Friday, 30 October 2009

Some thoughts about A Beautiful Mind and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

Usually, I'm not a big fan of filmatizations. Especially when I've read the book before I watch the movie, and when the book's emphasis is about more complex psychological contexts watching the movie often has been a bit of a comedown. An example of such a, in my opinion, somewhat failed adaption is A Beautiful Mind with its rather exaggerated and twisted presentation of "hallucinations", meant to help the audience understand the phenomenon, but actually more fit for obtaining the very opposite effect. And indeed, some stylistic faux pas, one would think directors like Bergman and Tarkovsky for instance had taught the cinema to avoid a long time ago. But, well, on the one hand we have Bergman's and Tarkovsky's feel for subtle nuances, on the other Hollywood's preference for broader strokes of the brush. Like comparing apples and oranges.

Another thing that can give me a kind of comedown experience is when the movie consciously twists the text's "message", exploiting the book's, author's or protagonist's popularity in order to get its own "message" out. This too, A Beautiful Mind is an outstanding example to illustrate, abusing John Nash's celebrity status, letting his character state, that he takes the "newer medications", while we all know that the real John Nash didn't take neuroleptics other than when he was forced to, like during hospitalizations, and never after 1970.

The producers excused their distorting the historical facts, and said they didn't want people to toss out their drugs. In the meantime, the movie doesn't at any point directly state that John Nash didn't take drugs over longer periods. Thus there should be no need to mention the matter at all. Unless the idea was to exploit John Nash's popularity for the benefit of the psych drug industry. On the contrary, I'd say. Given the fact, that Nash did recover, while recovery on neuroleptics virtually never occurs, the truth should have been mentioned.

So, all in all it was with reservations that I ventured into watching the filmatization of Joanne Greenberg's novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden the other day.

Except for in a single sequence, the visualization of Deborah's "hallucinations" is created in a more subtle way than John Nash's in A Beautiful Mind, and thus more endurable and credible. Never mind that it left me with vague associations to Timothy Leary and Woodstock, just as the decorations, costumes and requisits represent a somewhat strange blend of the 1950ies and the late 1970ies.

Although the movie's last sequences seem a bit rash - and it has to be considered that the standard length for movies, that rarely was exceeded, was 90 minutes back in 1977, the movie's production year - and, compared to the novel, a little superficially happy-ending-like, the movie manages to avoid the all too broad strokes of the brush, and, and this is really an achievement the subject taken into account, it avoids to descend into the melodramatic.

Based on a novel as complex as Joanne Greenberg's, a filmatization can hardly be anything but fragmentary. Nevertheless, the movie succeeds to make the best of its 96 almost-standard minutes, both because it focusses on some of the most essential themes of the novel, and not least because of the actors' brilliant performance (Kathleen Quinlan, Bibi Andersson - oh well, a Bergman-trained actress...), and I was positively surprised to see the novel's basic "message" unchanged.

A comment at YouTube says what the novel teaches us is "to have COMPASSION with the mentally ill". I replied: "What both the book and the movie teach us is that so-called "mental illness" is a choice (out of necessity though). Not a chronic brain disease. And they both teach us that we should make it possible for people to choose freedom, like Frieda Fromm-Reichmann made it possible for Joanne Greenberg. Instead of indefinitely locking them up in helplessness and dependency with toxic chemicals and hopeless messages about defective genes and chronic brain disorders."

I was surprised, but I'd also forgotten all about the movie's production year, 1977, that is about the fact that the movie was shot at a time in history when psych drugs didn't yet play the everything else overshadowing role they do play today, and when psychological and psycho-social causes still were considered. Interesting and refreshing in this context is that the dialogue doesn't get stuck in diagnoses and other crudenesses. Although "psychotic" appears from time to time, "schizophrenia" for instance isn't mentioned one single time throughout the entire movie. Probably also this a 1977-phenomenon.

Although it can by no means replace reading the novel itself, a filmatization of Joanne Greenberg's autobiographic novel that is well worth watching.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden at YouTube.

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