Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Flowers for Algernon and Charly

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is one of those often referenced novels that almost everyone has either read or has been meaning to read.  I first read it when I was 8 or 9 and recently re-read it because a book group to which I belong had chosen it as the book to be discussed.  I was unaware, at the time, that the book was a short story before it was ever a novel.  Surprise!

Although I remembered much about the novel, including its conclusion, I was too young to understand much about what I was reading.  The religious allusions completely escaped me because I was not raised with any awareness of the Bible so references to the Tree of Knowledge (within the context of this novel’s plot about a mentally challenged man who has an operation that gives him the intelligence with which he had never been born) had no meaning to me.  Nor did I appreciate the relevance of his needing to connect with others.  And obviously at nine I would have no way of recognizing the overtly Freudian themes running throughout much of the protagonist’s thoughts and experiences.

Still, knowing how the book would end should have made the reading less compulsory but I found myself devouring the novel with an eagerness that I would typically only experience when reading something new.  I remembered far more than I would have expected while appreciating with a more mature insight the more subtle things that are going on in the novel.  Perhaps it’s because I grew up at a time when people were still brutal enough to look down on others for anything and everything or because I remember when scientific discoveries were labeled sinful because they went against how God wanted things to be.  I remember all of this and how the novel ended and still wanted nothing more than for it to be different, somehow.

My son Joe, who doesn’t like reading much, says he really liked this book which was required reading when he was in high school.  Rob also remembers reading it in high school and liking it very much.  I remembered reading it as a child and feeling the same.  Now, as an adult, I have to say I loved re-reading this novel and wonder if there aren’t others I should be re-reading.


After reading (devouring) the novel, I eagerly sought out and found the short story online.  I read that as well and I am very glad that Keyes thought to flesh out the short story into a more fully realized novel.  There are minor changes made that I think are curious and even amusing.  For instance, in the short story Charlie ponders if the reason Algernon, the mouse, is so smart has something to do with its being a white mouse.  I can see where this sounds unintentionally racist.  I also feel that Charlie’s character is more fully realized in the novel.  We learn more about his childhood and his family background, details that would have been ponderous in a short story but make Charlie all the more sympathetic.  His own transformation is more emotionally experienced as a result of the novel allowing for more depth.  Spending more time with Charlie before and after the operation, it is easier to see the metamorphosis that occurs.

The Freudian implications that underlie the novel are completely absent in the short story.  I have to question the rationale behind all of that; I wish Keyes had not chosen to infuse so much of this into the novel. But then, I’m not a Freudian and I tend to smirk or even frown when it is shoved in my face.  (I once wrote a rather amusing paper on the Freudian imagery in 2001: A Space Oddysey for a college course I took but I digress.)  However, I greatly appreciate the addition of the literary references to various canonical texts.  References to Robinson Crusoe, Paradise Lost, Don Quixote, and other classics add meaning to Charlie’s experiences.

Over all, I think the novel is far more effective than the short story because the time it takes to get to know Charlie, to read about his experiences through his journal-like progress reports, makes his story more universal and relevant.


After reading the novel and short story, naturally I wanted to see the movie which was made after a made-for-television version aired.  Both the television program and movie starred Cliff Robertson as the titular Charly.

If you like or even love the book and/or short story do not see this movie.  Rob and I suffered through it and just kept marveling at how the integrity of the story is completely compromised.

What's worse is that they add something to the plot that is offensive to anyone with any sense and actually reinforces the ideas that the novel itself tried to expose as stereotypical thinking about those who are not developmentally average.  I can't say more without spoiling so very much.  I may tuck a comment into this post so if you leave a comment, try not to look at anything I may have written.  Right now, I am too angry to even put into words how outraged I am that this film has anything to do with such a wonderful novel. Yet another example of a movie not living up to the superlative standards of the novel.  An utter outrage.

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