The best thing about the movie version of Blindness is how much it makes you appreciate the transcendent novel by Jose Saramago. The book takes a potentially hackneyed story — everyone goes blind, except for one woman — and turns it into a jarring look at how anything can become normal. At its best, the movie, directed by Fernando Meirelles (City Of God), conveys a lot of the book's squalor and warmth. But Meirelles' attempts to infuse more drama into an already intense book wind up backfiring. Spoilers below. I found myself pondering, after watching the movie, if it was even possible to film Blindness. Famously, Saramago resisted letting anybody have the movie rights for years, and Meirelles and writer Don McKellar lobbied over and over again to make it into a film. They say Saramago's reluctance was due to the fact that he didn't want the book made into an "exploitation film," and I'm sure that's part of it. But it's also such a quirky, weird book, that I'm at a loss to think how you could make a successful film of it.
The thing I liked most about the movie was that it amplified the theme from the book, that the social order can construct itself in very different ways, depending on how the chips fall. When the blindness epidemic first strikes, an ophthalmologist and his patients are the first people to be struck ill. They all wind up quarantined inside a kind of dormitory, with armed guards keeping them inside. The doctor's wife comes along, even though she keeps her sight the entire time. Here's what I got more clearly from the movie than the book: in Ward 1, where the doctor and his wife are bunked up, there's a car thief. He went blind because he helped the first victim of the epidemic, and then stole the victim's car. There's a moment where the car thief tries to take charge over everyone else in Ward 1, basically saying that everyone should kiss his ass. He gets shot down, and instead the doctor and his wife end up being in charge. (And the car thief later dies.) That means the people in Ward 1 mostly survive. Meanwhile, Ward 3 puts a total buttwad in charge — the self-proclaimed "King of Ward 3," who's not that different from the car thief — and in the end, the people in Ward 3 all die as a result. But you can see how close the people in Ward 1 come to letting the car thief become the King of Ward 1, and it's fascinating and a little scary. The difference between keeping a semblance of civilization and turning into total barbarians is pretty slight, especially when the norms of society have broken down.
In the movie, as in the book, the message is that people can adapt to anything. And this becomes a blessing as well as a curse. Eventually, the people in Ward 3 steal all of the asylum's food supplies, and they demand all the other wards' women. If Ward 1 doesn't turn over its women for the Ward 3 men to rape, everyone in Ward 1 will starve. In the end, everyone in Ward 1 becomes complict in the rape of the ward's women, and it's excruciating to watch them talk themselves into seeing it as okay. (Random digression: It's interesting — writers have often treated blindness as a desirable lapse into sensuality and primal vigor. Maybe because writers are so dependent on their eyes, they perversely fantasize about how wonderful it would be to lose them. In D.H. Lawrence's story "The Blind Man," the rough sensualist Maurice gains a weird animalistic power from being blinded in Flanders, and he utterly terrifies the effete intellectual, Bertie, who had been a rival for Maurice's wife's affections. In V.S. Pritchett's story, "Blind Love," a blind man becomes a woman's ideal lover because he memorizes her body with his fingers and because he can't see her birthmark. But the idea of mass blindness as a metaphor for the way people collude in dehumanizing systems is sort of a reversal of Lawrence and Pritchett treating the blind as the only true individuals.)
I kept going back and forth with myself about what the book had that the movie lacked. Here's what I finally came up with: the book is chatty. It's like your cubicle-mate who wants to talk about every detail of their weekend. It's just jam-packed with neurotic, running dialog, that never even pauses. One of the idiosyncrasies of the book is that the dialog is just separated with commas, with sentences running together. The book's narrative voice is so strong — nattering, going on little digressions, recounting old proverbs, and sort of clucking its tongue all the time — and you can't have that in a movie. That chattering style creates the sense of a communal "Greek chorus," made up of the narrator and the random characters, who are all talking at once. In a book that's all about how a group of newly blinded strangers join together to form a community, either for good or ill, this anonymous chatter reinforces the sense that "society" is talking to you. Most importantly, it gives a weird sense of warmth, the feeling that even though you're reading about horrible squalor and barbarism, there's still an undercurrent of kindness in this constant communication. I don't know how you could convey that effect in a movie. Maybe by having people talking very fast, over each other, and with lots of neurotic chatter. It sort of makes sense to me that people who were navigating by sound and touch, without a sense of sight, would talk a lot as a way of finding each other. Which may be why they tried having a Danny Glover voice-over in an earlier cut of the film, to give that extra layer of narrative voice. There's one short section of Glover's voice-over left in the movie, and it's pretty awful. I can't imagine how bad the movie would be if Glover was narrating throughout. In any case, the final cut of the movie goes for the standard art-film treatment, with lots of long pauses and silences, and moody music. Meirelles uses lots and lots of camera tricks to try and convey the disorientation of most of the people in the movie being blind, and it's often super effective. The camera focuses and unfocuses, the screen turns overexposed then underexposed. In the scene where Ruffalo goes blind, he's blurry and Julianne Moore is in focus. Things go white and blotchy at random, and the scary visuals reinforce the movie's claustrophobic motif pretty well. The actual scene where the men of Ward 3 rape the women of Ward 1 is totally abstract. It all works pretty well, in parts, but for some reason I had a hard time connecting with a lot of the characters.
