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Helpful Background

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
      Bridges To Reading
      Links to the Internet
      CCSS Anchor Standards
      Selected Awards & Cast

Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

Helpful Background:

Comparing the Novel to the Film

"Charly" is a serious attempt to transfer to the screen a story originally told in the form of a novel. However, even relatively faithful movie adaptations of novels omit characters, plot lines, significant events, helpful descriptions, and important ideas. There simply isn't time in most movies to include everything that's in a book. It is ironic that although a picture may be worth a thousand words, a movie almost never contains as many interesting events and as much detail as a novel. In addition, the requirements of printed fiction and of stories told on the screen are very different; adaptation to film often requires changes in the way the story is told.

Students who have both read Daniel Keyes' novel, Flowers for Algernon, and seen the film, will be able to gain considerable insight into the complications of adapting a novel to a movie. Assignments can be geared toward determining whether or not the changes in the film advance the themes of the novel.

A description of some of the interesting differences between "Charly" and Flowers for Algernon are set out below:

(1) In Flowers for Algernon, Charly tells his own story through journal entries written as part of the scientific experiment. Charly uses the first person, describing what happens to him and what he thinks about those events. This device allows the author to fully describe Charly's emotional life. Ancillary issues such as treatment of mentally disabled people and the ethics of scientific investigation are important only in their impact on Charly. The only time that the journal entries are not in the first person is when Charly recalls an experience from his childhood. In those entries, Charly uses the third person, establishing distance from the past.

In the film, the story is told by an omniscient author. While the screenwriters and the actors do a good job of describing Charly's emotions, the change in point of view inevitably results in a dilution of the book's focus on Charly's thoughts and feelings.

(2) Charly returns for a visit to his father, mother, and sister in the novel; these difficult experiences are not addressed in the movie.

(3) In the novel, Keyes describes a superficial sexual relationship between a neighbor in the building where the newly intelligent Charly has rented an apartment. The novel also details a love affair between Miss Kinnian and Charly. These interactions and Charly's sexual difficulties, associated with his mother's uptight attitudes and her fear of Charly's emerging sexuality, challenge the readers to face the prospect of the rights of every individual to have a sex life.

(4) Respect for Charly as a human is a powerful focus of interest in the novel. Several times in his journal, Charly demands that his humanity be recognized. In an entry dated June 10, Charly fully grapples with his childhood, and in reference to a quack doctor, Guarino, who had manipulated his parents into paying for treatments that Guarino claimed could cure retardation, Charly writes that Guarino treated him as a human being. Charly resents being treated like a guinea pig and writes that he is bitter about the scientists' "constant references to having made me what I am, or that someday there will be others like me who will become real human beings." p. 101. The focus on Charly's humanity continues through the next several pages and on his June 13 entry, Charly writes: "I'm a human being, a person-with parents and memories and a history-and I was before you ever wheeled me into that operating room." p. 112. The film addresses this issue but only obliquely, and it is the audience watching the film that wants Charly to be seen as a human rather than Charly himself. This is evidence of the success of the film in conveying an idea that originates in the novel.

(5) Several ethical issues are addressed in the book but are absent altogether from the film. In Charly's journal entry dated April 24, he writes about the issue of privacy. Now that his intelligence has increased so that he can understand what conversations are all about, he begins to feel that he has no right to listen to people when they don't know that he comprehends their meaning. "They might not have cared when I was too feeble minded to know what was going on, but now that I could understand, they wouldn't want me to hear it." p. 49. Charly moves out of hearing range, allowing the speakers their privacy.

In the May 8 journal entry, an ethical focus emerges as Charly grapples with a decision he must make about whether to report on-going theft by Gimpy, his friend, at work. Charly feels loyalty to the owner, Mr. Donner, a family friend, and does not want to see him cheated by the petty theft that may have been going on for years. Still, Charly does not want to be a snitch and get his friend, a family man who needs the job, fired. In his entry dated May 11, he finds a compromise and resolves the issue.

