OLIVER SACKS‘ book A wake/rings tells the story of a neurologist‘s attempts to free a group of patients from a long—term catatonic state. With the release of a new film of the book starring
Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. the effects oftranslation from page to screen are examined by Andrew Pulyer.
here is Awakenings the book. and A tin/tunings the moyie and. to he honest. they bear only a superficial resemblance to each other. ()liyer Sacks” account of the true story became a best seller after its publication in 1974 but creating a film yersion has caused problems that go beyond the well-worn paths of filming noyels. In admitting the book into the realm of featuredom. Hollywood has in no uncertain terms imposed its own yision on Sacks' work —- imposition to the point oftrayesty. By any standards. A waszings-the-book is a remarkable work. Based on the experience and obseryations of ( )liyer Sacks himself. a British-born doctor working as a clinical neurologist in Mount (‘armel hospital in New York. it details the treatment of a number of patients locked into apparently irreyersible states of
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catatonia and immobility. \Vith harrowing and often frightening clarity. Sacks describes the reaction of his patients as they emerge from a condition brought on by a mysterious ‘sleeping sickness‘ epidemic that swept across liurope and America in the 1920s. Since publication. Sacks~ book has received layish and fully-deseryed praise. formed the basis for a Yorkshire 'l‘\' documentary. and been the inspiration for llarold l’inter‘s play A Kim] ()fA/usku.
Sacks‘ work concentrates on the process of ‘awakening‘. induced by a drug deyeloped in the 1‘)b()s called l.—dopa. With energy and insight he explores the relationship between the mind and the body ~ distorted into grotesque relief by the unique physiological stressesofdecadesofimmobilisation itis precisely this that appealed to l’inter as his character awakes from a form of frozen state (‘a kind of Alaska‘ ). The strength ofthe
book‘s structure allows Sacks' obsei'y ing eye to remain uncorrupted by the kind of continuous psychobabble that clutters up his later work. The Man Who .llismok His Wife I‘D/‘A Hut. In A H'ukt’nings-tlie—botik. the historical medical background ofthe lecasc histories and Sacks‘ own intisings are kept firmly separate. Sacks~ philosophising is not his strong point and it is as well that it remains optional reading.
The same. unfortunately. is not true of Awukenings—the-film. Nothing is optional here. as the tcar—jerker musical score makes clear. (‘oncentrating on only one ofthe patients. Leonard l.owe (Robert De \iro). the filmmakers smooth away the jagged edges of medical reality and offer a classically constructed. reasonably straightforward sentimental story about thwarted loye and the affirmation ofthe human spirit. Robin Williams reprises his Dead Poets .S'm‘icly role ofdown-home humanity this time in the bumbling scientist character ofSacks‘ counterpart. l)r Malcolm Sayer. In this context. what inevitably bears most weight is the idea of the ‘miracle‘ in a strictly Spielbergian sense. l lere. the depersonalisation of the main body of patients. and the introduction of spurious narratiye motifs. result in a kind of l)isneyish fairy-tale atmosphere.