I’ve often been disappointed by a movie based on a book I like. However, when I find that a movie I like is based on a novel I haven’t read, I often find I like the novel. After the death of Robin Williams, I thought about his movie What Dreams May Come. I love this movie, which is based on the novel by Richard Matheson. I’ve loved everything I ever read by Matheson, but had never read What Dreams May Come. So naturally I decided to finally read it.
The book is told from the point of view of Chris Nielsen, a man who has just died. It begins by chronicling his journey from death into the afterlife. Being a good man, Chris eventually finds himself in a place that most readers will recognize as heaven. These opening scenes are classic Matheson, very tightly focused on Chris, very fast moving, and with a tense and thrilling atmosphere.
Once Chris reaches heaven, however, I was very surprised to find the book bogged down over the course of the middle section of the novel. Matheson did a lot of research for this book about the nature of afterlife, which he references in a bibliography at the end, and he uses this middle section to basically deliver what he feels the afterlife must be like. By itself, I have no problem with an author doing this. In fact, when done well, a novel can be the perfect vehicle for bringing an author’s concept of reality to readers in an exciting and engaging way. Unfortunately, and much to my surprise, Matheson’s attempt at this felt very forced. The whole middle section felt like a confusing mish-mash of new age concepts.
In the final section Matheson pulls out of his nosedive and finishes strong. In fact, the end section is Matheson at his best. In this section Chris finds that the beloved wife he left behind has committed suicide and damned herself to hell. Chris is told that there is noting he can do for her, but he cannot accept this and decides to try and rescue her. He is told that not only is this impossible, but that he himself could well end up damned by even attempting it. But he won’t be dissuaded, and journeys to hell to find her.
He does find her, but she doesn’t recognize him and cannot be pulled out of the fatal depression that caused her suicide and has damned her. Chris is relentless, but the longer he is with her the more he is overwhelmed by her despair. This is what he was warned about, that he would be swallowed by despair and end up trapped in hell by it. At the last moment, when he realizes that he must leave now or be damned, he consciously decides that he would rather be with her in hell than without her in heaven. This moment of decision, in both novel and movie, is stunning.
I’ve thought about Chris’s decision over and over. I am repulsed by the idea of someone abandoning their loved one to hell while enjoying heaven. In fact, I find it hard to believe that such a person could ever be worthy of heaven. It seems the only moral decision is the one Chris makes. What a conundrum! In the story, this sacrifice is the catalyst to finally rouse his wife from her despair and save them both. The reader, however, is left pondering many hard questions. Given the way Robin Williams end up, it just adds more fuel to the moral fire.
Overall, because of the middle section, I find that the movie was better than the novel. I can’t remember ever saying this before (excluding, of course, the always awful novels written to rehash a successful movie). However, if one considers just the beginning and ending sections of the novel, one gets the excellence expected from Matheson. In the end, I’d recommend seeing the movie first and only consider the novel afterwards. But be ready for some serious moral turmoil.