Before I Go To Sleep (2014): Movie or Book?

Spoiler Alert: This post may contain information that one could deem spoilers, and, not just for this movie but for the other one, yes, you guessed it, Gone Girl

Before I Go To Sleep

If as some say Gone Girl is misogynist, then Before I Go to Sleep is the counter argument. Why of course, there’s a 50/50 chance that the villain is the female or the male character, and in some cases, both. And if it’s both, does that make the movie misanthropic?

So much about our humanity, which is what these crime suspense thrillers are all depicting, albeit in a more exaggerated way. Here is the movie adaptation of the very popular debut novel written by British writer S. J. Watson. Again, allow me to answer a question up front, book or movie first?

I know, there’s a likely chance that you have no intention to touch either, but here’s just an interesting thought, especially with the Gone Girl phenom still rippling. For this one, I’d say read the book first, mainly because if one goes to the movie unprepared, one would likely find the premise preposterous. A woman waking up every morning with no memory? But actually there are real-life cases which the author mentions in the epilogue of the book.

On the last page Watson notes that his novel, though totally fictitious, is inspired by actual medical cases, particularly that of Clive Wearing‘s, the British musicologist, conductor and BBC music producer, who has the same amnesiac condition, albeit his is an even shorter memory span, just a short minute or so.

Before I Go To Sleep is about a woman Christine (Nicole Kidman) who wakes up every morning with a total blank, forgetting who or where she is, and not knowing the person lying beside her in bed. He happens to be her husband Ben (Colin Firth), who has to explain to her every morning and reminds her who she is, and that an accident occurred fifteen years ago when she was 25 had left her in a state of amnesia with just a day’s memory span, but no matter, he tells her that he loves her.

Actually quite an interesting premise for a suspense thriller, the amnesiac as a vulnerable, ready victim. To add to the mystery, Christine receives a phone call from a Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) every morning after Ben leaves the house for work. He tells her he has been helping her and gets her to look for a camera in a shoe box hidden inside her closet. In there she can replay what she has recorded the night before, bits and pieces of her memories.

The movie is a graphic and more suspenseful enactment of the novel, directed by Rowan Joffe, who had written the screenplay and directed Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (2010). But I had found impressive his screenplay for The American (2010) which, under the direction of Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man, 2014), is one of the rare spy thriller that is soulful. Come to think of it, I can’t help but think such a collaboration, Joffe screenplay, Corbijn directs could have made Before I Go To Sleep a better movie.

As I had mentioned in my review of the novel Before I Go To Sleep, the major flaw of the book is that the author forgets that it’s his character who has amnesia, not his readers. So every chapter starts off with her reading more or less the same journal entry she wrote the night before is a bit too tedious.

Such a condition has been improved in the movie by Joffe, and with the convincing performance by Kidman, we are made sympathetic observers instead of being bored by the repetition. A video camera to jot her memory is also a better way to capture visual anguish than reading from a journal. Making the film more interesting than the novel are the flashbacks Christine has, the bits and pieces that she remembers. But then again, are those real memories or fragments of her imagination?

Colin Firth has shattered his Mr. Darcy persona for good. It is still a pleasure to watch him, albeit Darcy devotees and purists may find some scenes uncomfortable, faced with the revelation that O, Colin Firth is an actor, an impressive one yes, but not the real Mr. Darcy they love to keep in their memory.

This is a second partnership between Firth and Kidman, shortly after The Railway Man (2013). Their next collaboration will be the upcoming film Genius (2015), another book to movie adaptation to watch for.

Mark Strong is probably one of the most underrated actors today. He has been in so many movies, delivering strong performance… Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), plus many others and dating back to 1997, with Colin Firth in the first Fever Pitch (1997). Further, he’s my favourite Mr. Knightley in Emma (TV, 1996). His upcoming work is on my must-see list: The Imitation Game (2014).

