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Coma (1978) Vs. Coma (2012): The Gender Issue

Michael Crichton’s Coma (1978) is a tough act to follow, even for the man who brought us Alien (1979). But Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony have given it a good try in A&E’s two-part miniseries, which clocks in at just under three hours. The project has an amazing cast: James Woods, Geena Davis, Richard Dreyfuss and a truly fabulous Ellen Burstyn—with hair recalling Elsa Lanchester’s—all make campy appearances as doctors colluding to intentionally put patients into comas for research studies. Add Lauren Ambrose, whose quieter performance compliments the rest of the cast’s collective scenery-chewing, keeping the absurdity in check. The result is a satisfyingly exciting but fluffy piece, ultimately not much more than a mix of CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, and a little 70s-style gore thrown in for fun.

Lauren Ambrose is much more likable in the role of surgical intern Susan Wheeler than the original’s Genevieve Bujold, who made something of a specialty out of creepy medical dramas, later starring inDead Ringers (1988) alongside Jeremy Irons. Ambrose’s large eyes and cherubic face give her a childlike quality that makes her both easier to root for and less compelling than Bujold’s version of the character. This contrast is a neat microcosm of the entireComa remake; the updated version may be longer and slicker than the original, but it also has a whole lot less to say.

Made just a few years after the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, Crichton’s Coma was all about shifting gender relations. Susan’s complex relationship with her boyfriend, another surgical resident played by Michael Douglas, was as much a source of conflict in the narrative as the body-snatching conspiracy she eventually uncovered. Douglas’s character constantly complains that Susan is too uppity, and mutters to himself that he “should’ve dated a nurse” instead. He even declares that Susan is hysterical when she tries to explain the conspiracy to him, though he eventually realizes she is telling the truth and rushes to her aid. Recalling the queasy uncertainty ofRosemary’s Baby (1968), Douglas’s character nearly convinces Susan that she’s made the whole thing up before he realizes the truth at the last possible moment.

In the Scott brothers’ version Susan isn’t dating her equal but her superior, the chief resident (Steven Pasquale), and their relationship is fairly simplistic; both of them are primarily focused on finding out who’s behind the rash of comas, not on debating the finer points of gender equality. Ambrose’s Susan even has a famous cardiologist grandfather who once worked at her hospital, on whose coattails she’s constantly accused of riding. While Ambrose’s Susan isn’t treated as a total outsider, as Bujold’s Susan was in 1978, she is also less powerful in her own right. She relies on her paternal legacy and the protection of her boyfriend’s seniority just as much as she does on her own instincts and chutzpah. Bujold’s Susan, conversely, had nothing but chutzpah. This may have made her unlikeable, but it also made her character significantly more substantial.

In 1978, Bujold’s Susan first realized something was amiss when a friend fell into a coma while undergoing a “routine therapeutic abortion.” There’s none of this political explicitness in the 2012 version. Though there is a clumsy gesture towards male science co-opting female bodies at the end of the film (you’ll recognize it), it’s used more as a “gotcha” scare tactic than a sincere cultural analogy. In the modern version ofComa there are no abortions, plenty of other female doctors, and no one telling Susan—in so many words, anyway—that her real problem is being a woman in a man’s world. Given the current political situation in this country, maybe there should be.

By Lita Robinson

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About Lita Robinson

Lita Robinson holds a B.A. in Film Studies from Smith College, and an M.A. in Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. She currently works in sales and distribution, and consults as a story editor on the side.

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