Book vs. Film: Shutter Island

Published

Credit: Jack Corban

Amy Cooper
Writer

Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island isn’t a book for the fainthearted. A dark and twisted psychological thriller, it pushes the reader to their limit and causes them not only to question the sanity of the characters, but their own state of mind as well. Yet, whilst the film attempts to match its level of immersion, it fails to hit the mark.

US Marshal Edward ‘Teddy’ Daniels spends four days on Shutter Island, attempting to uncover the truth surrounding the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a patient at Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. With one storm ravaging the island and another raging inside his head, Teddy is pushed to his physical and mental limits in his struggle to expose the “truth“.

Major spoilers ahead: Lehane reveals to the reader through remarkable revelations and unexpected turns of events that Teddy’s “investigation” is nothing but an elaborate fantasy. In reality he is Andrew Laeddis, an inmate of Ashecliffe who refuses to accept his role in the deaths of his wife and children. Consequently, Doctors Cawley and Sheehan allow Andrew to live out his delusion in the hopes he will regress and no longer require an extreme lobotomy.

Despite the weighty themes explored during the novel, it is deeply engrossing and thus remains a reasonably easy read throughout. Lehane gradually draws the reader in to the point where they truly feel like a part of the investigation. When Cawley and Sheehan expose the “truth” at the climax of the novel, the reader is overwhelmed by the thought that they should have known what was coming. This is precisely what Lehane wants; he leaves clues and hints strewn throughout the investigation, but the likelihood of the reader putting them together is next to none. Nevertheless, they feel as if they’ve missed a trick and the more they consider it, the more it drives them crazy.

The film adaptation of Shutter Island, directed by Martin Scorsese and released in 2010, is rather more challenging to engage with. Although it follows the plot of the book reasonably closely, the director overloads the piece with sound effects and music during the first half of the film. This overwhelms the senses and pushes the audience to the edge of the action, rather than drawing them in. In contrast, the second half of the film is devoid of this tacky, surplus sound, allowing for a more enjoyable viewing experience. However, though we are now given the space to engage with the film, it is extremely difficult to connect with the characters at such a late stage in the plot. Despite this, the film does stay relatively true to the book. Ease of viewing is increased for those who read it beforehand, as they are already familiar with the developments occurring on-screen.

There is, however, one significant difference between the novel and the film concerning its ending. The movie ends as Teddy and his “partner” are conversing. Teddy turns to Chuck, Dr. Sheehan’s assumed identity, to play along with Andrew’s fantasy, saying “which would be worse: to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” This final statement leaves the action on an ambiguous cliff-hanger, and the audience becomes fully aware of the catch 22 situation Andrew is tangled up in. If he lives, he does so with the overwhelming guilt of what he did to his wife; if he dies due to the lobotomy, he dies as Chuck, a good and honest man. The addition of this line allows those watching to glimpse Andrew from a totally unique perspective, as well as ponder the challenging question themselves.

Although Scorsese succeeded in creating an unnerving and effective version of Shutter Island in its film adaptation, the original book certainly reigns superior. With layered characters and a gripping narrative, Lehane writes in an unusually refreshing manner on topics which are, in equal parts, both disturbing and compelling.