After the short story “Flowers for Algernon” received a Hugo Award in 1960, the tale of Charlie Gordon was embraced by a wide mainstream audience. In the early 1960’s, a television adaptation titled “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon” appeared on The U.S. Steel Hour, with Cliff Robertson playing Charlie. After the Nebula Award-winning novel appeared in 1966, a feature film adaptation, Charly (1968), also starred Robertson, who received an Academy Award for his portrayal. Widely anthologized and taught in schools throughout the United States, the story also was the basis for a 1980 Broadway musical.
At the heart of its appeal is its unsensational use of a speculative premise, that surgery can radically boost intelligence, as the basis of a moving allegory. Charlie is like many people who reach a peak only to foresee and then experience their inevitable decline. Although the novel is considerably longer than the short story (its extended time frame approximates the human gestation period), both use compression to intensify the drama of this experience.
Notwithstanding the fact that the novel has been criticized as inferior to the short story, its extended narrative enabled Daniel Keyes not only to exploit his story’s commercial potential but also to explore a variety of story elements in greater depth. The cultural tendency to look on the retarded Charlie as a nonperson is one such element. Charlie’s psyche also is delineated in greater detail.
Although Flowers for Algernon bears some resemblance to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) “the animus of Charlie and his doctors softly echoes that of the monster and Victor Frankenstein” significant links also can be made between the novel and other, nonspeculative works, including Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947; English translation, 1952), the entries of which record key years of growth in the life of a girl doomed by a Nazi culture that deems her subhuman. Charlie’s experience also parallels that of actual human test subjects, such as those in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study of the 1930’s and the catatonic patients given L-dopa by Dr. Oliver Sacks in 1969. Although the influence of Flowers for Algernon can be seen in science-fiction works, including Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968), its legacy may be most evident in Sacks’s book Awakenings (1973) and its 1990 screen adaptation. Keyes himself continued to delve into unusual psychological states in science fiction and nonfiction genres.