Book Vs. Film: The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

Book Vs. Film: The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

 

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

 

Book: The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby, 1997

Film: The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, adapted by Ronald Harwood, directed by Julian Schnabel, 2007

The story behind The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is more striking than the book itself: Paralyzed by a stroke at age 43, French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated his slim memoir by blinking his left eye, spelling out words one letter at a time to transcribers. The book reflects, in its brevity and its plain, clipped sentences, the difficulty of getting it onto paper; the sheer patience that was necessary for everyone involved is mind-boggling. Then again, what else did Bauby have to do with his time?

Julian Schnabel apparently found the story more interesting than the book, too: His film adaptation tells the story of the book's writing more than it follows the actual text. Like the films Kafka or Naked Lunch, it's more about the mindset of the author than about the book he created. Granted, it's also less fantastical and bizarre than either of those movies, by a good bit, though it does occasionally lurch off into surreal imagery. Like Schnabel's other films, Basquiat and Before Night Falls, it's visually dreamy and floaty, but anchored in the depressing reality of what it's like to be a young, ambitious artist stuck dealing with life's mundane realities. It's hard to avoid some pat conclusions about Schnabel's choice of projects: to date, his entire filmography consists of three biographical films about striking, noted artists who lived troubled lives and died relatively young. Add in the fact that Schnabel himself is a famously temperamental, controversial New York painter celebrated in his youth and then struck by crippling critical backlash, and the armchair-psychologist analysis just writes itself. It's fairly easy to imagine why Schnabel might sympathize with vital, energetic creators limited by outside factors beyond their control.

This factor may also explain why he lionizes his subjects by putting a flashy, arty spin on their stories, as if to emphasize how much more vivid an artist's world is than the world as seen by ordinary Joes. That flash is certainly absent from Bauby's text: Bauby does have his colorful flights of expressionism, most notably in the central metaphor that gives the book his name, spelled out in the book's prologue, below. At the same time–as the same prologue makes clear–his prose tends to be snipped and direct, even when he's waxing poetic:

 

Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner. My room emerges slowly from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children's drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these last six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock…

An ordinary day. At seven, the chapel bells begin again to punctuate the passage of time: quarter-hour by quarter-hour. After the night's respite, my congested bronchial tubes once more begin their noisy rattle. My hands, lying curled on the yellow sheets, are hurting, although I cannot tell if they are burning hot or ice-cold. To fight off stiffness, I instinctively stretch, my arms and legs moving only a fraction of an inch. It is often enough to bring relief to a painful limb.

My diving bell becomes less oppressive and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or King Midas's court.

You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.

Enough rambling. My main task now is to compose the first of these bed-ridden travel notes so that I shall be ready when my publisher's emissary arrives to take my dictation, letter by letter. In my head, I churn over every sentence ten times, delete a word, add an adjective, and learn my text by heart, paragraph by paragraph.

Seven-thirty. The duty nurse interrupts the flow of my thoughts. Following a well-established ritual, she draws the curtain, checks tracheostomy and drip feeds, and turns on the TV so I can watch the news. Right now, a cartoon celebrates the adventures of the fastest frog in the west. And what if I asked to be changed into a frog? What then?

 

That minor whimsy–the title conceit, in which Bauby's lumbering, unresponsive body is a man weighted down by a diving suit, and his mind is a butterfly–is fairly typical for the book, even though it's mostly concerned with anecdotes about the day-to-day life of a paralytic. While Bauby does describe a dream of his–a surreal mishmash in which Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic gives him an emergency tracheotomy–and further expands on his daydreams about travel and eating solid food instead of living off IVs, most of his book is about his life in the hospital. He describes the mental nicknames he gives the nurses; the torture of Sundays, when no one visits; the annoyance of trying to communicate via the blink-system with unaccustomed visitors, who sometimes get overeager and jump ahead to wrongly anticipate what he's saying, and sometimes doggedly force him to indicate every letter, no matter how obvious the word he's shooting for. He talks about his visits with his children and his first post-accident glimpse of his own face (which, he says, looks like it just emerged from a vat of formaldehyde). He explains how he thinks of most other inhabitants of his hospital as "tourists," since they're only around for a few weeks or months while they recover from injuries less permanent than his own. He talks about dictating letters to be sent out en masse to his friends, to prove that he isn't just "a vegetable," as some are saying.

In other words, he natters on about what's most on his mind: his own broken body and the contents of his active mind. He covers a lot of subjects, in ultra-brief chapters–generally just two or three pages long–that each comprise a single extended thought. Basically, these chapters are personal blog entries: mordantly witty but ultimately slight musings on memories or events around him.

And while the tone of Schnabel's movie is fairly different from the book's, and the contents are fairly different too, in ways detailed below, this may be the biggest difference: The book feels like a series of scattered thoughts on a theme. The film feels like a single coherent start-to-finish story, even though it jumps around in time, sometimes flashing back to a healthy Bauby in his element at Elle or on a trip with a girlfriend.

