Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
In the wake of the impressive 13 Oscar nominations received by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, many people have compared it to writer Eric Roth’s other well-known (and also Oscar-approved) screenplay, Forrest Gump. But personally, I think there is a much more compelling comparison to be made between Button and Daniel Keyes’ award-winning 1966 novel, Flowers for Algernon.
Button follows a man who ages in reverse. He is in love with a woman named Daisy, who ages normally (in other words, she is physically a child when he is physically an old man). The movie follows Benjamin as he grows younger and Daisy grows older.
Algernon follows a mentally retarded man named Charlie Gordon who volunteers for an experimental surgery designed to make him more intelligent. As in Button, there is also a woman in Charlie’s life: Alice Kinnian, Charlie’s teacher at a school for mentally disabled adults. After the surgery, Charlie’s intelligence grows quickly and enormously, and within a few months he has become a genius.
Both Button and Algernon show two people who, for different reasons, cannot be together when the story begins: Benjamin and Daisy because he looks like an old man when she looks like a teenager, and Alice and Charlie because Charlie is mentally retarded while Alice is of normal intelligence. Both show how these primary relationships evolve. As Benjamin Button grows younger, Daisy grows older, allowing them to ultimately “meet in the middle” and have a romantic relationship. Similarly, as Charlie’s intelligence grows, he and Alice find themselves falling in love.
Both of these relationships are fraught with complications—including other women. Benjamin has an affair with the wife of a British diplomat whose dream is to swim the English Channel, and Charlie has a sexual relationship with a free-spirited artist named Fay.
But both Benjamin and Charlie overcome these complications and manage to have loving, fulfilling relationships with the women they love. Yet they both end these relationships, and for similar reasons. Benjamin doesn’t want Daisy to see him regress into a child, and he fears that their daughter will not have a normal life if he stays with them. Charlie realizes that the effects of his surgery are temporary and he pushes Alice away as he begins to deteriorate.
And yet, in spite of both Benjamin and Charlie’s efforts to prevent it, both women witness the effects of their lovers’ transformations. Daisy is contacted when the police find Benjamin—now in the body of a twelve-year-old boy—hiding in an abandoned house, exhibiting symptoms of dementia. After Charlie reverts to his former state, he returns to Alice’s class, forgetting that he had dropped out after the surgery. Neither Benjamin nor Charlie can remember the life they had with the women they loved.
But in spite of the plot similarities between the two works, they are very different at their emotional core. Button seems, at times, almost disconcertingly detached. Even when Benjamin chooses to leave his wife and daughter behind, neither Benjamin nor Daisy sheds a tear. (And seriously, how realistic is this? If the father of my child chose to leave me like this, I would be crying, screaming, and probably throwing things.) In a way, Button seems to operate on dream-logic, with everyone playing their parts with little visible emotion because they all think they’re going to wake up in the end.
On the other hand, Algernon is grippingly raw. Throughout the novel, we see the world through Charlie’s eyes. Before the surgery, Charlie is warm, compassionate, and enthusiastic. He thinks only the best of people, and he wants the surgery because he believes he will become popular if he is smart. As his intelligence grows, he realizes that many people were mean or condescending to him while he was retarded, and finds that he has more difficulty relating to people with this knowledge. At the apex of his intellectual development, he even pushes Alice—who had always genuinely cared for him, even in his former state—away, convincing himself that he was never really in love with her. But when Charlie realizes that his intelligence will revert, he attempts to work through his painful past: his mother’s abuse, his family’s abandonment, his feelings of inadequacy, his resentment of the people who mistreated him. Only after that can he share a healthy, emotionally fulfilling relationship with Alice. But afterwards, as he returns to his former state almost overnight, the evidence of Charlie’s regression is literally right before our eyes: misspellings, poor grammar, and incorrect punctuation all seep back into his journal entries. It is painful to read, because we have shared everything that has happened to Charlie—and Charlie himself has forgotten. But the emotional growth Charlie has gained as a result of his experiences remains; although he does not remember his months as a genius, the feelings of inferiority that once plagued him are gone.
With all that in mind, my recommendation is this: if you’re not up for watching a three-hour CGI-laden movie in the theaters, read Flowers for Algernon instead: it’s a engaging story with a more emotionally resonant lead. Besides—you can make popcorn in your own microwave way cheaper than you can buy it at the theater.
On another note: In case you haven’t heard, Neil Gaiman’s young adult fantasy novel The Graveyard Book has won the Newberry Medal (and will be made into a movie, apparently.) It’s a great book, and I recommend everyone pick it up and read it. Wait…what’s that? You don’t know what The Graveyard Book is all about? That’s okay; CC2K’s got you covered. You can read Mike Leader’s review here.
Selected Book Releases, February 2-8
I pulled up the list of upcoming releases from the Publishers Weekly website, and it turns out everything they have listed has either 1) been delayed, 2) is a children’s book, or 3) is a paperback release of a hardcover book. Thus, I have no selected book releases to document for the week. I guess the publishers all realize that, starting on February 9, everyone will be too busy reading CC2K’s Sex Week articles to buy any of their measly books, anyway!