Book vs. Movie: The Box
By Russ Bickerstaff
November 9, 2009

This money looks awfully fake. (And so do you.)

In this corner: the Book. A collection of words that represent ideas when filtered through the lexical systems in a human brain. From clay tablets to bound collections of wood pulp to units of stored data, the book has been around in one format or another for some 3,800 years.

And in this corner: the Movie. A 112-year-old kid born in France to a guy named Lumiere and raised primarily in Hollywood by his uncle Charlie "the Tramp" Chaplin. This young upstart has quickly made a huge impact on society, rapidly becoming the most financially lucrative form of storytelling in the modern world.

Both square off in the ring again as Box Office Prophets presents another round of Book vs. Movie.

The Box

Presumably at some point in the late 1960s, author Richard Matheson (the man behind the original novels I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come) had a brilliant little idea for a short story involving a married couple, a button, a large sum of money and a moral dilemma. The story, which was titled Button, Button, was clever enough to be published in Playboy Magazine in 1970, one of the highest-paying publishers of short stories at the time. Button, Button went on to appear in a 1970 collection of short stories named in its honor. Over a decade and a half later, the story was featured in the first season of the mid-1980s revival of CBS's Twilight Zone series. Now it's been picked up and turned into a major motion picture, written and directed by Richard Kelly and starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella. The story, the TV episode and the film vary considerably. How do the three compare?

The Printed Story

Weighing in somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,800 words (roughly the length of this column) the story is short and breezy. The tale opens by introducing all of the basic elements: There's a small, cube-shaped carton sealed with tape on the doorstep of Arthur and Norma Lewis. The Lewises live on 217 East 37th street in New York. The carton is opened to reveal a small, wooden box with a button on it. The button rests beneath a glass dome which has been locked in place. There's a note taped to the bottom of the box notifying the Lewises that a man will be by at 8 p.m. - presumably to explain what the box is about. And a man does, in fact, come by to explain the box and hand the Lewises a key to the box. If they open the box and press the button, two things will happen. First: someone they don't know will die. Second: They will receive $50,000. Once the gentleman leaves, the couple discusses the possibility of pushing the button. She's intrigued. He's disgusted.

The next day at work, she decides to give the mysterious man a call (he'd left his card). She asks him a few questions. He answers them. On her way back home, she sees that the box is still resting there and, after thinking it over, she decides to press the button. She tells Arthur that she did as much, explaining that she wasn't being selfish. Yes, someone would die, but they would have the opportunity to buy a house, take a vacation and possibly have that baby they'd always wanted. He doesn't say much. Presumably he still feels it's a sick joke or some kind of weird behavioral research, theories he'd voiced in their initial conversation about the button.

Later on, Norma receives a call that lets her know that her husband has died in a subway accident. A crowd was pushing around on the platform. Arthur had fallen into the path of an oncoming train. She will be receiving $25,000 from a life insurance policy with double indemnity. Horrified, she smashes the box and sees that there was nothing inside it. No transistors or mechanisms or anything of the sort. Distraught, she calls the gentleman who gave her the box, asking why it had to be him that died. She knew him. The man responds by asking, "Did you really think you knew your husband?" The story ends on that little bit of dialogue.

The whole piece is sort of tarnished by that clever-but-sloppy little sleight-of-hand at the end. Everything is explained except, perhaps, why the man had given them the box in the first place. It's never really explained why the button was involved. Presumably, if the man represented an interest that wanted the insurance company to have to pay out the $50,000, they could've simply done it without Norma's unwitting consent. Whether or not it was someone who stood to gain directly from Arthur's death is a possibility, but as we know so little about the Lewises, this is only vague speculation. This brings up an interesting point about the whole, "you don't really know your husband," thing. Yes, it's a clever threat that sort of suggests he had enemies she couldn't've known about, because she didn't really know him. That still doesn't explain the button, and the dynamic between Arthur and Norma is never explored sufficiently enough to make that last line come across as anything other than cheap and smug. Matheson's initial story was interesting, but suffered from an ending that explained too much of the mystery without actually explaining anything. It was a disappointing ending to an interesting premise.

