Brain on Fire: A Book to Movie Comparison Which One is Better?

By: Mia Manning

The novel ‘Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness’, written by Susannah Cahalan, hit shelves in 2012, quickly becoming a best-seller due to the raw truth it showed of Susannah Cahalans experiences while she battled with an autoimmune disease. The novel, graced with honesty and vulnerability, quickly grew to the point to where it could be turned into a film, and was released on Netflix in June of 2018. The movie does a wonderful job of scripting Susannah herself. However, the other characters do not seem to have this luxury, as they seem to not display their emotions such fear, sadness, and the sheer truth, very deeply or profoundly, which was something that Cahalan was so good at presenting in the novel. This is of course not a result of casting, but rather of script writing, it feels as if perhaps the script writer should have referred to the novel just slightly more to add more characterization in the dialogue.

Because of the lack of characterization, the movie doesn’t show the relationships and bonds that tore and regrew over time. In the novel, Susannah goes through multiple fights with both of her parents, some more intense than others, but ultimately becomes closer to her father than she was before her sickness. While some of these fights are shown, they aren’t portrayed with the emotion that it was written with; because these intense events don’t happen in the movie, there feels like no realistic family bond between the characters, as they don’t show the true emotions one would feel under such a stressful and terrifying event. While this might be considered an abundance of small details that perhaps don’t needed to be shown with deep explanation, it was a moving touch in the novel and no doubt would have added a bittersweetness to the film. It also highlights how real this situation was for Susannah, as it is an autobiography.

The madness Cahalan felt while experiencing the height of her disease was also downplayed, the viewer doesn’t see the same girl who tore apart into almost two separate people. Some of the ‘madness’ is shown however, and when it is, it was striking, such as the scene in which Susannah goes through extreme anger to extreme happiness in her workplace. This hits all the right spots emotionally for the viewer, but none the less, more of this would have been nice. It would have helped the viewer better understand what was happening to Susannah inside of herself, which could be hard to fully engross the viewer if they hadn’t read the novel prior to watching.

The movie also neglects to show the character development that was portrayed in the novel as Susannah regains her health, ultimately making the sickness she was overtaken with seem less severe. For example, in the novel, although Susannah is diagnosed with the correct disease, the novel reserves a big portion of its pages to explain her struggle to regain her health, as well as the struggle she had going back to her previous lifestyle and doing her job, as a journalist, to the same level of prestige that she did prior. Although one can understand the need for certain scenes being cut out of the movie because it would make it too long, having such a big part of the novel, especially parts that showed just how strong Susannah had to become, be erased is heartbreaking to witness. Not only did this part of the novel make Susannah's illness real, and show her inner strength, it showed a part of recovery that many do not want to reveal as they associate it with ‘weakness’; the truth that one is still sick, but just not as sick, and despite being similarly hard to get through, that’s okay. One of the many struggles Susannah faces during recovery, for instance, was with writing coherently again despite her history of being a writer. This is such an important part of the story, as this novel was one of the first ‘real’ things she wrote after her sickness, showing that she ‘beat’ her sickness, if you will, while also showing that even our favorite activities can be disputed by sickness, even something as mundane as writing one well-crafted sentence, even when out of the hospital. Because this scene never made it into the movie in the same manner, the feat of Susannah completing her work and the reader seeing she made it through, as they are watching her movie, isn’t shown to the proper extent.

However, despite these missing factors, the movie does a tremendous job of showing the diagnostic process, and showing how dismissive some doctors can be, especially to those who are young and who have no ‘reason’ to be sick. Both the film and the book show this, however, it’s more emotionally striking to see portrayed on screen. The visualization of a doctor not taking a medical case perhaps as seriously as he should be, while the parents beg him to listen to them, is hard to watch but nonetheless important to recognize. This ultimately saves the movie from being a dud, and allows it to make an impact similar to what the novel itself made to the medical world.

Overall, the movie is good. The missing elements hinders it from being great, but it is not an insult to the book in any way. If one wants a deeper look into the sickness, or ‘madness’ Cahalan explained, the novel would be the best pick. However, if one is just interested in the general topic, the movie is a fair place to start, as for the most part the plot stays the same.