Charly (1968)


A couple of months ago, I read a book by author Daniel Keyes about a man with 23 personalities.  The Minds of Billy Milligan was published in 1981 but I don’t believe its protagonist ever reached the level of fame that Eve of The Three Faces of Eve, Sybil or her psychiatrist Cornelia B. Wilbur—who incidentally  also treated Billy Milligan—reached.  This is possibly due to the fact that it was never made into a movie, although at one point Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the big names hoping to develop it into a film.  Billy Milligan was given the choice of who would write his biography, and after reading Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Milligan’s choice made sense.

Flowers for Algernon was first written as a short story in 1958 and published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1959, winning the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960.  Keyes expanded on it and the novel was published in 1966, also co-winning that year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel with Babel-17, a book and author I’ve never heard of.  A few people have told me that they read Flowers for Algernon in high school, but somehow it never made it onto my curriculum.  After reading Billy Milligan, I was curious about Keyes famous book which had been made into the film Charly in 1968 and which I had seen way back in time when I was probably too young to understand the details.

Note: Gordon’s first name is spelled “Charly” in the 1968 film compared to “Charlie” in all the other versions and I try and use the appropriate spelling depending on what I am writing about.

While the book is contemporary, for instance, we can laugh at how little rent Charlie pays to live in Manhattan or how certain areas of the city are downtrodden—if only we had been around and bought a piece of real estate in Alphabet City—the interactions and psychology between people are relatable.

The novel begins when Charlie is 32.  It deals not only with Charlie’s low IQ and how being mentally challenged affects his relationships, memory and sense of worth, but it slowly solves the puzzle of why Charlie no longer lived with his family after the age of 15.  Although the story falls into the sci-fi genre, what also makes it rather down-to-earth is that there is enough true-sounding medical and science  references with regards to how memory is affected by aging to make this a real life type of story.  After Charlie’s operation, there is a rapid spike, then fall of his mental faculties and I think the moral is, if there is a moral, choosing which is more important, intelligence or a good nature.

We get to know Charlie through his relationships with the people who work at the bakery where we first encounter him, his relationship to his teacher which changes throughout, plus Charlie’s interaction with modern-day society through befriending a female that we might categorize as being part of the Beatnik subculture.

Okay, so that is the gist of the story.  How did the film fare in comparison?

Cliff Robertson must have had a very strong desire to play the role which won him an Academy Award for Best Actor because I noticed that one of the production companies that produced the film was his own, Robertson and Associates.  Making this film must have been on Robertson’s mind for several years since he also acted in the United States Steel Hour live TV production, The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, on February 22, 1961.  Author Daniel Keyes didn’t expand his short story into a novel until 1966, and you can see some of the differences in these two filmic versions.

In the TV version, Charlie never appears quite as mentally handicapped as he does in the novel nor as he does in Charly.  In unsharp black and white Robertson looks slightly older and less recognizable in this earlier version.  Charlie works in a generic factory in the TV drama and a bakery in the novel and film, performing janitorial services in both.  In the book and film, working here plays a substantial role in his early life.  Charly’s world is small, and this is the place where he has made his personal connections.  His only other relationships are with his teacher and, possibly, his landlady.  In The Two World of Charlie Gordon, his teacher is named Jane Rollins played by Mona Freeman while in the book it’s Alice, played by Claire Bloom in the film.

I listened to an audio version of the book and so without being able to rummage through the pages, I’m going to admit that I was confused about something—where exactly did Alice emerge from?  At first, his teacher is called Miss Harriet Kinnian and since she was the one who promoted him as a worthy candidate to the scientists, I decided that she morphed into Alice.  In the novel, as Charlie begins to be able to remember his past, he realizes that Miss Kinnian is his age and that he went to elementary school with her.  But I missed something because I thought she was the person who works with Charlie during all the time he spends at the lab, before and after his operation.  In the end, it made no difference whether she was called Miss (Harriet) Kinnian or Alice, and as his IQ rises, so does his involvement with her.  In both the TV and film version, this one person is teacher, clinical psychologist and love interest.

As in many films, not every aspect of the novel can be included in the script.  What the film left out was Charlie’s relationship with his family.  It was obviously easier to depict him as an orphan rather than adding much time and money to the film and weaving through the narrative the mystery of why Charlie was expelled from the family home.

