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Alice - Alzheimer's From Book to Film

Have you ever forgotten your grandchildren's names? Or where you last placed your credit cards, forgotten a familiar route that you always drove on your way home, or that walkway which you always took to your doctor's office? Alice, in the 2007 novel

Have you ever forgotten your grandchildren's names? Or where you last placed your credit cards, forgotten a familiar route that you always drove on your way home, or that walkway which you always took to your doctor's office? Alice, in the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova "Still Alice", finds herself in a similar predicament. But in her case she is only fifty years old. She concludes that she has a problem and seeks help. Her doctor responds, "....you may not be the best source of what is going on." Both book and film will bring new understanding of this disease during Alzheimer's Awareness Month in January.

The impact that this novel has exerted on readers was recently brought to my attention when I returned my copy to the library and was immediately engaged on its context by a patron. Although strangers, we both agreed that the book had achieved in drawing awareness of this cruel disease to everyone's attention.

Alice Howland is an accomplished professor of psychology who begins forgetting. Her predicament begins by a loss of words in a lecture given many times. Then others escalate - a misplaced blackberry charger in a restaurant, a missed flight, and becoming disoriented in Harvard Square, a location she frequented often on a daily basis. Of course, she has her own rationale for explaining these incidents - multitasking, stress, menopause or perhaps the growth of a tumor. In a similar situation we would do the same.

Taking a daily run, Alice becomes lost. She panics and arranges a visit with a neurologist who diagnoses her with early-onset Alzheimer's. That she is an academic, widely respected for her research devastates her. She now becomes the observer forcing us to identity with her and engulf us in the events which follow.

Genova, in the book guide, declares why she chose a younger subject. We expect octogenarians to be forgetful, attributing the disease to old age, or to their living alone. We expect this to happen to an elderly person. Usually there is no one to observe the stages of what is occurring. As we follow Alice we gain a deeper understanding of the steps in the onset. Alice's family members become exposed to her condition including her husband who is on the verge of accepting a lucrative position elsewhere and thus does not wholly accept her state. When her children learn of her condition and that it may be inherited relationships are affected and impact on the whole family.

The unravelling of the stages all take place from Alice's point of view to the extent that the conversation of family members often ignore her as if she were transparent. Such is usually the case.

Alice's blackberry becomes a crutch in her survival. She posts five questions in her computer every day and if by chance she can't answer them her plan for her demise will surface. Genova makes this twist in her story poignant as we are drawn into each stage as onlookers. Considering that she is an academic carrying on research in her field, missing the ability to communicate is traumatic, particularly when she delivers her last speech at an Alzheimer's conference, nervous and losing all confidence - a shadow of her original self.

Adapting the book to film presented a challenge. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film and Julianne Moore's performance as Alice drew highly favourable responses from audiences. Again, Alice's descent is depicted from her point of view. But here we are drawn deeper in making her predicament ours. Films truly afford a powerful means for helping us

understand another's viewpoint and exert a unique power in changing attitudes.

The film achieves a more gripping hold on us through pauses, close-ups, and blurred images which contribute in underscoring Alice's lack of control as she passes each stage. Close-ups of Alice's face drain our very being as her condition intensifies and she reaches for the "butterfly" file on her computer - her last resort where she had given herself details on the planning of her suicide. The film effectively opts on focussing more time on her revived relationship with her estranged daughter (Kristen Stewart) bringing about a positive note on her condition and resolution. In the end we feel a more intimate bond with Alice making us more emotionally involved than in the book.

Book or film, this most cruel of diseases registers strongly in both media by providing us with an understanding which many of us perhaps did not previously possess.