The TV Adaptation

Somewhere around 1984, CBS had given Philip DeGuere and James Crocker the task of reviving their old Twilight Zone series. To their credit, they decided to do more than merely update old episodes originally written by series creator Rod Serling and his writers. There were the occasional mid-80s updates of older episodes, yes, but the vast majority of what made it to the screen in Twilight Zone's revival had never been produced before. One of those new stories that appeared towards the end of 1987 was a TV adaptation of Button, Button.

From the beginning, the TV adaptation has a distinctly different feel from the printed story. Rather than residing in New York, the TV version of the Lewises live in California. While it's far from being posh, judging from Google street view, the address that the Lewises live at in the printed story appears to be solidly middle-class, and though the neighborhood may well have been different 30 years ago when the story was written, there are all kinds of other indicators in the story that this is an educated, possibly white collar couple. She works in an office. Both have jobs. They use words like, "monetarily," "eccentric," and "psychological research." At one point, Arthur is reading a book.

By contrast, the Lewises in the TV adaptation live in a small, one-bedroom apartment furnished with second-hand items that appear to be ten or more years old. Their car is falling apart. She's a chain-smoking housewife. He works the kind of job that requires a uniform and a nametag. The TV Lewises appear to be very working class. They are played by Mare Winningham and Brad Davis — two actors who had been largely known for TV work at the time of the show. Davis and Winningham have clearly been directed to perform an extreme exaggeration of human emotion. Winningham's Norma is bitter and abusive. Davis' Arthur seems simple and well meaning, but somewhat cold and aggressive. Director Peter Medak (Zorro, The Gay Blade, Romeo Is Bleeding) unrealistically amplifies tensions for the small screen in a way that ridiculously amplifies the mood into some surreal theater of abuse. It's a very surreal situation that they find themselves in, but it is firmly grounded in reality and Medak has done an excellent job of delivering on the surreal potential of it all.

Things don't get any less surreal when veteran TV actor Basil Hoffman enters the picture as Mr. Steward, the gentleman in charge of explaining the box to Norma. Though the printed story has both she and Arthur present when the gentleman comes by, the TV adaptation has Arthur at work at 8 p.m. when Mr. Seward visits, leaving Norma to confront him alone. Winningham plays strong indifference as the oddly dramatic Mr. Steward comes by to hand her the key and explain to her the situation. Press the button and someone you don't know dies. The major difference here is the sum. Rather than the $50,000 award for pressing the button in the printed story, the sum is raised here to $200,000. This accounts for inflation between 1970 and 1987 with an additional $3,400 or so, so we're talking about roughly the same amount of money, which would be considerably more to a blue collar single-income household in 1987.

At just under 20 minutes with opening and closing credits, the TV version's story plays out in a very similar fashion to the story, with Arthur coming across much more sympathetically than Norma. Arthur is concerned with Norma's obsession with the box. He's convinced that it's a sick joke and even unscrews the bottom panel to show her that there's no device inside the box. Finally, near the end of the episode, both sit mesmerized by the mystery of it all, staring deeply into the box. He finally suggests that she push the button just to be able to put it behind her. And she does.

The next morning Mr. Seward comes by to collect the box and deliver a briefcase with the money. When asked how he knew that they had pressed the button, Mr. Seward merely says, "Who wouldn't?" Asked what happens next, he says, "You spend the money." He goes on to say that the button unit will be taken back, "re-set and re-programmed (a bit odd for something that had no technology in it to begin with) and handed over to someone else. He informs them that the person who receives the box will be someone they don't know. Seward lets himself out. Cue the creepy music and a slow-dramatic close-up on the face of Winningham, slowly realizing the implications of what Seward just said.

The brilliantly effective thing about the TV adaptation is its clever use of dramatic ambiguity. The story is resolved without ever REALLY being resolved because the creepy poetry of the premise has played across the screen. There's no telling what's going to happen next and here we have even less of an idea of who Mr. Seward is, who he represents and why on earth he's doing what he's doing. It's brilliantly sinister. But Richard Matheson didn't like it.