There are a few reasons for this. One major problem is that I never got a sense that the doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore) actually liked each other. He's rude and dismissive towards her before he goes blind, which wasn't the case in the book. And after he goes blind and she keeps her sight, he's alternately whiny and jerky towards her. In the book, they share a lot of affection, even after the doctor cheats on his wife. In the movie, I got the sense they'd rather not be in the same room together. I had a sneaking feeling this was an attempt to wring more drama out of the story, which seemed misguided — because a nation of blind people starving and stumbling around naked in their own filth? Not really lacking in drama. I've liked Ruffalo in other things, but in Blindness he grates pretty badly. I felt like one of the book's main emotional anchors, the relationship between the doctor and his wife, was totally missing. (When I got to interview Meirelles earlier today, he mentioned that they wanted to give the doctor and his wife more of an "arc" from having a broken marriage to rediscovering each other, but this felt like a really bad decision in practice.) Glover, meanwhile, feels pretty miscast as the "old man with an eyepatch." His performance just didn't work at all. I think he was going for sweet and folksy, and he overshot. I feel like I've seen Gael Garcia Bernal be good in other things, but he's way too over the top as the King of Ward 3 — it's like they dropped the villain from Nine Deaths Of The Ninja into this movie.
The standout performance in the film is Julianne Moore, who totally brings the character of the doctor's wife alive. Maybe because she's the only actor allowed to act with her eyes in the film, or maybe just because she keeps a sense of hard-won dignity as things get more and more squalid in the filth-strewn asylum. Her rage is chilling, and her grief during and after the rape scene is pretty overwhelming. She's in a much better movie than the rest of the cast, A-list though many of them are. Actually, there's one other standout performance in the film, and it's one of the few great improvements over the book. In the book, the Ward 3 leader's main accomplice is an accountant, who was actually blind since birth and wound up in quarantine by mistake. The "blind accountant" is a pretty minor figure in the book, who tries to join ward 1 at one point, but then changes his mind. But in the movie, played by Maury Chaykin, he becomes the most interesting character. He's obviously deeply conflicted about helping Ward 3 steal everyone else's food, but then he finds a way to rationalize it by being exaggeratedly courtly. When he helps to organize the gang rape of the Ward 1 women, he puts on a weird facade of gallantry. He treats it like a fun date — they're not really gang-raping those women, they're just appreciating them and calling them "ladies." All through the rape scene, where women are screaming out with pain and horror, you hear the accountant being dreadfully polite and saying things loudly like, "May I touch your nipple please?" It's totally revolting and yet utterly believable — people do what they have to do to rationalize their inhuman behavior. I wish the movie had taken more chances like that.
In the end, the movie has a lot of beautifully shot scenes, and it conveys the book's dark themes about society pretty well. But because I couldn't connect with most of the characters, it felt a little bit empty to me, like I was watching an anonymous horror show. And then the last half hour of the film fizzles a bit. Major spoiler: at the end of both the book and the movie, the blind people leave their asylum and discover that the outside world is just as bad. Everyone's gone blind and people have been reduced to scavenging animals. In the book, it's a pretty horrible discovery. In the movie, once you lose the claustrophobia of the closed-in asylum scenes, the urgency goes out of the narrative. Instead of a realization that living outside the asylum, with dwindling food stores around town and gangs of feral animals and humans, will be increasingly unsustainable, the movie goes a bit soft and there's a lot of dancing in the rain and stuff. It feels as though the ordeal is over when they get out of the asylum, but then the film goes on for another half an hour. (And minor quibble, but one of the nicest moments in the book, where a stray dog licks away the doctor's wife's tears, is totally ruined in the movie because two events are collapsed together. In the book, the dog licks her tears and becomes her friend, and then 20 or 30 pages later, you see dogs eating a dead human body. In the movie, the two scenes are combined into one, leaving you feeling as though she's being licked by a tongue that was just snacking on human flesh a moment ago. The movie also loses the character of the selfish old woman, who provides a lot of the final section's pathos and horror.) Bottom line: If you love the book, you'll find the movie an interesting take on its themes, but a bit of a let-down in the end. If you hate the book, you'll definitely hate the movie. And if you haven't read the book, I'm really not sure how much you'll get out of the film. It may be worth seeing just for award-worthy performances from Julianne Moore and Maury Chaykin.