Schnabel achieves the full-story feeling in part by filling in some of Bauby's concision with expansive, dialogue-driven scenes. The movie begins with an extended sequence shot from Bauby's point of view, as he lurches slowly into consciousness. His vision is blurry, snapping in and out of focus; blurs of color and looming facial close-ups take over the screen as Bauby blinks, or members of the hospital staff lean over him. They talk to him, and he responds, but they don't hear him; it takes him some time to realize he isn't really talking at all. They explain about the stroke, and where he is. Over time, he slowly looks around the room and begins to register things. Nurses and visitors come and go. Over an excruciating but riveting 10 minutes, Schnabel finally brings his camera into full focus and begins to omit the flashes and cuts to blackness, indicating that Bauby is finally fully conscious and processing his surroundings.

By contrast, the book deals with this entire period with two sentences: "I… had twenty days of deep coma and several weeks of grogginess and somnolescence before I truly appreciated the extent of the damage. I did not fully awake until the end of January."

And that kind of contrast typifies the difference between the book and film versions of The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. Bauby describes his experiences in stark, quick detail; Schnabel, as much as possible, forces viewers to live them out in real time. This becomes particularly excruciating during the scene when a doctor sews Bauby's poorly functioning right eye shut; in the book, Bauby describes, in a few short paragraphs, the horrific emotional impact of the event–his shock at waking to find his eye being sealed up, his fear that the brusque doctor would shut his other eye too, cutting him off from humanity entirely, his annoyance at the doctor, who snapped "Six months!" and walked off without explaining why he'd done what he'd done. But Schnabel actually puts viewers inside the experience, framing the screen with eyelids and lashes, showing the needle sinking deep into flesh and pulling the aperture shut, letting the screen dim to black as the framing eye is pulled closed, shutting out all light. It's as nerve-racking and grotesque as any torture-porn, albeit without the blood.

But Schnabel's "live the pain" approach is similarly twitch-inducing during the sequences dealing with the blinking code Bauby uses to dictate his thoughts. In the film, he has an exasperating period of inability to communicate; Schnabel gives him a voiceover, saying sarcastic or irritated or pleading things to people who generally aren't even trying to understand him. Eventually, a determined therapist works out an agonizing but effective system: She slowly reads all the letters in the French alphabet to Bauby. When she reaches the letter he wants, he blinks. She notes the letter down, and returns to the top of the order for the next letter. Which means a goodly portion of the film consists of various people patiently intoning the letters on the therapist's cheat card–"E, S, A, R, I, N…" over and over as they try to retrieve messages from the depths of Bauby's diving bell.

At times, the repetition is maddening. But it's an undeniably effective way of communicating the tedium Bauby himself must have experienced when trying to talk to the outside world through such a clumsy, faulty interface. Again, it emphasizes how ridiculously patient everyone involved with the transcription must have been.

Bauby's book and Schnabel's film tell the same basic story from the same point of view, but they focus on different things, and on different levels of detail, and the spelling/blinking system provides some of the biggest gaps between the two versions. Bauby says little about it, beyond explaining how it works. Instead, he gets playful discussing the order of the letters: "More than an alphabet, it is a hit parade in which each letter is placed according to the frequency of its use in the French language. That is why E dances proudly out in front, while W labors to hold on to last place. B resents being pushed back next to V, and haughty J–which begins so many sentences in French–is amazed to find itself so near the rear of the pack." And so on.

Schnabel, on the other hand, focuses on the spelling system closely over time. The therapist who designs it, Henriette Durand (played by Marie-Josée Croze, with a tender, doe-eyed vulnerability), emphasizes that Bauby's care is the most important job she's ever been entrusted with, and she's determined to make things work. She's the first person in the film to take the time to establish real two-way communication with Bauby, through a yes/no blink system and careful questioning; her creation of the spelling/blinking system essentially marks the end of the film's first act, by moving him from inert lump to speaking person. (The second act is the writing of the book; the coda is its publication and his death.) He mentally complains that the system is too slow, that he doesn't know what to say, that she says the letters too fast, that he doesn't want to try, that the system won't work, that she should leave him alone. At long last, he spells out his first message for her: "I want to die." And she emotionally tells him that what he's saying is disrespectful and obscene, and she lectures him about all the people who care about him, and then she leaves the room.

None of this is in the book. Bauby devotes a sentence to "Sandrine," the "guardian angel" who created the code, but otherwise, he completely elides over the experience of getting the code and learning to use it. He also never discusses a wish to die. By the time he wrote the book, he had apparently adjusted to his situation with morbid humor; he talks about his resignation and occasional sadness, for instance when he can't return his children's hugs. But mostly, he approaches his condition with statements like "If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere." The film captures him at an earlier time–or under less pretense of affability–and the emotions are far rawer, the resentment and denial far clearer.

