Daniel Keyes’ science fiction novel Flowers from Algernon is a staple of Middle School assigned reading, and with good reason. It has an interesting scientific premise, presents ethical issues in a way that appeals to 13-year-olds, and offers a fine example first-person narration in which the main character’s mental capabilities are mirrored in the words and sentences he uses to express himself. Both the novel and the short story on which it was based were also award winners—the story, first published in 1959, won the Hugo Award in 1960, while the novel, published in 1966, shared the Nebula Award with Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17.
In 1968, Flowers for Algernon was adapted as the film Charly, starring Cliff Robertson in the title role of Charly Gordon. The most important thing to know about this film is that it’s a Cliff Robertson vehicle. Robertson bought the rights to the story after appearing in a 1961 television adaptation, The Two Worlds of Charly Gordon, and commissioned two screenplays based on it. He rejected the first, by William Goldman, but accepted the second, by Stirling Silliphant, which became the basis of this movie. Robertson won an Academy Award for his performance, although not without controversy.
Charly Gordon is a mentally retarded man who works in bakery and good-naturedly accepts his co-worker’s glee in making him the butt of their jokes. He longs to improve himself, however, and attends night school under the guidance of Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom). Meanwhile, two scientists (Leon Janney and Lilia Skala) have developed a surgical procedure that has improved intelligence in mice, including their star subject, Algernon (hence the novel’s title). Charly also undergoes the surgery, and goes from being unable to beat Algernon in solving a simple maze to becoming an accomplished artist and all-around thinker. He also becomes sexually aggressive, assaulting Alice and having a number of relationships with other women, and dabbles in the counter culture.
Charly was popular when it was first released, but today it’s hard to understand exactly what this film’s appeal was. It gets so much wrong, from the nature of intelligence to the realities of mental retardation to ordinary medical ethics, and those discrepancies are much harder to overlook in a naturalistic film than they are in a stylized novel. Robertson’s performance comes off more as hysterical than award worthy, the film’s symbolism seems egregiously heavy-handed, and to accept the behavior of Bloom’s character it would help to have some practice, as did Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, in believing six impossible things before breakfast. It may be more interesting, in fact, to watch this film as an example of 1960s culture than
It’s not easy to know who decided what in the making of Charly, but this film certainly has the whiff of a star overpowering the director. Ralph Gordon was certainly capable of better work, as shown in his films like Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and Lilies of the Field( 1963), but besides problems of character imbalance and inconsistent tone, Charly also suffers from excessive use of gimmicks like presenting conversations using split screen when a standard alternation of shots would have worked just as well and been a lot less obtrusive. | Sarah Boslaugh