With the exception of medical fetishists (they do exist), people do not like going to the hospital. And why would they? Hospitals are where terrible things happen: surgeries, lingering suffering, deaths. It’s gotten to the point that going to the hospital is inherently dangerous regardless of what you happen to be there for, what with MRSA and other highly dangerous diseases that live and thrive in hospitals. I know I don’t eagerly await my next hospital visit. Who knows if I’ll even make it out of there alive?
Author Robin Cook stormed onto the pop literature scene in 1977 with his novel, Coma, playing on the exact same fears we had about hospitals then. What if you went into the hospital feeling perfectly safe, but ended up in a permanent coma because of some freak turn of events? People are iffy about anesthetic at the best of times, so how would they feel about going to sleep and never waking up? I imagine they were about as thrilled as they were at the prospect of swimming after Jaws came out. I’d love to know how many people with life-threatening conditions didn’t seek the medical care they needed because they were too afraid to undergo surgery.
Anyway, the novel was a runaway best-seller and put Robin Cook on the map. He would write more bestselling novels in subsequent years, but none of them would have the explosive impact of Coma. Perhaps sensing the incredible potential in the novel, likewise bestselling author Michael Crichton snapped up the movie rights to Cook’s book and proceeded to direct the film adaptation himself, resulting in the 1978 release of Coma. People freaked out all over again.
Since I mentioned Michael Crichton here, I suppose this is as good a time as any to talk about how much I hated him. I hated him for his enormous talent, his incredibly broad life experience, his brilliance and his success. While other authors may have outsold him in the book world, they never possessed the full package Crichton had. The man was even handsome, for God’s sake. Sure, he descended into science-hating crankery at the end of his life, but there’s no one who can take away his earlier accomplishments. The fact that he was also an extraordinarily savvy businessman is another reason to hate him. Witness how he managed to nab the rights to Coma when you know there must have been a ravenous horde of movie execs trying to do the same thing. I don’t think there’s ever been a writer/doctor/director/adventurer/creator like Crichton and I daresay we’ll never see his like again.
But back to Coma. In addition to directing the film, Crichton also wrote the adapted screenplay (the bastard), and though I cannot directly compare novel to film because I have not read Cook’s book, the movie seems like a wholly formed entity with none of the ramshackle qualities literary adaptations often have. I will freely admit that I didn’t actually like Coma, but my problems with it have nothing to do with anything Crichton did on the production side of things and rest entirely on one element, which I will discuss in just a bit.
Coma stars Geneviève Bujold and Michael Douglas as residents at a large, well-funded teaching hospital. Douglas’ Dr. Bellows is a determined climber of ladders, angling for a chief resident position, while Bujold’s Dr. Wheeler is somewhat harder to pin down. And therein lies my entire problem with the movie.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never liked Geneviève Bujold. I know for a while there in the ’70s she was being pushed as a young, attractive leading-woman type, but she’s really all wrong for those kinds of parts. No matter what role she played, she always came off as prickly and cold, even when the character called for other qualities. This is especially true when it comes to Coma: Susan Wheeler is about as unlikable a protagonist as you’re likely to find anywhere, and because the movie’s story is her story, we’re never given a moment’s rest from Wheeler’s unpleasantness. I find myself wanting to read Cook’s original novel almost entirely because I want to see how much of this off-putting characterization is built into the Wheeler part and how much is due to Bujold’s natural tendencies in front of the camera.
Crichton’s script does Bujold no favors, as Wheeler comes off as alternately shrill and simply pissed off. Even when Wheeler loses a dear friend to one of the strange, coma-inducing incidents in the hospital, she doesn’t react the way a normal human would and that makes it ever so hard to identify with her in any meaningful way.
This is especially unfortunate because the actual plot of Coma is quite engaging. I touched on it earlier, but the mystery of the hospital comes quickly to the fore with very little time wasted. With increasing frequency, perfectly healthy surgical patients are suddenly experiencing brain death on the table. Apparently this does occasionally happen even under normal circumstances (be afraid the next time you go under), but the overwhelming majority of surgeries come off without a hitch. When the aforementioned friend essentially dies in all but body, Bujold’s Wheeler begins to dig deeper into this phenomenon, and the trail leads through a variety of suspects and finally to a profoundly disturbing long-term care facility for patients in a persistent vegetative state.
I understand the cable channel A&E is coming out with a miniseries adaptation of Coma to air next month. I’m quite interested to see how they handle the story. Will Wheeler remain such a cranky, miserable figure? Will the miniseries retain the strange, cloistered feel of a hospital staff filled with potential suspects? Will the resolution of the story be a little less action-thriller and more thoughtful? I guess we’ll find out.
You don’t hear too much about Coma anymore these days, and I suspect that’s largely because of the flaws I mention here. I’m not saying a protagonist has to be happy-happy all the time to be identifiable, but a little humanity goes a long way. The story itself could be adapted to any time, as the A&E miniseries would seem to indicate, and Crichton’s execution of the thriller elements is spot-on. In the end, however, I would consider Coma for Crichton completists only.