Book to movie, here’s one that I have to say, I’ve enjoyed the movie more than the book, albeit it’s nothing more than leading and misleading, and slow revealing until the climatic end. Again I note, as with others of the crime and suspense genre, it’s not for everyone. But like Gone Girl, it has shoved to the forefront, domestic violence or violence of any sort involving the betrayal of trust, manipulation and self-gratification in dominance. Fortunately, this movie has a happier ending.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson Book Review

Gone Girl The Movie (2014)

The Railway Man Movie Review (2013)

The Railway Man Book Review 

Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

Before I Go to Sleep47 year-old Christine has lost her memory for twenty some years due to trauma. She wakes up every morning to a forgotten past. She spends her day piecing together a life, who and where she is, her personal history, and, who her husband Ben is. Upon the advice of Dr. Nash, she writes it all down in a journal before she goes to sleep at night, for she’ll wake up the next morning wiped clean of her day old memory once again.

The book deals with some interesting issues. If the past is horrible to recall, would it be better if one does not remember, or, would one be better off knowing the truth despite pain? Is one made more vulnerable by knowing or not knowing? Further, if mental images conjure up, how can one be sure they are memories of actual happenings and not one’s imagination?

Author S. J. Watson leads the reader into a maze of intrigues, teasing us with an unreliable narrator Christine, casting shadows of imminent dangers, and trying to capture us with her vulnerability. So memory loss is an effective plot device, keeping us in the dark guessing, creating suspense, and revealing ever so slowly what really had taken place that caused the amnesia to set in, and how she could ever escape.

The book starts off with a most interesting scenario as Christine wakes up to an unknown world, but towards the middle it seems like it has forgotten that it is just the protagonist who has amnesia, not the readers, as it repeats the facts and descriptions with Christine’s journal entries. The last part is a page-turning thriller, albeit with a relatively improbable ending. The last pages explaining everything with a neatly wrapped up ‘here you go, see how logical it is’ kind of finish.

Memories… such a thematic element can be exceptionally gratifying to explore with deeper characterization. Surely the author has brought up the idea that memory defines us, a reader seeking for a more contemplative rendering of such a concept would be disappointed however, for Watson has chosen to use this interesting thematic material to craft a suspense thriller and not an idea-driven literary work. So what we have with notions relating to memories, to the nature of our identity and personality… etc. are merely used to build up a suspenseful plot. As a thriller, the book aims to lead on and not delve in.

Am I being a bit harsh here? Why, I just caught myself. I could well have been more lenient if I were not reading it along with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past). Am I being fair to make comparison? It’s like comparing apples with oranges. Yet the coincident is too fascinating… both deal with remembering and sleeping, albeit one trying to fall asleep while the other trying not to. Just thinking… even the book covers that I have are similar.

Lots of ‘I love you’s’ are uttered, but none that can stir up any emotions in me the reader. Several films kept conjuring up in my mind as I read… Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Vow, and I must say the latter two managed to stir some affective resonance in me while exploring the topic of amnesia and a love relationship. But with this book, I just wanted to race to the end. For some, this might well be proof of an entertaining read.

And that is why I have high hopes for its film adaptation. Yes, I must applaud Watson for his strong debut. This novel published in 2011 has gained awards and accolades, on the bestseller lists in several countries, and translated into 30 plus languages. Its film rights has been snatched up by Ridley Scott. Filming now, it features the impressive cast of Nicole Kidman as Christine, Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as Ben, and Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) as Dr. Nash; Anne-Marie Duff (Nowhere Boy) is also on board. This is definitely a film I want to watch, not just because of the actors, but the screenwriter Rowan Joffe, who will direct as well. Joffe has shown us, with his script for The American (George Clooney stars) that yes, sometimes the film can be better than the book. Let’s hope this is also the case.

In the end page Watson notes that his novel, though totally fictitious, is inspired by actual medical cases, particularly that of Clive Wearing‘s, the British musicologist, conductor and BBC music producer, who has the same condition as Christine’s, albeit his is an even shorter memory span, just a short minute or so. His real life accounts have been recorded by his loving wife Deborah Wearing in her book Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia. While he lives in the constantly present, he does not forget music or his love for his wife. Now that would be one inspiring book to read.


Click here to watch a short clip on Clive and Deborah Wearing on YouTube. Does he not remind you of another real life character, a pianist, whose life had also been made into a movie?