As Princeton University math professor John Nash, Russell Crowe plays a tormented genius who eventually triumphs over schizophrenia through medication and sheer determination to maintain a truce with the demons that haunted him as a younger man.
To a public whose curriculum on schizophrenia has been limited to Hollywood's comedies or thrillers, "A Beautiful Mind" may seem like a fairy tale. But to mental health workers, academics and families of those afflicted with the disease, the Ron Howard film got it right--for once. "A Beautiful Mind" presents a rarely seen but common outcome of the disease: recovery, or, at least, high-level management of its symptomatic delusions and hallucinations.
The Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures film, they say, is a welcome departure from mainstream depictions of the mentally ill which casts people with schizophrenia as either oddballs with "split personalities"--think Jim Carrey in "Me, Myself & Irene" or dangerous paranoids, such as Edward Norton in "Fight Club" (1999). Almost as bad, they say, the disease was always portrayed as a degenerative, lifelong illness.
"And that was never true," said Sylvia Nasar, whose 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning biography of Nash became the basis for "A Beautiful Mind." "The news of that hasn't gotten out in a big way. Partly, because the only time we read about someone with schizophrenia is if a couple of Capitol Hill officers are shot, or someone is pushed in front of a train. The amazing thing about the John Nash story is that it's making people aware. It's giving them an entirely new view of who these people are who suffer from these illnesses, and what the prospects are."
While the film has been criticized for either eliminating or fictionalizing parts of Nash's life, mental health experts praise its truthful portrait of his schizophrenia. Depictions of schizophrenia in popular culture have consistently perpetuated damaging misconceptions about the disease--for example, that schizophrenia causes personalities to cleave and multiply. In reality, the most common symptoms of schizophrenia are audible hallucinations--hearing voices. Schizophrenia is a neurological disorder most often treated with a combination of drugs and therapy.
Akiva Goldsman, who wrote the screenplay, said even basic terminology is incorrect in most movies and TV shows. "People are not schizophrenic," he said. "They have schizophrenia. The misconceptions we have are rooted in older models of the disease."
Goldsman, whose parents started a group home for emotionally disturbed children when he was young, realized how little he knew about the disease when he read Nasar's book.
"I was stunned to learn about cases of schizophrenia that were in remission," he said. "It is not at all the disease that people thought it was decades ago. I have learned that this notion that the disease is degenerative is not accurate. That's a kind of period notion. That's what people thought in the '50s and '60s, but it's not accurate."
Raquel E. Gur, director of neuropsychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine's Schizophrenia Research Center, said more than half of the nonviolent individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia eventually function normally with the help of medication, therapy and a strong support system. But these "mainstreamers" have received almost no attention in the mass media as they are overshadowed by images of deranged criminals whose situation becomes more dire and dangerous with time.
Goldsman and director Ron Howard, who co-produced "A Beautiful Mind" with Brian Grazer, cite films such as "Silence of the Lambs" (1991) and "Primal Fear" (1996), about violent mentally ill people, as examples of the direction they didn't want their film to take. As Goldsman put it, they wanted to avoid "taking audiences to the zoo."
"That's where there's the mentally ill person and then there's the healthy surrogate, pointing at the mentally ill person, and we get to watch," he said. "We wanted this movie to be from the point of view of the person with the disease, so we couldn't objectify them. We didn't want the safe island of having the normal person leading us through."
Audiences of "A Beautiful Mind" are placed squarely within Nash's distorted reality. "We created a delusional system that was really intact, because that's the way it feels--totally intact and fluid," Goldsman said. For the sake of accurately portraying that "system," Howard sacrificed significant parts of Nash's biography. Critics say the result is a film that is often more cheery than comprehensive, with long stretches of Nash's depression and a lengthy separation from his wife completely excised. Even the diagnosis of one of Nash's sons with schizophrenia is ignored. But Nasar said her book was merely the basis for the movie, and Howard did not have to make "a public service announcement."