The ethics of scientific investigation and the use of test subjects are addressed in both the novel and the film. The focus of interest in the novel, however, raises the question of the morality of changing a person to fit a social norm as opposed to valuing his or her life as it is. Charly begins to split into two people, his former self and his emerging self. He seems to feel that the old Charly, the "moron" wants his life back. In an entry dated, August 11, he writes about what he says to his second self after he begins to feel the old Charly following him: "It's your body and your brain and your life, even though you weren't able to make much use of it. I don't have the right to take it away from you. Nobody does. Who's to say that my light is better than your darkness?" p. 175. This ethical concern is an important element of the novel but is absent altogether from the film.

(6) Emotional growth for Charly, in both the novel and the film, cannot keep pace with his intellectual growth. This focus of interest is presented quite differently in the two mediums. The novel covers the conundrum in journal entries scattered throughout the work; the film telescopes the issue in a montage of scenes designed to show, quickly, Charly's movement through adolescence to young adulthood and finally to maturation. In the journal entry dated April 14, Charly is warned by the psychiatrist in charge of monitoring his mental health that he should learn about himself so that he would be able to understand himself. The doctor says, "The more intelligent you become the more problems you'll have, Charly. Your intellectual growth is going to outstrip your emotional growth." p. 33. This is shown in the film, rather than told outright, by Charly's behavior in relation to Alice Kinnian. His romantic advances toward her, which amount to assault and provoke her to call him a moron in self-defense, clearly illustrate how Charly cannot handle his feelings. Charly grows increasingly temperamental and arrogant. He loses his humility.

(7) Another focus of interest explored in the novel but presented only vaguely in the film is the nature of friendship and relationships with other people in general. In his journal entry of March 30, Charly says that he feels sorry for Algernon, the mouse, who is alone in his cage and is made to run mazes by himself. Charly worries because the mouse "has no friends." p. 24.

Charly refers to friendship in several journal entries, and the film makes it clear that he values his friends at work. The audience, however, sees the behavior of the men Charly considers friends as cruel; their friendship is a ruse. Charly notes in his journal dated May 20, "This intelligence has driven a wedge between me and all the people I knew and loved, driven me out of the bakery. Now I am more alone than ever before." p. 78.

(8) In his August 11 journal entry, Charly writes, "Intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered with human affection isn't worth a damn." p. 173. In his conversation with one of the scientists involved in his case study, as noted in the August 11 entry, Charly writes, "Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts, I said. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love." Ibid.

Charly wonders about how people learn to relate to one another. In his journal entry dated May 1, Charly asks: "How does a person go about learning how to act toward another person? How does a man learn how to behave toward a woman?" p. 58. The novel utilizes Fay, a woman Charly meets in his apartment building after he absconds with Algernon, to teach him the skills required to maintain a romantic relationship; the film uses visuals in the montage to hint at the same result.

(9) Compassion for mentally challenged people is another focus of interest that appears in both the film and the novel. Charly's compassion is shown in both. Each employs the scene, though changed considerably in the film, that shows a clumsy bus boy, apparently developmentally disabled, who is ridiculed when he spills a tray of glasses. In his journal entry dated June 24, Charly writes that he grew enraged and yelled at all of the people who were laughing at the boy: "Shut up! Leave him alone! He can't understand. He can't help what he is . . . but for God's sake, have some respect! He's a human being!" p. 138.

(10) Both film and novel suggest that with increased intelligence, Charly loses his humility and his compassion and tolerance for others. Though presented differently, both works show Charly regaining these values. In his journal entry dated August 11, Charly writes: "I was seeing myself as I had become…I was an arrogant, self-centered bastard. Unlike Charly, I was incapable of making friends or thinking about other people and their problems." p. 176. This journal entry details how Charly drank too much at a party and told the assembled scientists just what he thought of them. This equates, roughly, with the scene in the film in which Charly faces an audience at an important gathering of scientists and answers their questions with a negative and foreboding vision of what is to become of society. Both the party scene, as told in the journal, and the convention scene, shown on film, indicate that increased intelligence had become a burden for Charly. These scenes occur just as it becomes apparent that the growth in brainpower evident in the test mouse, Algernon, is impermanent. It will be reversed. Charly will once again be the Charly we met early in the film and in the novel. He will once again become a "moron" but he will also be happier.


