Richard Reeves

'A Beautiful Mind': When Books Become Movies

NEW YORK -- My wife tells me that she has seen me read a lot of books, but never with the intensity I read "A Beautiful Mind" by Sylvia Nasar. Apparently, I practically breathed it in in one sitting, or one sitting, walking, talking, shaving, housecleaning, phone-answering marathon. I drove her crazy with, "Listen to this ..."

Naturally, I hated the movie. I was also, I'm told by my most authoritative source, totally obnoxious in telling friends that the film got it all wrong. Hollywood hacks.

I was a fool, of course. Books and movies are not the same thing, and the bald guy who says he's the same Ron Howard we grew up with on "Happy Days" did a very interesting job in translating what amounted to a 1998 cult book on a highly unlikely and unlikable man into a hugely popular film in 2001. And, lost in the self-righteous debate about literal accuracy, which I abandoned after a few days, are real lessons about the changes in methods of communication and the overarching power of visual image.

I did not know until very recently that the book was edited by the same driving force who edits my books, Alice Mayhew of Simon and Schuster. When she told me she knew John Forbes Nash, he of the beautiful mind and wildly muddled life, I was even more impressed. I asked her what she learned from the experience, which began when she read a Nasar article in The New York Times and sent a note to the reporter saying, "If you ever want to write a book, please call ..."

Alice laughed and said: "I'll never publish a book again without Russell Crowe's picture on the cover. We can't print the paperback fast enough."

What she meant, of course, was that the film was driving sales of the paperback at hundreds of thousands of copies every week or so. Ron Howard's vision of the story was reaching more people than the Encyclopedia Brittanica. And in doing that, Howard's medium was changing the way people received and processed the information he thought mattered -- a different story than Nasar's, but serious and important. Where is Marshall McLuhan when we need him?

None of this is new. Fiction -- and the film is fiction -- has often been more important and more perceptive than all non-fiction except mathematical formulae and cashier's checks. There are crude masters of fiction working in some of the most unlikely of places, including the Pentagon. The conventional point in attacking sonnets and songs, plays and films is that they distort truth and facts by their very nature. Words mean different things when they are accompanied by music or moving pictures. Those of us who use only, or mostly, words can be pretty prickly about that. We should be, too, unless we do it thinking that lesser beings than writers are incapable of understanding the world without our words, sacred things that should be graven in stone.

Sometimes we are right. It was deceptive and dangerous, and wrong, for Oliver Stone and his producers to distribute free study guides based on his film, "JFK," to elementary schools around the country. That trick allowed gullible or lazy teachers to get kids to see the film and let them get the impression that President Kennedy was killed by Lyndon Johnson on the orders of the military-industrial complex.

But more often than not, we are wrong. People have to deal with information wherever it comes from and however long it is able to hold their attention. Holding popular attention is what entertainment does. And if that leads to airports being named after John Wayne and makes Ronald Reagan president, so be it. The republic survives.

It happens that I am working on a book about our acting president, Reagan. One thing I have learned is that to get and hold his attention, the Central Intelligence Agency, among others, would prepare videotapes, little movies rather than big briefing books, on the history of far countries and the careers and characteristics of their leaders. One of the subjects of those films with an audience of one was Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union -- and Reagan certainly got his number.

Times change. Technologies change. And so does the way people learn. In the end I had to admit "A Beautiful Mind" was a hell of a movie -- so good that it got people to read, or at least buy, the book it so distorted.

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