The novel Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom, and the film Collateral Beauty (2016), directed by David Frankel, explore themes of life lessons, death and acceptance, yet are presented to an audience differently to portray a message beneath those themes. Tuesdays with Morrie, a non-fiction biography, follows Professor Morrie Schwartz and his journey with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS disease). Albom, the narrator of the story, reflects on Morrie Schwartz’ classes in college. He realises he did not fulfil his promise of keeping in contact with Schwartz after graduation and when his professor appears on television, discussing his recently diagnosed illness, Albom decides to visit him. Together, in the final stages of Morrie’s life, Albom and Morrie connect again as he shares his final thoughts on love, marriage, family, success and life. Similarly, the events in Collateral Beauty also focus on death and learning about life through grief. The American drama film follows a man who copes with his daughter’s death by writing letters to death, love and time. The protagonist Howard (Will Smith) was a successful advertising executive until his daughter passes away. The loss sends Howard into clinical depression; barely interacting, eating or sleeping. Desperate to help, his friends hire actors to present themselves as death, time and love and respond to his letters. Over time, Howard’s attitude towards life shifts as he begins to accept the grief and feelings he is dealing with. Although one text follows an elderly man who is experiencing his final stages of life and the other shows a middle-aged man grieving the loss of his young daughter, both present similar messages regarding life, acceptance and death.
The narrator of a story can have a large influence on the tone and the perspective of a story. Albom chose to narrate the story of his relationship with Morrie Schwartz and share the important lessons that Morrie shared with him in his final stages so that readers could connect to Morrie and his journey. Comparatively, Collateral Beauty displays Howard’s journey with accepting the death of his daughter to show readers the importance of recognising the beauty when it seems impossible. For readers who may be battling a terminal illness or facing similar hardships, Morrie’s journey and faith in life itself can provide peace. Howard’s journey can show readers that no matter what they may face, there is always beauty and with strength, love and time it is always possible to accept one’s emotions and live a fulfilling life. Like Tuesdays with Morrie, the messages portrayed in Collateral Beauty imply the importance of life itself.
The most prevalent theme from both the novel and film is death. While Tuesdays with Morrie focuses on accepting death and learning about life whilst facing death, Collateral Beauty focuses on how a person deals with the death of a loved one and the importance of gratitude towards life and accepting one’s grief and emotions to allow healing. Often, authors who explore the theme of death try to create a negative mood of sadness, loss and grief. However, Albom has demonstrated Morrie’s positivity during his illness despite being incapable of caring for himself and becoming dependant on his loved ones. The life lessons that Morrie shares with Albom on acceptance, family and happiness bring a hopeful and beautiful light to the story. Comparatively, Frankel looks at death from a different perspective, portraying the negative results of losing someone to a terminal illness. Howard’s life dramatically changes after losing his young daughter and the mood that Frankel portrays through the film reflects how her death affects him.
Acceptance is a large part of both storylines, which links to the theme of death. Equally, Albom and Frankel show, through the journey of their protagonists, the importance of acceptance. In Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom demonstrates the importance of acceptance through Morrie’s journey with his illness and how “…it was a most incredible feeling. The sensation of accepting what was happening, being at peace.’ (Albom, p.15) Acceptance, and not dwelling on the pain or sadness he felt, allows him to make the most of the last few months of his life and help others learn about life. Morrie’s acceptance is displayed during the dialogue of an interview with television show host Ted Koppel, ‘…when all this started, I asked myself, ‘Am I going to withdraw from the world, like most people do, or am I going to live?’ I decided I’m going to live—or at least try to live—the way I want, with dignity, with courage, with humour, with composure.’ (Albom, p.33) Because Morrie had the courage to accept his illness, Albom was able to learn important life lessons that would positively impact his life. Although the protagonist of Collateral Beauty is not facing death, accepting his daughter’s death was a large part of improving his quality of life. Similarly, Collateral Beauty also demonstrates the people around the protagonist learning about life through the protagonist’s experience. Howard’s friends and work colleagues Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena) each connect to the different actors due to different challenges they are currently facing in life. For example, Whit works closely with Amy (Kiera Knightley), and as he attempts to help Howard, he learns some important lessons that relate to his recent divorce. Alike how Albom learns some vital life lessons from Morrie when he is trying to support him, so do Howard’s friends when they try to help him.
