TV Review: Flowers for Algernon

First aired on CBS on 20 February 2000

Starring Matthew Modine and Kelli Williams

No spaceships. No aliens. No phasers. No mysterious plagues. No super-villains bent on world domination.

Flowers for Algernon is perfect science fiction. It ought to be: it’s based on Daniel Keyes’ 1959 Hugo Award-winning short story (and 1966 Nebula Award-winning novel-length version). Mr. Keyes’ most famous work is defined by its capacity to show the effect of technological advancement on the human soul (which is really what SF should be all about!). It’s also a critique of prejudice and medical ethics.

But one has to ask why CBS chose to make yet another adaptation of this celebrated story. It’s already been done—in the 1961 telefilm The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, starring Cliff Robertson; and again, seven years later, when Robertson starred in the feature film Charly—and won the Academy Award for Best Actor! Did CBS really expect to top that?

In all fairness, the new presentation is very good. Matthew Modine takes on the role of the mentally retarded Charlie Gordon, who is selected for an operation aimed at improving his intelligence. We watch as Charlie succeeds beyond the wildest expectations, becoming a genius who is hardly understood by the very doctors who changed him. Charlie’s journey is a difficult one. His emotional progress lags his intellectual advancement. He becomes painfully aware of how people perceived (and treated) the old Charlie, and how they misunderstand and resent the new and independent Charlie.

Tragically, Charlie discovers that the procedure is only temporary. Thus begins an excruciating downslide which turns Charlie’s existence into a sickening palindrome. 

Rating: A

Postscript: Daniel Keyes has just written a new non-fiction book Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer’s Journey. You can also visit the Daniel Keyes homepage.

[Originally posted in March 2000 at]

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