Friday, October 21, 2005


Does anyone remember The Man without a Face? It was a book before it was a movie, but I'll talk about the movie first. It starred Mel Gibson as a recluse with half a face, the result of a car crash that killed his wife and child (IIRC). He befriends a young boy who's at risk of failing out of school. The man becomes the boy's tutor. The boy does better in school, feels better about himself, becomes more accepting of those different than he, and so forth. Then the town and the boy's parents start hearing rumors of a sexual relationship between the teenager and the man. There is no such relationship, but the boy is forbidden from seeing his teacher, mentor and friend, and the man is ostracized even further from the community.

That's the movie.

The book is similar. Except, in the book the characters do have a sexual relationship. The rumors are true.

I read the book as a teenager, not long after the movie came out. I was furious at the movie for betraying what felt like a key element of the book, of the relationship between teen and man. I couldn't see what was wrong with the relationship. The book was well written and the characters very carefully crafted and there was no coercion, implied or otherwise, in the relationship. Now, though, I can feel uneasy about the relationship. I can't remember the boy's age, only that he still hadn't graduated high school (the man broke a restraining order or something to sneak into the boy's graduation; they saw each other but didn't speak). I remember that the boy described the man only in terms of love and respect. I remember the caution the man took before kissing his student, not out of fear of the law or the town but out of a desire not to hurt the boy. I remember the boy, troubled, waking the first morning after and struggling to come to terms with his new definition of himself and how the man with no face simply waited, spoke when asked questions, and let the boy decide.

I am troubled by the relationship now simply because I question whether there is true consent when two lovers are also engaged in a power imbalance, like teacher and student, like adult and child. I don't want to say the relationship in this book was wrong or bad or even harmful. Just that it could have been. And its been so long since I read the book - maybe it was. But maybe it wasn't.

The movie, though, strips that complexity right out, making a troubling and complicated coming-of-age story into a "watch-the-ignorant-people-bash-the-outsider" movie. It betrays the theme of the book. It tells a very different story.

Read the book. If you want, watch the movie. But don't think they're the same story.

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