ningerbil (ningerbil) wrote in 50bookchallenge,

Book 4- Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks

OK, this book review is going to be a bit different. This fulfills the Book Riot challenge for reading a book, watching the movie it is based on and comparing the two. So this is actually two reviews and will be longer (even longer? ha ha!) than my typical review:

4. Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks. This completes my "read a book then watch the movie" fulfillment for the Book Riot challenge, so this is actually two reviews. I hadn't planned to use this one- I've actually seen the movie before (albeit some years ago). I was just on a science kick and had read Sacks' Musicophelia and really enjoyed it. But I really wanted to watch the movie again after reading this. I really wish I would have read the book first; usually I don't feel that strongly whether I read the novel or watch the movie first. But I picked up on so many details and so many lines from the movie that I missed the first time around because I'd read Awakenings.
For those not familiar with either, Oliver Sacks is a doctor who, in the 1960s, worked with Parkinson's patients as well as patients suffering from post-encephalitic syndrome. From 1917 to the 1920s, there was an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, or "sleeping sickness." Those stricken by this generally rare disease would go on to develop Parkinsonian-like symptoms later in life. By the time Sacks saw them, the majority of them were in a frozen state, unable to communicate and generally immobile. Brief moments of a dim "awakening" were noted with some stimulus, but these were the smallest flashes of light. Sacks tried what was then an experimental drug L-Dopa, with varying degrees of success. In his book, Sacks chronicles the stories of many of his patients (including a couple of patients outside of Mount Carmel and a couple of patients who had actual Parkinsons). Many of his patients (who were given a pseudonym) were able to write down their feelings when they were locked inside their immobile, unresponsive bodies as well as their feelings as they took L-Dopa and other medications. The book I read is a 1990 update, which included more footnotes than the original (according to Sacks) plus offered an update on the patients and his feelings about the movie. All but one of the patients had died by 1990. The surviving patient, whom he identifies as Lillian T., actually makes a cameo in the movie; I *think* I spotted her but am not sure.
First off, about the book itself. I highly recommend it. Sacks' is a wonderful storyteller, and his narrative is generally conversational and easy to follow. He really makes an effort to portray his patients not just as clinical cases, but as real people. My one quibble was the copious amount of footnotes. Now, sometimes they had interesting information, but I felt they could have been worked into the narrative of the main part itself. Much of it just got too distracting. But this is minor. I loved reading his insights about the movie, which he seemed to be a fan of. He had especially high praise for Robert DeNiro, who portrayed Leonard, one of the patients (and there really was a "Leonard"; DeNiro's character was heavily based on the patient given that pseudonym). DeNiro's acting and portrayal of a post-encephalitic patient fooled Sacks himself, by his own admission. Sacks also marveled at Williams' talent for mimicry, at how well the actor got the mannerisms of the doctor (Williams' character Dr. Sayer is a fictional portrayal of Sacks himself).
There are many details, many lines that come straight from the pages of the book and from Sacks' notes. The demand for a steak. The feeling of being caught in a sort of time warp. In one patient's case, the despair of knowing his family had essentially fallen apart. The card game. Catching the ball. Sometimes the family's not-so-positive reactions (captured by Leonard's mother) All of these are details from various cases.
Really, I was stunned how true to the book the movie was, and Sacks while acknowledging that some liberties were taken with the facts, stated he was thrilled with how the movie got the feelings, the emotions right.
There were, of course, some differences. I can, for the most part, understand why the differences were made for the movie, which I enjoyed even more the second time around. One, as Sacks notes, there was no major "Awakening" one night of all the patients. The patients were all given L-Dopa at various time spanning at least a couple of months. However, Sacks said this moment captured the feeling of what it was like to watch a patient who had been unresponsive for decades walk, talk, eat, laugh and interact with the world. One minor detail also is why L-Dopa was started: It was, indeed, very expensive when the drug first came out but by 1969, the price had fallen enough to make a wide testing feasible. Again, minor point and the solidarity of the staff made for a great moment.
The only major difference I saw between the book and movie that bothered me a little were the reactions of the patients to L-Dopa, although I will confess I honestly don't know how they could have done this more honestly without making a four-hour movie or making it very confusing for the viewer. In the movie, L-Dopa is shown to wear off in a way (at least that is the impression I got), and all the patients eventually reverted back to their inert state. I was left with the impression the first time around was that L-Dopa was ultimately a failure. What actually happened is a heck of a lot more complicated. The truth is, the response to L-Dopa was all over the map. A couple of the patients responded extremely well to it, and were able to live out more or less normal lives. A few patients responded well at first, then developed other problems but with a dose adjustment managed to strike a medium between being catatonic and flying off the walls, having uncontrollable tics or other complications related to the drug. Some, after a period of "awakening" went on to develop complications that, even with adjustments, never entirely went away. These patients tended to develop a sensitivity to L-Dopa. Some developed coping mechanisms, but others were left to struggle with tics, uncontrolled movements, sleeplessness, emotional outbursts and more. And for a couple of patients there was no therapeutic benefit at all; Sacks described one of those cases as "catastrophic" and you could tell from his writing he really questioned himself and his tests after this sad case.
So I guess my final verdict is this: both the movie and the book are excellent. Do understand the movie, by necessity, does take some liberties with the facts (and it even advertises itself as a fictionalized version of events so there's no intentional ploy at dishonesty here). I do recommend, if possible, that people read the book first because there are so many details in the movie that come from real life.

Currently reading: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.
Tags: non-fiction, science

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