Top critical review
Spoilers ahead for those who saw the film and want to read the book
Reviewed in the United States on January 23, 2015
I've watched the film AWAKENINGS many times and heard that there were significant differences between it and the book upon which it was based. Curious to see what these differences were, I downloaded the book and thus discovered the true story of the effect of L-DOPA on seriously disabled people.
Indeed, the movie bears little resemblance to the book, which is an intriguing but often morbid tale of neurologist Oliver Sacks' obsessive attempts to cure chronic patients at Mount Carmel Hospital, New York. In this autobiographical discussion, he sometimes appears not to know when to stop experimenting on his vulnerable human patients. Unlike the cinematic version, in which all the patients are generally immobile and unable to communicate, several of Sacks' real patients were able to walk, talk, and express themselves, although they were severely or partially affected by Parkinson's disease or post-encephalitic syndrome.
Dr. Sacks (renamed Dr. Sayer in the movie) is a meticulous, verbose scientist who liberally quotes metaphysical writers such as John Donne, and records case histories with a combination of careful analysis, fascination and revulsion. It surprised me to learn that Leonard, the star patient of the book and movie, in real life graduated from Harvard University with honors prior to his physical deterioration and institutionalization. Once in the hospital, he read books voraciously, and communicated all the while by tapping letters on a spelling-board (not a Ouija board). The administration of L-DOPA allowed him more motion and the ability to speak, just as the film depicted, but the drug's effects were transitory and, for Leonard as well as for most of the other patients, eventually did him more harm than good, physically and psychologically.
As for the names and conditions of the other patients, the movie's screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, cherry-picked certain aspects from them all without including any of the revolting details that Sacks described; a few of the book's most touching lines are attributed to different people, and not one of the real patients more than vaguely--if at all--resembles any of the film's cheerful, polite, and tidy "awakened" characters. Of course, I hadn't expected them to; fictionalized "true stories" are often shallow in the face of reality, and this was no exception.
AWAKENINGS is an absorbing, beautifully written book. That said, it left me feeling deeply disturbed. However well-meaning Dr. Sacks may have been during his L-DOPA studies, he did some terrible damage in the name of medicine. He was a pioneer in the treatment of Parkinson's and other debilitating diseases, but his early case studies left me wondering about the harm some doctors knowingly do despite their utterance of the Hippocratic Oath, even if they sincerely believe it ultimately leads to good.