BOOK (1959)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 January, 2010, 12:00am

Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes
(Harcourt Brace)

A less likely contender for blockbuster treatment would be hard to imagine. Charlie, the toilet cleaner narrator at the heart of fantasy novel Flowers for Algernon, is haunted by guilt about desire and afflicted by a low IQ of just 68.

That statistic puts him on a footing with the local laboratory mouse, Algernon. In fact, the mouse outwits him at maze-solving. 'I dint [sic] know mice were so smart,' rues Charlie, whose Forrest Gump stupidity is reflected by the dud grammar and spelling of the 'progress reports' that he supplies to the reader.

Despite the outward lack of glamour, the story that Charlie pieces together has already been adapted for a range of media several times. Now, it has caught the eye of Hollywood virtuoso Will Smith, who is set to produce and star in an updated version of the novel that reflects Smith's affinity for science fiction.

The key event in Flowers for Algernon is a surreal surgical experiment that Charlie undergoes to raise his intelligence - and miraculously, it works.

Thanks to the boost, his spelling and social life pick up. He even succeeds in pursuing a romantic entanglement.

Charlie's transformation, however, comes at a cost. He grows estranged from everyone he knows, in particular his colleagues at his dead-end job. Once, they laughed at his expense. Suddenly, they fear and resent his tripled IQ.

So he is fired and, in a reverse fairy-tale ending, returns to his quasi-gaga state. Weird, creepy, sad.

Still, The New York Times hailed the novel as 'convincing' and 'touching'. Publishers' Weekly called it 'strikingly original'. So original that the book won two science fiction prizes - a 1959 Hugo for the short story version and a 1966 Nebula for the novel version. Never has Flowers for Algernon gone out of print.

Why the tear-jerker concocted by a psychology graduate became a classic is a mystery on a par with the experiments that the leading man and lab mouse experience.

One explanation for its success might be that we all harbour doubts about our mental acuity; anyone can forget the day or date.

Another clue to the novel's success is its cultural depth. Flowers for Algernon keys into legends like the rise and fall of King Midas, whose gift for turning all he touched into gold proved a roadblock that made reality unnavigable.

Yet it feels thoroughly modern. The feyly titled fantasy could be read as a broadside against unlawful dismissal and a proto-manifesto for disability rights.

Implicitly, it makes a plea for patience towards the slow-witted - a salient point in this 'instant everything' broadband age.