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