Have you ever heard someone say to you, “Read the book before you see the movie”? This is a philosophy I wholeheartedly believe in and try to live by. I generally like to read the original version of a story first and then venture into the world of its various forms of offspring, if and when it has any. So, the moment I found out I was going to go see a play titled The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, I decided it was time to tackle the novel it is based on. I read the book in less than two days and saw the play a couple of weeks after. Never had I experienced so many different and original ways of painting a picture of the human mind. In this case, the mind of a fifteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Mark Haddon is both the author and illustrator of this particular novel. I say illustrator, because there are many eye-catching illustrations scattered throughout the narrative. The ones that stood out to me in particular appeared on the first few pages and accompanied a passage in which the narrator, Christopher Boone, tries to explain the relationship between emotions and facial expressions. The images are probably the most basic drawings of various smileys and it is their simplicity which makes them so powerful, because it conditions the way our minds perceive human emotion. They create a universal mould for the aesthetics of feeling. Christopher, despite his autism, is able to use these “moulds” to bring what is inside our heads to the outside. Haddon’s visual trick allows the reader to gain a greater insight into the process of comprehension within an autistic mind.
This trick did not go unnoticed by Simon Stephens, who adapted the novel for the play. When I saw the show, it was performed by the original West End cast in The Royal Theatre Carré. The stage had the shape of a square and was from all sides (except for the side facing the audience) surrounded by huge floor-to-ceiling screens. About twenty minutes into the play, the same scene which I just described happened on stage. But instead of the smiley faces just being instantly projected onto the screens, the main actor who played the protagonist drew them on the stage while they simultaneously appeared on the screens behind him. This gave us as audience the feeling that we were drawing with him, that we were literally inside his mind. The visualization of Christopher’s thought process in the book was captivating. The play, however, took it to whole other level by taking the audience on a physical and visual journey through the land of Christopher’s mind.
Christopher has many intriguing goals and aspirations in life. One of them is his dream of becoming an astronaut. In the novel he describes how he would be a great one, because he is intelligent, he likes machines and he enjoys being confined in tiny spaces. When you are reading this passage, it seems as though the more Christopher thinks about it the more his lifelong dream because an actual daydream. He drifts off deeper into his thoughts and as a reader you cannot help but drift along with him. Unfortunately, Haddon did not take this opportunity to insert some illustration of the solar system into these few pages. The play, however, did do that. And much more.
The scene in which this passage came to play started off with Christopher lying down on the floor in a fetal position. Then he continued to describe why he would be a great astronaut, while the rest of the cast carried him around the stage, making it look like he is actually floating in space. This astronomical feel was even further enhanced by the projection of a huge number of twinkling stars on the screens behind them. While Christopher “floated” around on stage he went deeper into the daydream by talking about the universe and the pros of living a life in space. Again, the play managed to make the inner workings of Christopher’s mind into a visually captivating spectacle. For a moment, his daydream became our reality.
Throughout the novel, Haddon makes it clear that having Asperger’s Syndrome is definitely not all fun and games. Because of his autism, Christopher struggles with things which in day-to-day life we would not even give a second glance. For example, he says, “I see everything.” By this he does not mean that he is some weird “Big Brother” figure who watches your every move, but he literally means that notices everything. According to him, most people never actually look at something. All they really ever do is glance which means the impulses they receive from the outside world are only a fraction of what Christopher has to put up with daily.
Because his brain is so easily stimulated, Christopher often gets overwhelmed by new experiences. At some point in the story, however, circumstances in his life force him to do just the thing he hates. He has to use the London Underground, which is something he has never done before. Haddon visualizes this experience with different fonts of text that are haphazardly depicted as bold or cursive. The words that he has used for this are taken from the signs, advertisements and announcements that one encounters in the Underground. To further highlight the intensity and density of these stimuli, Haddon does not use any spaces in between the words.
The same scene was portrayed in the play as well, but in a very different way. The cast performed a skillfully choreographed routine, which symbolized the rhythm of the trains coming and going and passengers getting on and off. The serenity of this routine was juxtaposed with heavy metal music, which was meant to reflect Christopher’s chaotic mind. On the screens words were depicted in a similar manner as in the book, only now they appeared independently rather than as one whole. The entire scene moved in a sort of crescendo manner as the choreography got more intense and the music louder. As an audience member, I could not help but go a little crazy myself and that was one of the things that made me realize the play was so unique. It managed to show, even if it was only for a couple of minutes, what extreme pressure an autistic mind is constantly under. This gives you perspective on the workings of your own brain and makes you very grateful for its laziness.
In this article I do not mean to determine that either the book or the play is better as a whole. I do believe, however, that when it comes to the aspect of visualizing the mind, the play managed to achieve this in a more impactful manner. This is because the mind is not a 2D entity like a book is. Even though that is something that Christopher probably would have much preferred.