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The Methods of Madness: Representations of Inmates, Authorities and the Asylum in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Awakenings [Page 3]


    This paper focuses on the concepts and representations of the institution and the inmate, and how films, even when presenting in a seemingly sympathetic tone, have often served only to further stigmatize both entities.


. . . continued from page 2 . . .

In contrast, Dr. Sayer, from the very first, draws ridicule from his colleagues and superiors with his utilization of unconventional techniques of treatment. The only institutional support he receives comes from those subjugated by it, the nurses and orderlies. Dr. Sayer acts on instinct and with tremendous empathy. He attempts to understand the lives of his patients when the other doctors merely ignore them. "What is it like to be them; what are they thinking," he asks at one point? "They're not," a colleague answers dismissively. Dr. Sayer's dogged commitment and absence of by-the-book professionalism warrants results in his patients. Nurse Ratched's dogged commitment has the opposite effect.

While Nurse Ratched denies the experience and reality of the outside world to the inmates, Dr. Sayer introduces and shares it with his patients. He wants so much to return the lives of the patients to them, give them back some part of the existence they once had by promoting and nurturing their relationships with the individuals from their previous lives outside of the hospital. Whereas in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest the music was a weapon of domination, Dr. Sayer, in Awakenings, utilizes music not as a repressive force, but a link to the outside world. He plays current rock songs to bring something vital and vibrant into the lives of his patients who have been denied for so long. Dr. Sayer becomes a caring father figure that opposes the character assumed by Nurse Ratched.

The theme of the 'bad mother' pervades One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in the character of Nurse Ratched. Billy Bibbit becomes the victim in this scheme as Ratched takes on the mother role. She reduces him to a child with her threats to inform his real mother of his activities involving Candy. At the same time, McMurphy in a very strong sense acts like an attention-seeking child with his antics throughout the course of the film. Many of the other patients seem childlike with their neediness and tantrums. The staff members assume the position of substitute parents, Nurse Ratched, the cruel mother, and Dr. Spivey, the impotent father (Sodowsky and Sodowsky 37).
    While not evil, his portrayal is that of an ineffectual bureaucrat who tends his patients from an administrative desk and leaves them to the mercy of repressive heavies like Big Nurse Ratched, who knows how to squeeze every last drop of individuality out of their charges in shaping them into emasculated automatons. (Fleming and Manvell 179)
"The action revolves around the struggle between the phantasmagorical destroyer, Nurse Ratched, and the redeemer, Randle P. McMurphy. McMurphy offers the oppressed the possibility of rebirth" (Safer 134). In this vein, a rare link can be made between this character and Dr. Sayer. Both men, in a sense, 'awaken' the patients, only one is operating on the inside and the other, the outside. One acts because he is selfish, the other because he is selfless. With these similarities and differences in mind, there is one indisputable aspect that the two films share.

Both films are adaptations in their own right. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest originates from Kesey's 1962 novel by the same name and Awakenings is based on a true story, memoir written by Dr. Oliver Sacks. The process and tradition of adapting literary works to film has been the topic of much writing and debate, similar to the representation of the mentally ill in film. Adaptations often draw hostile criticism from audiences, especially those that are remakes of highly regarded or loved works. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by critic and audience reception alike, proved to be an exception to this tradition. This film does numerous things that distinguish it from its textual model.

The filmic version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest changes the point of view from that of Chief Bromden to a more generalized, omniscient and neutral narrator (McCreadle 128). With the third-person narrative form, the audience members are "sane observers of a 'cuckoo's nest;' [they] are outside, not inside" (Safer 137). As a result, the Chief's role is greatly reduced in the film. He appears in only about a quarter of the film and when the audience does view him, he appears at the periphery of the camera's frame (Sodowsky and Sodowsky 34). "When he comes into focus, it is usually as an involuntary foil to McMurphy" (Ibid.). The Chief merely observes the action in the film. He no longer speaks it and only becomes an important character towards the film's close as he is transformed by McMurphy (Fleming and Manvell 120). The point of view in either version is a notable element because regardless of the text or film, the story is essentially the story of McMurphy, yet he never speaks its voice (Seger 24).

In addition to narrative alterations, stylistically rendered, the film is far less psychedelic and hallucinatory and far more straightforward and organized than the novel. There is a marked shift from the surreal to the 'real.' Certain inclusions help to increase the realist sensibilities of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. For example, a real psychiatrist, Dr. Brooks from the Oregon State Mental Hospital, was cast as Dr. Spivey, the hospital director in the film (Fleming and Manvell 20, 170).

In the case of Awakenings, I cannot claim or identify deviations from the book to the film due to a lack of familiarity with Dr. Sacks' work. However, I imagine that relationships were made more close and profound and that characters were presented as more likable and highly romanticized for the film version. Marshall did preserve the film's honor to some degree by retaining an ending that does not contain a particular sense of hope or happiness.

The experience and impression of the viewer surrounding the institution of the mental hospital as well as the mental patient has been largely inflected by cinematic representation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Awakenings are two such films that have played a substantial role in shaping such perceptions. While the films attempt and sometimes achieve portrayals that diverge from more negative past characterizations, for the most part they rely on old stereotypes that are self-perpetuating towards discrimination against these figures. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the audience is presented with "the horrors of the mental institution [translated] into a microcosm of the complex suppression exercised by society upon its dissident members" (Safer 132). In Awakenings, the viewer encounters an asylum with significant shortcomings in regard to patient treatment and care, yet the promise of something better when the right people are allowed to act. In the end however, both films fail to either emancipate their patients or the stigma attached to the institution itself in their representations.


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