Symbolism and motifs are present throughout both texts to emphasise the themes of love, death, life and time. In Tuesdays with Morrie, a clear symbol is Morrie’s hibiscus flower and the natural world which symbolizes Morrie’s journey. Comparatively, Collateral Beauty utilises the way that the different characters of love, death and time are dressed to emphasise what they represent. For example, love, represented by Amy, wears a red jacket and a long flowing dress with red detailing. As red is often associated with love, this stylistic choice emphasises to the viewer that Amy represents love. Morrie stresses throughout the novel the importance of realising and accepting the natural cycle of life if one hopes to live a fulfilling life. Living a fulfilled life is also mentioned in Collateral Beauty as the name itself suggests that beauty seems impossible to see when there is so much pain. Like the film, Albom tries to emphasise how Morrie still found beauty in his painful journey with ALS through nature. There is a pink hibiscus plant in Morrie’s home sat “by a window in his study where he could watch” as it “shed its pink flowers.” The plant symbolises Morrie’s life as it goes through its natural cycle. The different characters that represent love, death and time in Collateral Beauty also symbolise elements of life that are natural and inevitable. Time is dressed in streetwear as he is always travelling on his skateboard. ‘Time’s’ skateboard symbolises that time is always moving and cannot be stopped, like the natural cycle of life. As Morrie’s body begins to deteriorate as a result of his illness, Albom indicates that the hibiscus begins to wither. When Morrie becomes dependant on his loved ones, the petals of the flower begin to wither and fall off which symbolises Morrie’s weakness. When the last leaves of the flower fall, Morrie passes away as a result of his illness. Death is represented through the elderly actor Bridgette (Helen Mirren) in Collateral Beauty, rather than a physical object such as the hibiscus flower in the novel. Bridgette’s characterisation shows that she is humble, peaceful and elegant. The author of Tuesdays with Morrie would have considered the hibiscus of high importance as Morrie had a love for nature and even when he could not leave home, he sat by the open window with the hibiscus beside it. Although there is sadness in the “death” of the hibiscus – that is connected to the sadness of Morrie’s death – the hibiscus is part of a cycle, that will relive again. Similarly, Frankel styled each character to symbolise the inevitable cycle of life. Albom utilises the hibiscus not only to share Morrie’s love for nature with readers but also show that life will always continue in its natural cycle. Frankel also shows readers that there are elements of life that will always remain and continue through the characters of love, death and time.
Imagery is a major element of any novel or film as it creates the base for the language and dialogue. This is highly important as there are no pictures in the novel and therefore, the story relies on the imagery that the words create. Comparatively, as Collateral Beauty is a film, the director can utilise a variety of camera techniques, mise en scene and other cinematography to create an on-screen image for viewers to see. The difference between the text and the film is that the novel allows a reader’s imagination to create elements of the story for themselves whereas the film displays the way that everything is. Both the text and the film, however, have utilised different techniques to indicate that the narrator is having a flashback. The author and director include flashbacks to provide backstory and give readers more of an insight into the events leading up to the present time. In Tuesdays with Morrie, the sections written in italics are flashbacks from when Albom was still studying at college. They create an image of the strong bond that Albom and Morrie shared during college. Similarly, the flashbacks in Collateral Beauty show the beautiful relationship that Howard shared with his daughter. Flashbacks of time spent in the hospital, near the time of his daughter’s death, also inform readers of what had happened.
Other useful techniques that Albom uses to create imagery are metaphoric language and personification. Albom includes a story about the ocean that Morrie tells him during one of their classes. Morrie says, “The first wave says, ‘You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing!… The second wave says, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.’” (Albom, p. 179-180) This story is a metaphor for Morrie’s life, the waves crashing onto the shore representing Morrie’s impending death and Morrie, fearful of death but comforted by the thought that he will never truly be gone. Albom uses metaphor to allow readers to develop a deeper understanding of how Morrie feels about his illness and death itself. Comparatively, for Collateral Beauty, the director had many visual resources available to enhance the imagery. The camera angles used throughout the film emphasise the emotions of the characters and help to portray an image of how they are feeling. One example of this is when ‘time’ approaches Howard for the second time. A close-up camera angle has been used to better display the anger, confusion and hurt on Howard’s face as they argue in the street. This angle also makes the scene more personal, drawing viewers in. Similarly, in Tuesdays with Morrie, personification is used to make certain phrases more personal. As Morrie begins to explain the story of the ‘little wave’, he refers to the wave as a male and assigning the wave human-like qualities. Morrie says that the wave is “enjoying the wind and fresh air…” (Albom, p.179) and can speak. Like the way the camera angles in Collateral Beauty allow a scene to become more personal, the use personification in the novel achieves a similar purpose.
Both Albom and Frankel utilise a range of techniques to demonstrate the importance of love and acceptance when faced with hardships. Although they follow the stories of two different lives, they both present important life lessons around death, acceptance, and relationships. These texts provide a sense of hope and belonging to individuals who have experienced similar traumatic events. Tuesdays with Morrie and Collateral Beauty follow two tragic stories yet bring life lessons and beauty when it seems impossible to see.