperately needed escape, and the reversal of the process then becomes emphatically tragic; in the film, Charlie is shown to be ambitious, eager to develop but not desperate to do so (the efforts at self-improvement represented by the sightseeing coach tours of Boston that Charlie takes every Sunday have no counterpart in the novel). As a result, the film’s denouement is sad, but not as tragic as it is in Keyes’ novel. The film concludes with the realization that the process of Charlie’s deterioration is inevitable, then cuts to a reprise of the opening sequence. It is a qualified upbeat ending in which Charlie has come full circle; he is no worse off than he was before. The novel offers a much darker conclusion: the reader knows that Charlie will not be able to return to the more or less independent life he led before the operation but will have to go into a care-home, a place that sickened him when he visited it at the height of his intelligence. In the film, Charlie slips away into a bright, sunlit, childlike existence; in the novel he is condemned to a dim, prison-like limbo. The film tells a sad personal story that comes full circle, Charlie has tasted intelligence but is left no worse off by its loss, no-one really suffers and Charlie’s innocence allows a moderately happy ending; the novel, although telling essentially the same story, turns it into a tragedy because Charlie is not entirely innocent, he is aware of his loss, and he is left in a worse situation than how he started. Although not explicit, there is an implication in this that common humanity was absent from the scientific research in which Charlie played a part; an implication that is entirely absent from the film.
Both novel and film use Charlie’s interaction with his colleagues at the bakery to dramatise how far he has progressed as a result of the operation; but the film condenses several complex scenes into just three. Two show the child-like Charlie as the victim of bullying. In the first, Charlie is sent to a bleak crossroads to watch for snow and deserted by his comrades; in another, not adapted from the novel, his work locker is filled with dough. The third scene, occurring after his operation, shows Gimpy, the bakers’ leader, teasing Charlie by having him operate complicated machinery. Charlie masters it easily. In the film this is enough for Gimpy and the others to have Charlie fired; in the book Charlie’s mastery of the machine leads to him assuming more demanding roles until he spots Gimpy swindling the company. His naivety regarding the nuances of human interaction results in his inept handling of this discovery, and he is fired. In both versions, the bakers are uneasy when Charlie is no longer the butt of their jokes, but in the more subtle novel it is not the threat of his intelligence alone that causes him to lose his position.
Thus the different literary and filmic representations of Charlie’s condition are informed by the different ways his post-operative intelligence is portrayed. In Keyes’ text, Charlie quickly attains the intellectual level of a genius then spends the rest of the novel trying to achieve an equivalent emotional level. In other words, Keyes presents intelligence as something that can be created (if only temporarily), but emotion as something that must be learned. The film adopts the opposite view. Perhaps because of the difficulty involved in expressing developing intelligence through performance, the film explores the effects of Charlie’s operation in terms of the way he interacts with other characters. Although he becomes someone different to the bakery workers, the effects of his operation are more clearly shown in his relationship with Miss Kinnian.
In the novel she is Charlie’s teacher at a school for adults with learning difficulties. After the operation Charlie falls in love with her, but is unable to make love with her because he is haunted by the ghost of his former self. He is able to consummate the relationship only after he has given up hope of retaining his intelligence. The trajectory of their emotional relationship counterpoints the more central story of his struggle with intelligence. In the film she is connected with the team of experimenters, and their falling in love becomes an early sign of the success of the operation. After initial rejection, which causes Charlie to run away and join a motorcycle gang (an interlude illustrated by a most unlikely split screen montage of Robertson riding powerful motorbikes accompanied by sexy young girls) they are reconciled and run away together (this time there is a mawkish soft focus montage of autumnal scenes in which they lie under trees or set leaves afloat on a lake). Neither of these sequences, which break the dramatic structure of the story, occurs in the novel. Nevertheless, since the film focuses on Charlie becoming an emotionally and sexually developed adult, rather than the cold, conflicted, intellectual figure who fills the novel, these scenes are essential for the audience’s understanding of his development.
The climax of both novel and film occurs at an academic conference where the leaders of the experiment, Nemur and Straus, are to present their findings. In each, Charlie disrupts proceedings following a question and answer session with the distinguished audience. In the novel Charlie clearly holds the academics in contempt; in the film he is overwhelmed by their questioning, which consists of mostly woolly philosophizing. At this point in the film Charlie reveals that Algernon the mouse, on whom the technique was first tried, and against whom Charlie has been measured throughout the story, has died. His death indicates that the technique is a failure and Charlie is doomed to regress. He now runs away for the third time (though this is the only occasion that makes dramatic sense) and the film illustrates his mental state by staging his flight in a maze of identikit corridors that resemble the maze that Algernon used to run through. Visually this is the most effective sequence in the film. In the novel, also, Charlie flees at this point, though with a live Algernon, who Charlie then studies on his own until he recognizes the inevitability of regression.
Charlie’s escape is perhaps the only narrative event when the film is the novel’s equal in complexity and its superior in dramatic terms. All that follows is aftermath: Charlie working himself to exhaustion in a doomed attempt to find a solution, and then reluctantly facing the loss of everything he has gained, both intellectual and emotional. The film perhaps recognizes that the audience can draw their own conclusions by compressing this section of the story into only a few minutes of screen time and concluding the story before Charlie’s regression really sets in. Instead, once Charlie’s discovery that regression is inevitable has been confirmed, there is a brief scene in which Miss Kinnian proposes marriage, a proposal that Charlie smilingly rejects. Then there is an abrupt cut to show Miss Kinnian watching Charlie, now back in ill-fitting clothes, as he plays on a seesaw to the sound of children laughing. The slow but inevitable decline, an important part of Keyes’s novel, has here been elided, and the loss is shown to be more emotional than intellectual. If there is a loser in the film it is not so much Charlie, who ends up exactly as he was at the beginning, but actually Miss Kinnian who has lost a lover. The softness of this ending vitiates the full and remorseless tragedy of Keyes’s novel.