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Locked-in, Looking Out: A Comparison Between Dementia and Strokes Portrayed in Media

Graeme Witte
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

The 2014 film Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart, written and directed by Richard Glatzer, portrays a successful professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and follows her journey with the disease’s progression (Imdb, 2014). The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner and Marie-Josée Croze, written by Ronald Hardwood and directed by Julia Schnabel, was first screened in 2007. The film depicts a successful photographer who experiences a stroke that completely paralyzes him, except for the use of his left eye. We follow his life and gain insight into his past (Imdb, 2007). After watching both movies, my view is that while the Diving Bell and the Butterfly emphasizes the indomitable nature of the human spirit and educates the public about neurological diseases, it fails at providing clinical education to the audience, as Still Alice does.  


Piece by piece, memory by memory, slowly the past trickles away.  No recollection of past events, all lost to the onslaught of dementia; this must be a terrifying prospect. The protagonist Alice said in a speech, “Everything I’ve accumulated in life, everything I’ve worked so hard for, now all that is being ripped away.” This is a brilliant extract from the film Still Alice, illustrating the struggle of facing dementia. Imagine, too, the struggle to be accepted by society, to retain your persona. The race against time is on for Alice.  Is there hope of a new cure for her, or will dementia ultimately claim her life? This is a truly moving film about family, love, and the battle for sanity.  Still Alice manages to capture both the clinical and personal sides of coping with Alzheimer’s, while encapsulating the essence of the human struggle. It uniquely depicts the tenacity of the human spirit in fighting this terrible, prevalent disease in today’s society. Moving from one dreadful scenario to another: imagine waking up in a hospital, unable to move your limbs, or even talk? You can only blink and move one eye, but your mind is completely alert. You can think and bemoan about your situation, but no one can hear you, as you are a prisoner in your own body. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly poignantly follows the story of a man experiencing that through Locked-In Syndrome.  You view the world and his experiences from his perspective and see the human spirit’s true tenacity and will to live. This excellent film depicts the character in a novel and sympathetic manner. Although the film doesn’t use much medical terminology, it focuses on the patient’s view via internal monologue, and is made even more meaningful as it is based on a true story.


Alice is a successful linguistics professor, lecturing at the esteemed Columbia University.  She is a wife and mother of three successful children in a seemingly ideal life.  However, Alice becomes increasingly forgetful and is eventually diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The movie Still Alice follows her story as she struggles to adapt to her illness, desperately clinging to her slowly-disappearing memories and “organized” life. With the support of her husband, Charlie (a fellow researcher at Columbia), her two daughters, Anne (a lawyer) and Lydia (a budding actress), and her son, Tom (a doctor), she copes with the situation. The story captures the clinical side of Alzheimer’s, explaining the progression and characteristic signs, while illustrating the strain that the disease places on the family. It shows how a supportive family makes the disease more bearable. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly depicts 43-year old Mr. Bauby, who experiences a stroke in his brainstem, leaving him completely paralyzed, except for his left eye. The film follows Mr. Bauby’s internal monologue while he struggles to realign his present, his past, and how to adapt to the current situation. He reconciles with his estranged family and friends, finding a way to communicate via blinking. This is a marvelous account of human spirit and courage under duress, highlighting the will to live and communicate. The movie’s style is very fitting, focusing on the effects and suffering of Locked-In Syndrome from the patient’s perspective. 


Still Alice brilliantly combines the medical aspects of Alzheimer’s disease and the personal viewpoint of those affected. Several scenes in the film portray the scientific side of the disease, such as the symptoms (Still Alice, 04.11), as well as coping methods used whilst awaiting results (Still Alice, 15.20) of the diagnosis, with its potentially devastating personal and familial implications (Still Alice, 25.13).  It shows the unfair stigma dogging the disease (Still Alice, 36.27) and the effects of the disease on a working person (Still Alice, 33.03). It portrays this information in an easily understood format, useful for educating people, helping families and afflicted individuals answers. Through its effect on the family, via the disease’s progression, the personal aspect is seamlessly incorporated. We see how Alzheimer’s psychologically affects patients (Still Alice, 1:06.32) and their family – remaining a cohesive unit while struggling with the situation. The result is a brilliantly educational and heartfelt movie. In contrast, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was less educational than Still Alice. While there was minor clinical information about Locked-In Syndrome in the early diagnosis scene, we did not gain further insight, only witnessing the effects of the stroke on the main character. However, the movie effectively portrays the will to survive and persevere against all odds. This superb film represents the world from the patient’s viewpoint and lets us empathize with them. It promotes dialogue on how traumatic events can reset peoples’ priorities, forcing them to focus on what they hold dear (such as in the scene with his children and their mother at the beach). The film, nevertheless, lacks clinical depth provided by Still Alice, leaving the viewer searching for answers about the disease.


