Arguably the work that landed him the Nobel Prize for Literature, José Saramago’s dystopian novel Blindness, published in 1995, was long considered to be “unfilmable.” What people meant by this, as far as I can tell, is that cinema, being a visual medium, isn’t suited to a story about a whole lot of folks who can’t see. Utterly absurd, of course—it’s what we see that matters, and the blind are no less inherently compelling than the sighted—but in truth the book is unfilmable, as this disastrous attempt at adaptation proves. The true impediment is not visual but verbal: Saramago’s sinuous, breathless, disturbingly matter-of-fact prose style all but forces you to accept his ludicrous allegory at face value. Reduced to its dramatic essence, however, Blindness comes across as the longest and most pretentious Twilight Zone episode ever made.
Specifically, it calls to mind “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a didactic Rod Serling-penned clunker in which ordinary Americans suddenly turn on their friends and neighbors when the electricity goes out and their cars stop working. Saramago, with equal pessimism, posits a world in which just about everyone abruptly goes blind, an affliction that somehow brings latent cruelties to the surface. Quarantined in an abandoned mental hospital and forced to fend for themselves—whatever’s causing the epidemic, it’s highly contagious—the initial victims flail about for only a day or two before a dude with a gun (Gael García Bernal) declares himself the king of his ward and starts hoarding the limited food supply, demanding first valuables and then, once everyone’s tapped, sexual access to all the women. What he doesn’t know is that one of those women (Julianne Moore) faked the condition so that she could accompany her ophthalmologist husband (Mark Ruffalo). She can see perfectly well. She can aim.
On the page, working in lengthy comma-laden paragraphs that keep hurtling forward, refusing even to attribute dialogue (you have to work out who’s speaking on your own), Saramago makes this risible scenario seem halfway credible through sheer force of will. But just as most Stephen King plots look irredeemably stupid when divorced from their author’s obsession with mundane detail, Blindness, which is essentially high-flown horror/sci-fi, becomes ludicrous when streamlined into a breezy two hours and change. Would the government really herd victims into a building and gun down anyone who tries to leave? If you were suddenly blind and imprisoned, would you be busy plotting larceny and rape? Don McKellar’s screenplay stays doggedly faithful to the book, yet incidents that are nightmarish in print inspire snorts of disbelief onscreen, simply because they lack the context that made them seem plausible. All we see are puppets being jerked around to demonstrate a cynical thesis: Human nature sucks.
When we can see them at all, that is. Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), who apparently took “unfilmable” as a challenge, has chosen to simulate the experience of being blind by shooting a great deal of the movie out of focus, as if Saramago’s novel had been titled I Cannot for the Life of Me Find My Eyeglasses. And because the book’s afflicted are plunged into perpetual brightness rather than darkness—victims say it’s like having your eyeballs drowned in milk—we also get a lot of deliberate overexposure; after a while, all that white on white begins to feel like the glare of the damned. Such self-conscious artiness only serves to accentuate the general air of unreality, when what was needed was something simple, direct, unadorned. Or maybe just the humility to leave a great novel alone.