Even so, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly never becomes a disease-of-the-week movie, where a frustrated protagonist works through the five stages of grief and various personal issues and comes out on the other side stronger. (It'd be hard to get away with that, since Bauby died days after his book was published.) It's low-key, hushed, and emotionally intense, but without the kind of big yelling scenes that are the meat-and-potatoes of disease dramas. In that sense, at least, the book and film are similar: They're more wry than dramatic, more philosophical than showy.

Another handful of differences between the versions:

• The scene where Bauby's longtime partner Céline (played by Emmanuelle Seigner)–whom he never married, although she bore him two children–tearfully conveys his messages of longing to his current lover, who refuses to visit him, isn't in the book at all; it's a film-only sequence.

• The business between Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) and his father (Max von Sydow) in the film is, again, more expansive and emotional than the material in the book, which comes to a few pages of sad reminiscing about shaving his dad. The tearful conversation where his father attempts to communicate with him by phone isn't in the book.

• One of the few sequences that's longer in the book than in the film relates to Bauby's thoughts on becoming the "living mummy" Noirtier de Villefort, from Alexandre Dumas' The Count Of Monte Cristo. In the film, his feeling that he's become the character seems a tossed-off comment, as Céline reads the book to him. In the book, it's part of a self-consciously facetious sequence on how he was planning to write a modern pastiche of Monte Cristo with a female protagonist, and he considers his paralysis a punishment for his mental transgression against a masterpiece. He identifies with de Villefort, who also could only communicate by blinking, but he lists characters he would have rather have become if a literary punishment was necessary. Then he suggests that he is "now planning a vast saga in which the key witness is not a paralytic, but a runner. You never know. Perhaps it will work."

• Bauby tells a wide variety of anecdotes and gets into various asides that Schnabel doesn't bother with. Similarly, Schnabel adds scenes outside of the book's scope, like the one where Bauby negotiates for the book's publication, or the one at the end, where he gets to hear about the initial reviews. He also frequently takes the perspective outside Bauby, to observe him, which is obviously something the book can't do.

• At times, as with the oddly abstract iceberg-calving sequence, Schnabel lets Bauby speak directly in his own words, in monologues about fate and depth and people; careful examination of the book reveal that these speeches are nearly verbatim, but they're pieced together, sentence by sentence, from various stories. This sums up Schnabel's approach as a whole. He picks and chooses at will, then invents things and adds his own spin, all to create the effect he's shooting for: more of a biography than an anecdotal memoir, and more an uncomfortable trip inside Bauby's skin than either.

What the book does better: The book is lively, entertaining, funny, and playful, especially with words; Bauby emphasizes that he spent his long, lonely hours crafting, recrafting, and memorizing each sentence he wanted to dictate, so it would be ready when a transcriber shows up, and that attention shows in the craft of the sentences, the elaborate metaphors, the jokes, the rapturous descriptions of the world inside his head. The impression is of an author who loves language and wordcraft, and no wonder: It's most of what he has left.

What the film does better: The film is a more visceral experience on all levels. Bauby maintains a certain ironic detachment from his life, an amused distance that may reflect his desire to get out of his own body, or possibly just his determination not to whine, wallow, and force readers to turn away from his book uncomfortably. Schnabel, on the other hand, either puts viewers in his skin, or presses them up against his grotesque face, with its slack skin, inside-out lip, stitched-up right eye and lolling, bugged-out left eye–all the things Bauby sees in his own reflection. In the film, it's impossible to get away from the ugliness and discomfort of his situation, even when Schnabel's in floaty, arty mode.

Petty little altered detail: Strangely, Schnabel makes Bauby's condition in his film worse than it was. In real life, he could move his head slightly and stretch his limbs; toward the end of the book, he claims he could verbalize enough to sing a children's song his therapists had been working on with him. Schnabel puts that song into the mouths of his children, instead, and keeps Bauby completely immobile.

Does the film version "get" the book? This is really the wrong question for this situation. Schnabel isn't just out to put Bauby's book to film. Instead, he draws useful bits and pieces from it, but creates something very much in his own idiom and form. He's out to create his own art, not just mirror Bauby's. In this, I think he succeeds admirably. It might not have worked well were Bauby's book more detailed, more concrete, less gauzy. But in this case, it seems like a respectful, solid expansion, even though content-wise, the two versions don't feel much alike.

Book, film, neither, or both? If it came to a choice, I'd pick the film, which gives a broader picture of Bauby's life and is achingly beautiful. But the two versions are so different in so many ways that they both seem essential, and Bauby's book is an experience in itself–just knowing that every one of those words represents minutes of painstaking reciting and blinking makes the whole thing a gripping experience. Besides, it isn't like the book is a major time commitment–my copy runs to 127 pages, with huge margins, and only took me about an hour to read. Read the book for a sense of Bauby's personality, and see the film for a sense of his life.

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