This book is based on the screenplay for the movie Rain Man starting Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Reading this book I noticed, not for the first time, that books and movies are different and need different approaches. The book shows how Charlie Babbitt learns to deal with his autistic older brother, Raymond. The movie shows how Charlie Babbitt exploits his autistic older brother, Raymond.
A bit of background. Charlie thinks he’s an only child and that he’s disappointed his father all his life. His mother dies when Charlie is about two years old and he barely remembers her. It’s only after Charlie’s father dies and Charlie is trying to find out where his father’s money is going that he find his older brother. Raymond is eighteen years older than Charlie and has some memories of being together when Charlie was young, but those memories are locked inside a brain that can only bring them out at the right moment. Charlie has no idea how to relate to Raymond and no idea how to bring out the memories and find out that his father loved him.
Raymond is an autistic savant. He doesn’t relate to the outside world in the same way that we do. In order to maintain some semblance of sanity he needs to write lists and have a very strict routine. Part of that routine includes sitting and watching TV programmes at the right time. When things don’t happen at the right time or when people try to ask him questions he can’t answer he retreats into himself. Raymond lives in a private hospital for the developmentally disabled and has a personal carer who understands his foibles. In the movie he’s played by Dustin Hoffman.
Charlie is a money grubbing personality who takes what he can get, when he can get it and doesn’t care for anyone. In the movie he’s played by Tom Cruise.
Always looking for an opening for himself, Charlie ‘kidnaps’ Raymond and takes him on a whirlwind tour. This includes a stop in Vegas where Raymond’s savant talents shine through and they make a whole heap of money. Along the way Charlie learns what makes Raymond retreat within himself and how to help him come out of it. Charlie also learns about himself and starts to unbend and understand that he needs to focus on people and less on money. In this respect it’s a book about growth and understanding.
Where I have issues is that we are not told that there is a spectrum of autism and that there are people on the spectrum who can cope in the outside world and some who can’t. The implication from this book is that all autistics are savants and can’t relate to the outside world. I know many people in the autistic spectrum who manage quite well. Sometimes they need some time alone, sometimes they need to cancel things. But none of them need to be in a private hospital with their own private carer. I would consider many of them to be incredibly successful at what they do. And then there are those in the public eye who have recently come out as being autistic, people who are incredibly good at their job, people who we’ve admired for many years. Anthony Hopkins is one name that springs to mind. He’s a giant in the movie world and recently started talking about his diagnoses with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is part of the autistic spectrum.
Autism and Asperger’s are genetic and there are many speculations as to why they appear to be so prevalent nowadays. I’m not going to include any of those speculations as that’s not what this article is about. Nor is this article about the anti-vaxxers who seem to think their child can get autism from vaccinations.
Going back to the book and why it is so different to the movie. In the book we actually get inside Charlie’s head and we see how he comes to terms with the fact that he not only has a brother, but that his brother is not neurotypical and can’t function in the same way as he does. Through Charlie’s own thoughts we see how he finally begins to understand how Raymond functions and we see him learn to be able to help Charlie. This is not made clear in the movie. I admit it’s been a long time since I saw Rain Man the movie but what I remember is Charlie taking advantage of Raymond’s savant abilities and not giving much back in return.
This book might be hard to find but a book that is much easier to find is The Real Rain Man by Kim Peek. I haven’t read it but from the description it looks to be a good book for beginning to understand what it’s like to be autistic in today’s world.