Only read the conclusion if you wish to avoid spoilers for Charly and Flowers for Algernon
Charly is a film adaption of the brilliant novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It follows the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68, as a surgical procedure skyrockets his intelligence. Unfortunately, the effect is only temporary and Charlie must deal not only with his spiral upward but his fall back down. Such a story opens up many questions. Is it ethical to artificially increase someone’s intelligence, especially if it’s only temporary? How can one cope with a leap in intelligence leaving their emotional intelligence behind? What effect would this have on who someone is and their morals? How would one deal with the extreme differences between their current and old self? Unsurprisingly, these questions are addressed differently in the book and movie.
A change in one’s state of mind can be taxing, let alone one so drastic and quick as Charlie’s. Imagine being able to see many times more of the world than you can see now, all the things you’d be able to experience. Now imagine that being ripped away as you crash back down to your original state with what you were only a distant memory. Are you glad that you got to see what you did or does the memory torture you as you struggle to know what you used to know? This issue is dealt with heavily in both versions, though with different focus points. The movie deals mostly with Charlie’s reaction to the temporary nature of the surgery and his return to his original intelligence. This is shown beginning with the conference when Charlie bitterly reveals his fate in front of a live audience. He then runs away, beginning a chase scene where he runs from his former self. After this point, he throws himself into his work, barely even stopping to rest. This shows how scared he is and the tax the effects of the surgery take on his mind. It forces the viewer to question whether the surgery is worth it for the crash landing. However, it’s a limited exploration of the ethics of the surgery. The book goes deeper as it doesn’t only examine the downfall but the nature of intelligence itself. Charlie’s life gets more problematic as his intelligence increases, losing his “friends” and understanding all the problems in the world. While I wouldn’t say the film fails in portraying the ethical issues with the surgery, it definitely pales in comparison to the book.
Charlie being kind, cheerful, and caring before the surgery was what made the book so powerful to me. Watching him be pushed away from all he knew and becoming a completely different, miserable person broke my heart. The first red flag was when the refusal to lie was dropped from the picture scene, leading up to a point where he assaulted Alice. This makes movie Charlie difficult to relate to and leaves his love of learning as his only redeeming trait. When he acts rudely later on, it’s nothing new and we don’t get to see how intelligence has affected his emotions. Despite the other flaws of this movie, had they portrayed Charlie properly it may have saved the it. Unfortunately, that is not the case and viewers are left longing for the Charlie of the book.
The operation on Charlie only increases his intellectual ability, leaving his emotional intelligence as it was. This creates an interesting dilemma as Charlie tries to approach everything from a purely logical point of view and struggles to main relationships, in the book that is. In the movie, we don’t see this as much. We get glimpses of it, such as when he tries to assault Alice, but we don’t see nearly as much as in the book.
While discussing the ethics of the surgery, I mentioned the way Charlie deals with the disparities between his new and old selves. He thinks of himself before the surgery as a separate entity, a ghost of sorts. This movie again has a terrible case of not exploring the idea enough. It’s only shown in the scene where Charlie is chased by the ghost of his former self. This is disappointing as the book dived in further and showed how the old Charlie limited new Charlie throughout the book. For example, as Charlie wanted to initiate a romantic relationship with Alice, the old Charlie interfered as he was afraid of women. In the movie, the other Charlie only shows up after the conference for one scene. While the scene is interesting, it doesn’t have the power the book has by having the old Charlie follow him throughout his journey.
Being different mediums, the book and the film evoke emotions differently. The book evokes emotion by making readers feel Charlie’s through his progress reports. The reader experiences everything with Charlie so they feel his emotions. The movie doesn’t have the luxury of doing this. In fact, the film didn’t evoke much emotion at all for me. Most of the emotions I felt were because I knew what was going on in Charlie’s head from reading the book. The one scene that did convey any notable emotion was the conference. Charlie begins answering questions, spewing out witty answers to each. However, he then slows down leading to sense of uneasiness, before revealing the dead Algernon in his hand. It’s different from the book as we experience everything from the view of people around Charlie, instead of experiencing his view. This could have been interesting had they decided to go that direction but they still try to follow Charlie.
Charlie is a shockingly different person in the movie from the version from him in the book. As I mentioned already, he loses his kind nature in the movie. He also seems generally less complex. In the book, different aspects of his personality mingle and develop throughout the book. He’s intellectual but comes to using metaphorical speech. In the movie, he becomes a flat stereotype of an intellectual, all the complexity lost. This leaves the viewer unattached, making the entire film lose its impact. That being said, movie Charlie is still entertaining to watch, though more as caricature surrounded by an interesting story than as a complex person and their journey. This difference is somewhat understandable as scenes that showed some of Charlie’s personality had to be removed and Charlie’s metacognition wasn’t shown.
In case you couldn’t tell from all I’ve said already, I find the book to be far more effective than the film. I understand that books and movies are very different mediums. Films have a limit on how much content they can contain in order to keep the time down since not many people are willing to watch a long movie. Also, following the story from Charlie’s point of view made the book more impactful. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to have a movie from a first person point of view as the camera itself is like a third person. This distances us from Charlie, making it less effective. While it would be possible to execute the story nicely as a film, it’s strongly tied to books as a medium with the progress report style.
Conclusion - Spoiler Free
In conclusion, the form of film doesn’t fit the novel Flowers for Algernon which is so closely tied to its medium. The loss of Charlie’s thoughts and the removal of important scenes due to length constraints, the adaptation is but a shell of the story. If you’ve read the book, skip to the conference scene because it’s the only part worth watching. Otherwise, you should just read the book.