I finally got to read this wonderful little novel (read the novel and not the novella – my friend Gary informs me that the longer one is better) on holiday and I have been pondering it before writing anything about it. I also saw the film afterwards so I comment on that later:
Flowers for Algernon – The Novel
I must say this is the ideal book for the beach. Not only does it start of with very simple text: simple words and short sentences, but it is broken up into bite sized chunks about half page long. It couldn’t be easier. If you haven’t read the book you will not know that this is because the text mainly consists of diary entries by Charly Gordon, an American with learning-difficulties and subnormal intelligence who is about to undergo an operation to make him clever. I have to say right away that it is a very touching book and in no way prejudiced or insensitive. Indeed its subject matter is a great source of pathos and humour and treated with great care by its author Daniel Keyes.
As we follow Charly through his operation, guided by a teacher and some scientists, some with their own ambitions, we find him befriending a mouse called Algernon who races him in navigating mazes – the mouse for food and Charly simply for the challenge. Charly is a willing learner and his voracious capacity to learn takes him to the dizzy heights of uber-genius. The book first surfaced in the 50’s and was an instant success in a broadway play, later being adapted for the film Charly. It has been very influential and now I can see why.
Those of us who suffered under the dead weight of IQ tests and the focus on intellectual prowess in the 60s will be very familiar with the dilemnas faced by Charly. Most poignantly, that he finds himself more lonely, the more intelligent he becomes. He is an engaging figure, quick to laugh and make a fool of himself, but also deeply thoughtful about his place in society and how to best love others. He wants to hurt nobody.
Although the main thrust of this three-act play is Charly’s adventures with the mouse and scientists, it is counterpointed by his ongoing relationships with the guys in a bakers where he has worked all his adult life, and a chance encounter with a bohemian called Fay which blossoms into unaffected romance.
Of course there is a twist to all this which you will have to discover by reading the book (or seeing the film) yourself.
I think where this books succeeds so nobly, is pointing us to the still-very-relevant dilemna we all face inside: that grating interface between the need to be popular and loved, and the drive for personal aspiration, or if you want to be crude, ambition. Who hasn’t wondered if being more or less intelligent might solve this for them?
Flowers for Algernon: Simple? Yes. All-embracing? Most definitely.
Charly – the movie (1968)
This movie was really hard to find – I have never seen it scheduled on English TV and have wanted to watch it for years because it stars one of my favourite actors: Cliff Robertson. You know how it is: you have some childish passion for something and you think its only you that likes it and you are embarrassed, and then eventually you find that actually its a very popular choice. For me it was the movie 633 Squadron and in particular the actor Mr. Robertson. I didn’t know why at the time but I was charmed by his laconic, and slightly sad hero, Roy Grant and also his ‘did he die or didn’t he’ scene at the end which actually you can take either way depending on your mood at the time.
It’s 1968: Cliff has already starred in the hit-play of Flowers for Algernon in 1953 and now owns the rights so he decides to get the film made.
The first thing that struck me about the movie was the music, then a moment later, and a moment after that, its cut-down nature. The music was by Ravi Shankar and as soon as I saw that name in the opening credits and heard the sitar playing a beautifully simple tune which sat somewhere between an eastern ragga and western nursery-rhyme, I was captured. This is played over a playground scene with Charly and some kids playing on slides and swings. It is in a stuttering slow-mo too which gives it a sense of ‘echoes from the past’ and at the same time a playfulness. Charly is dressed in a suit and the juxtaposition of adult and children in this scene would be considered very awkward in a film made to day, if, indeed one could make such a film today. But we are not going to discuss modern paranoias here.
Charly is played to the hilt by an on-fire Robertson, passionate about the part and fully emerced in it. His tongue wags like a puppy as he joins in innocently with anyone he meets – like the little dog in the book Charly’s sister never had a a child. The film inevitably has to cut out an awful lot of the book to fit it into 103 minutes but Cliff manages, through deft little flourishes here and there to cover most of that off and you don’t really feel any sense of loss for most of the film. The only major section missing from the film was the unconventional romance with the unconventional Fay but I guess not everything could be fitted in. This section was transposed into two elements of the film – a dreamlike sequence of the now-liberated Charly on a motorcycle odyssey with various hippy girls, and his tentative relationship with his teacher, finely played by the quiet Claire Bloom.
As I said in my opening sentence, this film has quite a cut-down quality. It reminds me in places very much of 60s kitchen-sink dramas like Up the Junction, Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey. It has a simple lyrical quality which is visual poetry and I love in the same way I love those English films. Very untypical of Hollywood, I think we can probably put this approach down to Cliff’s persistence as producer in getting the quality he wanted: perhaps like that of a theatre? I would have to ask Cliff because I am not sure.
Anyway, watch it if you get the chance. It’s a beautiful film. Cliff deserved his Oscar.