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Film / Awakenings

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Just being awake can be a miracle.

"Hello. My name is Leonard Lowe. It has been explained to me that I've been away for quite some time. I'm back."

Awakenings is a 1990 drama film based on Oliver Sacks' memoir of the same name. It tells the true story of a doctor (Sacks, who is fictionalized as Malcolm Sayer, played by Robin Williams) who, in 1969, discovers beneficial effects of the then-new drug L-Dopa. He applies it on catatonic patients who survived the 1917–1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) and the rest of the patients are awakened after decades of catatonic state and have to deal with a new life in a new time.

Directed by Penny Marshall and with a screenplay adaptation by Steven Zaillian, the film co-stars John Heard, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller, and Max von Sydow. Jazz legend Dexter Gordon (who died before the film's release) appears as a patient, while a then-unknown Vin Diesel plays a hospital orderly.

Sacks's book was also used by Harold Pinter as the basis of his 1982 one-act play A Kind of Alaska.

A documentary of the same name, featuring interviews with Dr. Sacks and his real-life patients, was produced in the UK by Yorkshire Television in 1974.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Sexuality: In the film, Dr. Sayer (the Author Avatar for Oliver Sacks) has a romantic interest in his nurse, Eleanor. In reality, Sacks was homosexual, albeit one who was mostly celibate for most of his life.
  • And I Must Scream:
    • There is one exchange that expounds upon the true horror of the catatonic situation:
      Dr. Ingham: Most died during the acute stage of the illness, during a sleep so deep they couldn't be roused. A sleep that in most cases lasted several months. Those who survived, who awoke, seemed fine, as though nothing had happened. Years went by — five, ten, fifteen — before anyone suspected they were not well...they were not. I began to see them in the early 1930s — old people brought in by their children, young people brought in by their parents — all of them complaining they weren't themselves anymore. They'd grown distant, aloof, anti-social, they daydreamed at the dinner table. I referred them to psychiatrists. Before long they were being referred back to me. They could no longer dress themselves or feed themselves. They could no longer speak in most cases. Families went mad. People who were normal were now elsewhere.
      Dr. Sayer: What must it be like to be them? What are they thinking?
      Dr. Ingham: They're not. The virus didn't spare the higher faculties.
      Dr. Sayer: We know that for a fact?
      Dr. Ingham: Yes.
      Dr. Sayer: Because?
      Dr. Ingham: Because the alternative would be unthinkable.
    • Leonard Lowe actually manages to convey his being trapped by directing Dr. Sayer to the poem The Panther:
      His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
      has grown so weary that it cannot hold
      anything else. It seems to him there are
      a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
      As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
      the movement of his powerful soft strides
      is like a ritual dance around a center
      in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
      Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
      lifts, quietly—. An image enters in,
      rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
      plunges into the heart and is gone.
  • Based on a True Story: The movie is based on the book of the same name written by Oliver Sacks, the real Malcom Sayer. The characters were all real people Dr. Sacks tried L-Dopa with, with results varying from very successful to complete disasters.note 
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sort of. It borders on Downer Ending, as everybody given the drug eventually reverts back to their catatonic state no matter how much the dosage is increased. However, the breakthroughs made led to the patients being treated more humanely afterwards. Also, Malcolm finally asks Eleanor out, supposedly starting a relationship.
    • Also in Real Life. Sacks even got fired. But these people were able to enjoy their lives, and Sacks continued his success into the modern day.
  • Brick Joke: Early in the movie Dr. Sayers is interviewing a seemingly normal woman. Then he takes out a pen and she starts screaming hysterically. Later he and the chemist walk out of a room and see her. Before she can look up they quickly put their hands over their breast pockets to hide their pens.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: One of the patients, even though he's cured, still is The Voiceless and grooves to music no one else can hear.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: When taken out after being revived, the catatonics are pleasantly surprised to find that Prohibition ended a long time ago, but less pleasantly surprised by how old they are now. In fact, many of them behave as if they're still living not just in the '20s but in their 20s, or even younger.
  • "Flowers for Algernon" Syndrome
  • The Future Is Shocking: Several of the awakened patients have difficulties adjusting to a world that's very different from the one they knew.
  • Hero of Another Story: Lucy’s sister had taken care of her for around forty years! It’s only after she passes away that Lucy has to be hospitalized.
  • Hide Your Gays: The real Dr. Sacks was gay.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Frank is a tragic example. Frank is invariably a grouchy wet blanket in contrast to the joy of the other patients (and staff) at the hospital, and points out quite correctly that he has little to be grateful for despite being temporarily restored to near-normalcy. He's lost several decades of his life, his family and friends are gone, and he has nothing much left to live for.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor: The film begins with Sayer showing up for a job interview, not realizing they're looking for someone to take care of patients; he's a researcher, not a clinician. He takes the job anyway.
  • Playing Gertrude: Robert De Niro was 46 playing 59 year old Leonard. Justified as he hasn’t had a stressful life.
  • Precision F-Strike: “It’s a fucking miracle!”
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Even though the patients have been temporarily brought out of their catatonia, one of them is clearly upset about all the time he has lost.
    Anthony: (cheerfully) How's it going?
    Frank: How's it going?
    Anthony: Yeah, how do you feel?
    Frank: Well, my parents are dead. My wife is in an institution. My son has disappeared out west somewhere. (Beat)
    I feel old and I feel swindled, that's how I feel.
  • Restoration of Sanity: The film centers around a group of catatonia patients being cured of their condition after being injected with a drug. Unfortunately, the drug eventually wears off after a while and they all fall back into their previous states.
  • Spotting the Thread: Dr. Sayers notices that Lucy seems to notice that her glasses are off. He then notices lots of other details about the patients everyone thinks are catatonic. He then asks the nurses and staff to try various things to see how they react. Slowly they all discover various patterns that clearly suggest that they’re not as out of it as what at first seems.
  • Symbolic Distance: The poster seen above utilises this, showing Leonard L. out on the sea standing on a precipice, acting as a small island, as Dr. Sayer looks back on another piece of land extending off-screen. It serves to show how Leonard has become separated from the present world due to his Encephalitis Lethargica rendering him essentially dead for 30 years. Even on L-Dopa, he will never be able to become a functioning member of society.
  • Wham Line: When Dr. Sayers points out that the other patients aren’t regressing the same way Leonard is, Dr. Kaufman points out cryptically that Leonard started the treatment sooner. While the extremely logically thinking Dr. Sayers almost certainly knows this, just hearing it is very sobering since he knows what awaits the other patients.