Matheson, who wrote the original short story AND the teleplay, didn't like the direction Medak took with it and took his name off the script. He didn't like the ending. In his introduction to the 1991 print compilation New Stories from the Twilight Zone, fellow Twilight Zone author Alan Brennert agreed with Matheson, lumping the TV adaptation of Button, Button in with a few others that he felt were, "good scripts mauled by bad directors, bad production, bad acting or all three." Brennert and Matheson are as entitled to their opinions as anybody, but I feel the ending to the print version lacked the kind of eerie finesse and delicious ambiguity of the TV version. It remains one of the most memorable stories from the first season of the 86-87 Twilight Zones. It's pretty rare when major network television effectively renders subtle ambiguity. This might've been one of the few times it had ever really been attempted in the '80s.

The Movie

Produced over two decades after the TV adaptation, the film sets the story in the rather narrow confines of Virginia in December of 1976. It's a retro contemporary style that's executed pretty well. James Marsden and Cameron Diaz play Arthur and Norma as a solidly upper middle class couple. He works at NASA. She's a schoolteacher. They have a son. It's all very quaint. The film wastes little time in setting up the plot. Arthur and Norma are in bed when they hear someone at the door of their relatively spacious home. She goes down to answer the door only to see a car driving away. A carton rests at the foot of the door. She brings it in. He opens it as she and their son have breakfast.

The prop itself is actually quite classy looking. The button rests underneath a glass dome on an anodized aluminum plate on the top of a wooden box. It looks far slicker than its TV counterpart. The card that accompanies the button unit announcing Mr. Seward's imminent arrival is a large, wedding invitation-style affair with calligraphy and such. Mr Seward arrives — played here by Frank Langella. We find out in an opening bit of text that he had been struck by lightning, resulting in a rather nasty burn that is nonetheless very, very artificial-looking. The offer is more or less the same as it has been in previous incarnations of the story — except that the monetary reward in THIS particular adaptation ends up being $1 million — quite a bit in 1976. And it's kind of necessary here. With the family being solidly upper middle class, the money in question would HAVE to be more. Still, it loses something. We're bearing witness to the concerns of a family that isn't really struggling. Yes, she says they're living paycheck to paycheck, but they're both working decent jobs and living in a nice house. Money doesn't feel like as big a concern here as it is in the TV version.

The first hour of the film more or less plays out like the 20 minutes of the TV version with distinctly different characters foreshadowing some of the events which are to come later on in the film's second hour. The second half of the film feels a bit uncomfortably grafted onto the original story. To say that it's muddled wouldn't really give the second half full credit for being the colossally convoluted mess that it is. A premise that involves NASA, the NSA, the Viking 1 Mars lander, a weird cult of people with nosebleeds, light, water and hazy religious overtones is one that has not only departed from the elegant simplicity of the original premise but also run off manically screaming into a shadowy world of vague, lazily-defined mystery. The story in the second half could have theoretically been compelling if it were fleshed out as a completely different film and relieved of a few overly expository bits of dialogue.

It's pretty clear that the director is TRYING to expand on the strange questions of morality that lie at the heart of the source material and the 1980s TV adaptation that it inspired, but it doesn't ever really resolve into anything coherent. This is a pity, as Marsden and Diaz actually manage some really compelling moments onscreen. The attempt to expand on the deal outlined in the initial premise with a final offer involving a gun, a homicide and the couple's son seems terribly misjudged. Langella ends up coming across like a perverted Monty Hall. The whole thing ends in a kind of mystery that seems at least vaguely interesting, but there's been so much rendered in the story beyond the initial premise that the mystery is completely robbed of any intensity at all. The film takes a really interesting premise and completely robs it of the magic and poetry that made it so interesting to begin with.

The Verdict

Richard Matheson's original premise was brilliantly crafted, but poorly executed in his original short story. He didn't like the way he was forced to change it for the 1987 TV adaptation, but it was a far better treatment of the story than the one he had come up with. That being said, it would be difficult to imagine Matheson liking the current film adaptation either, as it is an even bigger departure from the original. Given the opportunity to expand on the TV version, Richard Kelly runs in too many directions with the story, attempting to graft ideas and premises to it that really have no place being there. Judging from the tiny exposure the film is receiving and the fact that it opened the same week as a giant, rubbery Disney film, The Box is not destined to be remembered all that well. It may end up being easier to track down a copy of the old Twilight Zone TV episode, which is just as well. It's the best treatment of the premise that may ever get produced in any format.