Friday, September 4, 2015

A movie better than the book

 Back when I was reviewing novels for a local newspaper, I sometimes offered the backhanded compliment that the book might work better as a movie. The implication was that while the book had a compelling plot, it lacked what I most value in novels: access to the consciousness of fictional characters without resorting to clumsy techniques such as voice-overs.
But not all films are inferior to the books they are based on. Some – and this is the case with Still Alice, the movie about early-onset Alzheimer’s – improve on their source material. It was helpful, of course, to first read the book, which, within its 292 pages, provides a wealth of information about the disease while creating a compelling central figure – a renowned Harvard linguist in her early fifties, perplexed by her memory issues.
There is an obvious irony here. A woman who is an expert on language is reduced to struggling to remember the names of household items and even of her children. I read the book with much interest, but also some dismay. The author, Lisa Genova, never makes clear that Alice’s variety is a rare strand of Alzheimer’s, one that within two years can wreck a person’s life. The book is separated into long sections, each of which identifies the month and year. Alice notices her first symptom – she forgets a key word  in a lecture that she had been giving for years – in September 2003. Three months later she is diagnosed.
She reacts much as I did, much as anyone would: “Time. How much time?”
In Alice’s case, it appears to be not much at all. Her decline is precipitous. Before long she is plotting a suicide plan, ahead of when she will be too impaired to carry out her death. By March 2004, just six months after her first symptoms, she is having trouble finding her way when she walks to the Harvard campus, a walk she had been making for years. Three months after that, conversations on the phone “often baffled her.”  
The closest Genova comes to explaining why Alice’s disease is progressing so quickly is when she comments, “Although Alzheimer’s tended to progress more quickly in the early-onset versus late-onset form, people with early-onset usually lived with the disease for many more years longer, this disease of the mind residing in relatively young and healthy bodies.” But the implication of this awkward sentence is that the fictional Alice is typical of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
There is a world of difference between being diagnosed with standard early-onset Alzheimer’s, where life expectancy can extend beyond a decade, and the much rarer form depicted in the book and movie.
Unlike the book, the movie makes clear that Alice is experiencing a rare form of the disease.
Like the fictional character, I experienced a downturn in my professional work that baffled me. But in the two years since my symptoms became prominent, my decline has been relatively slow. I continue to read books, magazines, and newspapers as I have always done, though at a somewhat slower pace. My math skills, never great, have taken a hit, but with a calculator at hand, I can balance a checkbook.
 I still love to engage in stimulating conversations, though I am more likely to lose my train of thought.
My point is not to congratulate myself. I understand that, barring a medical breakthrough, I, too, will eventually be severely disabled, unless something else kills me first. But the pace of the disease is the crucial distinction. It is one thing to be forgetful, as I am, and to misplace things, as I do. It is quite another thing to leave one’s cellphone in the freezer and not find it until several days later, as Alice does.
It’s understandable, of course, that a novelist would want to limit her novel’s timeframe for dramatic reasons. But in this case, Hollywood exercised the better judgement. The movie does make clear that Alice has a rare, fast-moving form of the disease.
The movie is also superior because of the presence of Julianne Moore. What a magnificent actress. Each stage of decline is depicted plausibly and powerfully.
And this movie’s brief love scene is unlike any I have seen. The mind weakens, fades, but love (and carnality) endure.
 I just wish that this all-too-realistic movie had a happier ending. For that, we may be waiting a long time.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the role of two people – one a stranger, the other my wife – who have made important contributions to this blog. Max Maclaren provided much-needed technical assistance in getting the blog to look the way I wanted it to. Paula Woolley, proofreader extraordinaire, is an expert at catching my mistakes.

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