In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was editor-in-chief of Elle magazine in France when he suffered a massive stroke that left him completely and permanently paralyzed. It’s a rare condition, and one quite aptly known as “locked-in syndrome.” His brain was completely fine and he could hear and see (out of one eye, at least). But he couldn’t move any of his limbs, nor could he move most of the muscles of his face or mouth (so, no speech). The one thing he could move with ease? His single functional eye. And, believe it or not, Bauby was soon able not only to communicate with family, friends, and medical staff using that one eye, but also to write a memoir about his experiences.
I had both the book and the 2007 film based on it out from various sources (library, Netflix) at the same time, and spent about a week trying to decide which one to start with. I ended up going with the book, but, in retrospect, I think that was the wrong choice. It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the book, to be honest, because it feels insufferably unsympathetic to make even the slightest negative comment about a book written by a guy who dictated each word one letter at a time using the blinking of his eye. Yet, I confess that while I found the book quite beautifully written in parts, overall I just never felt like I was getting much of a sense of Bauby himself. Or of what he was really going through. The book itself felt somewhat “locked in” emotionally to me and I had a hard time connecting to his words, even while I recognized the very triumph of their very existence.
After seeing the movie, however, Bauby really came to life for me, and I actually began to feel some tiny, slight sense of the true horror he was experiencing (as much as anyone could feel, not having been through it themselves). The film is quite brilliantly made — it’s filmed from Bauby’s perspective, and that, more than his words themselves, was what I think finally gave me the slightest notion of what he was going through. For example, after reading the book, I knew that one of Bauby’s eyes was sewn shut soon after he awoke from his coma, because the muscles controlling the lid had failed and it was no longer able to lubricate itself. That’s why he was left with only the one eye to use for sight and communication. But while that sounded horrible in print, in the film, we actually SEE the eye getting sewn shut from the inside, and hear Bauby’s terrified thoughts while it’s happening. And oh man, I didn’t last twenty minutes into the movie before I started crying, and I pretty much didn’t stop after that until the credits rolled.
We also get more of a sense of what those around him are dealing with — his wife, his father (who is somewhat “locked in” himself, in that he can no longer navigate the stairs that would take him in and out of his apartment), his children, even the therapists around him who are struggling to figure out how to communicate with him or how to improve his quality of life. Hearing Bauby’s thoughts articulated in his mind, as well as the emotions on the faces of those around him, finally seemed to bring the whole story to life for me.
A lot of the “dialogue” in the film is taken directly from the book — Movie-Bauby’s thoughts in many places are recitations of sections from the memoir. But it wasn’t until I really heard his assistant run through the alphabet over and over and over (he would blink once when she’d hit on the correct letter, and then she’d start over again) that I truly got a concept of how amazing it is that this book exists. I can’t imagine having the patience — either as Bauby or as his assistant — to get 130 pages of a book written one letter at a time in such a painstakingly slow process. And for him to, in the process, craft sentences as poignant and beautiful as some of the ones in his memoir is just doubly astonishing.
I highly recommend both the book AND the film, but would also recommend that you start with the movie and then read the book immediately afterwards. Reading the book first just didn’t work very well for me. I found it too hard to connect through the short vignettes and snapshots it contains. But after the film brought the entire story into a more cohesive and personal whole, I read the book a second time (it only takes 1-2 hours to get through the whole thing) and was absolutely blown away by it.
Definitely a book/movie combo not to be missed. I hate to throw out the word “inspirational,” because that seems so trite, but it sure did make me think twice about complaining about my own problems for a while, know what I mean. Highly recommended!
[Netflix the movie | Buy the movie | Buy the book]
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Jozee Croze, Max Von Sydow