While Still Alice and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly both depict the struggles of those suffering from neurological diseases, Still Alice does this more effectively.  There is a large disparity of information between the two movies regarding the clinical aspects of each disease, as Still Alice provides the viewer with more clinical and personal information.  Thus, it succeeds in portraying and blending both the clinical and emotional aspects of neurological diseases, affecting patients and their loved ones. Furthermore, the scientific evidence provided in the movie is clear, concise, and easily understandable for laymen. Still Alice also has a linear story line, allowing the viewer to easily follow the events and understand the disease’s progression. In contrast, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly provides less educational medical information. The movie’s timeline jumps between Mr. Bauby’s present and his past, making the film difficult to follow. I believe that society empathizes more with Still Alice, as Alzheimer’s disease is a more prevalent disease than Locked-in Syndrome. These movies illustrate the usefulness of the media in educating the public about diseases, thereby providing clinical information in thought-provoking and understandable ways. I believe that a more fact-filled film, to which people can relate and empathize, is more effective than one relying only on emotions without clarifying the realm of medical diagnosis.


Writing Approach:

I structured and wrote this paper in the same format that I usually tend to write all my papers with. I started with formulating the main idea and argumentative point of my essay and writing a general outline that consisted of the paragraph breakdowns, my preliminary thesis, and supporting facts, all placed in bullet form and headed to avoid ambiguity and confusion of paragraphs. I then re-watched both Still Alice and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly more closely on my own, sifting through the scenes and recording the scenes I felt most supported my argument point. I then sat down and, using the supporting evidence and my outline, wrote the first draft of my paper. I did not focus on the word count and went over the count. I then did my own grammar editing and preliminary paragraph cohesion. I then took the paper to the Writing Center where (in conjunction with the tutor) we worked on the two trailers, the conclusion, and the paragraph cohesion as a whole. I got some useful tips from the tutor on how to make the paragraph cohesion better and it helped me with editing the paper too. Lastly, I revised the entire paper, cutting out the unnecessary parts and bringing my word count down to below 1200 words in total, and made the changes suggested by the tutor. Lastly, I reread the essay and tried to ensure that all the paragraphs related and suggested back to my thesis and I created a fitting title for the paper.


This method worked well for me as it allowed me to set out and plan the essay in a clear and concise was and helped me lay out my full argument. It also helped me get the main focal points of my essay set out so that I didn’t have to “beat around the bush” to get to my point, as I already knew it from the beginning of the paper. The only drawback from this method is that it is quite time consuming and there it leaves little time for error due to the large amount of editing and layout measures taken. This meant I was only able to go to the Writing Center on the Sunday evening as I had been busy the whole weekend. While I managed to get a walk-in appointment that allowed me to cover everything I needed, it was a bit difficult to manage as there were no set appointment times left when I tried to make an appointment three weeks in advance. This made the situation a bit tricky as it meant I could only rely on walk-in hours to meet the Writing Center component. I would thus think to try and make an appointment even earlier in advance to the due date is possible to try and get an appointment and not rely so heavily on walk-in hours.  

Reference List:

Glatzer, R. (Director). (2014). Still Alice [Motion picture] New York, NY: Goldcrest Post.


IMDb, 2014. Still Alice. Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3316960/


Schnabel, J. (Director). (2007). The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [Motion picture] France: Pathé Renn Prodcutions


IMDb, 2007. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401383/


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