The other elimination was the female character Fay who is there to allow Charlie to sow his oats.  She is a free spirit, a somewhat narcistic painter, who instructs him in the art of drinking, dancing and sex.  This novel depicts these as the “bohemian” activities of the 1950s, which appear tame compared to what people did just a few short years later in the 60s.  Here, Charly’s wild life is depicted in a minute-long montage of uninhibited behaviour which includes motorcycles, dancing to (bad) electronic music at flashy nightclubs, smoking grass and having passionate sex.  Charly gets this all out of his system so he can then go on to have a “healthy” relationship with Alice and solve brainy scientific problems.

I thought Roberson as an actor had evolved, playing Charly better in the film then in the TV version.  There’s a definite difference between who the character was and who he became, and Robertson was able to nuance Charly’s sense of loneliness and feeling of not quite belonging to any world, which was a major problem for him in the novel.

There’s a specific identical moment in all three vehicles when Charlie has his mental breakthrough.  He’s having a race with Algernon, the mouse running through a maze, while Charlie is finding his way through a maze on paper.  Who will be the first to solve their problem?  I had to chuckle during the TV version when Charlie held his pencil in his fist while drawing.  Suddenly, he holds it properly, and voila, he is the winner.

Dr. Nemur is not meant to be all that likeable in the book.  I found all the medical staff rather one dimensional and uninteresting in the film, while I have to say I quite liked the TV doctor (here he’s called Dr. Strauss) and the British actor, Maxwell Shaw, who plays him.

What is most relatable to me is Keyes description of the way the brain ages and how memory works.  It is all meteoric for Charlie, going from mentally slow to a genius and back in less than a year.  Thankfully, most of us have a lifetime to experience failings like this, hopefully to a lesser degree.

I’m not sure if the film meant to leave out expressing Charlie’s inability to build close relationships, but if it didn’t mean to do that, it failed.  It’s a theme in the book and, after all, it was a very short period of time for him to be cognizant of this fact.  It is difficult for a person without the intellectual ability to hold meaningful conversations with acquaintances to develop these relationships into closer ties.

I know nothing about director Ralph Nelson but see that he directed Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) with Anthony Quinn, Lilies of the Field (1963) with Sidney Poitier and Father Goose (1964) with Cary Grant and Leslie Caron.

A number of other vehicles were developed from this single story, including the original short story, a play, and a radio play.  I recommend the book and you can view both or either The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon and Charly by clicking on their titles.  The TV show includes ads of the times, Dick Powell spouting accolades for The Red Cross, and US Steel for their products (although I felt as if they were subliminally selling sex, especially when one elderly woman mentions with a bit more vigor than needed, that one “never has to worry about treating it rough”).  Whether you choose one or all mediums, I hope you enjoy.

5 thoughts on “Charly (1968)

  1. It’s rare that a screen actor gets a chance to play a role twice, outside of sequels and series. Offhand I can’t think of another instance of this happening.

    I’m curious to read this book again to see how it has held up. Along with Brave New World and the short story Harrison Bergeron, this was one of the few science fiction-type stories I can recall being assigned reading. I distinctly remember a sex scene in the book causing a lot of discomfort and tittering in the classroom.

    • Thanks, Adam. I have read some Vonnegut stories, mostly in high school, but not “Harrison Bergeron”, so I am intrigued.

      I think the novel holds up well. I actually wondered with amusement how those sex scenes went down in the classroom. To try and be succinct, I thought that Keyes did a good job at painting a realistic picture of how a brain’s growth, awareness and intelligence worked.

    • “It’s rare that a screen actor gets a chance to play a role twice, outside of sequels and series. Offhand I can’t think of another instance of this happening.”

      It happens sometimes, like Ray Danton playing the gangster ‘Legs’ Diamond in both “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond” (1960) and “Portrait of a Mobster” (1961) or Michael Keaton playing cop Ray Nicolette in “Jackie Brown” (1997) and “Out of Sight” (1998).

      None of those movies are sequels or part of the same series, but “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight” are from books by the same author. James Cagney also appeared as George M. Cohan in “Seven Little Foys” (1955) after starring in the man’s biopic “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942).

  2. There was also a TV movie adaptation of “Flowers for Algernon” starring Matthew Modine. I watched it in school. I remember liking the movie, but it’s been awhile. Even though my memories of the thing are fuzzy, I think it’s worth recommending. It could be interesting comparing that to the other versions of this story. I believe Modine was very likable in the role.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts, Deniz. I’ve never seen the Modine version. In fact, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen that actor in anything although it looks like he’s continually working. I will wait awhile before watching another film on this theme, but it’s always interesting to know what else is out there.

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