In keeping with the student-centered classroom, students who have read the novel and seen the film can be asked to develop topics for essays in which they will compare aspects the two works. If students have trouble developing their own topics, teachers can suggest the essay prompts set out below. Teacher and students working together can develop a rubric for the essays. Peer review is important. Drafts and final papers should be read and assessed for compliance with the rubric by at least two other students. Then, at the end of the process, students should nominate papers to be read to the entire classroom. At this point, more criticism, positive and negative, can be elicited from the class and the teacher can join by offering suggestions for changes that would improve both the essays being read and the work done by individuals who were not selected to read aloud. Final papers can be submitted after more opportunity to rewrite has been given. The teacher reads only the final product.


  • Illustrate how point of view in both the film and in the novel serve to best reveal the ideas presented.

  • Select a focus of interests that occurs in both the film and the novel. Illustrate how the focus is presented; compare and contrast its effectiveness in each work.

  • Show character development as it occurs in Charly's change from mentally disabled to genius as presented in both works.

  • Determine whether the issues of family, shown to be important in the novel, should have been included in the film. Address Charly's struggle with his emerging memories as well as his need to see his family members before his intelligence degenerates.

  • Compare and contrast the focus on values shown in the book and presented in the novel. Write in a triadic pattern; select three important values, illustrate and support their presence in each work. Potential values may include:

    • Tolerance;
    • Humility;
    • Friendship;
    • Compassion;
    • Caring;
    • The concept of the preeminence of intellect over emotion; and
    • Scientific experimentation over respect for the individual.
TEACHER AS FACILITATOR: The teacher's role in a student-centered lesson is to: (1) solicit student input and guide the class in setting goals and standards for the assignment; (2) provide the opportunity for students to select relevant topics in the subject area, guide students in the selection of topics, and provide guidance if students have difficulty in selecting topics; (3) organize student activities which will monitor the research process; (4) provide guidance, if necessary, in the research process; (5) organize the method by which students will evaluate their own performance or the performance of their peers; and (6) assign a final grade. Teachers can convert any of the steps above to a teacher-centered approach by eliminating the student input.

For middle school classes, teachers might try developing a list of questions for students to use to evaluate their preparation and their presentations. For the students, these questions would take the place of the rubric. The responses to the questions can be handed in on the day of the presentation. Here are a few suggested questions.

  1. What are three sources from books or scholarly articles that I have used in developing information for my presentation?
  2. Below is the outline of the points I will cover in my presentation.
  3. Have I practiced giving my presentation in a loud clear voice at least twice, checking the time it took me for each practice session?

ADDITIONAL IN-DEPTH TOPIC FOR RESEARCH FOR TOPIC #1: What is the history of legislation dealing with mentally disabled persons? What is its function? How does it impact the lives of mentally disabled people?

ADDITIONAL IN-DEPTH TOPIC FOR RESEARCH FOR TOPIC #3: What are the arguments put forth in support of the assertion that intelligence tests are culturally biased? What are the refutations to those arguments? Be sure to address court decisions relating to this issue.

ADDITIONAL IN-DEPTH TOPIC FOR RESEARCH FOR TOPIC #4: Detail examples from each category of causes of mental disabilities and explain what steps have been taken, through scientific, social or environmental inquiry, to help eliminate the causes.

ADDITIONAL IN-DEPTH TOPIC FOR RESEARCH FOR TOPIC #5: Research social service agencies and educational facilities in your area to show how mentally disabled people receive help in each of these categories.

ADDITIONAL IN-DEPTH TOPIC FOR RESEARCH FOR TOPIC #7: Research social service agencies and educational facilities in your area to show how persons suffering from the different levels of mental disability are provided with assistance.

Alternative Teacher-Centered Format of Instruction: Student-centered learning,while it can be extremely effective, takes time. For the more traditional teacher-centered method of instruction, teachers can present information through lecture, direct questions, and expository essays. A lecture presenting the facts of mental retardation can easily be developed from the information provided to help teachers as facilitators.

In lesson plans that use the "Into/Through/Beyond" framework, the "THROUGH" section helps students comprehend, explore and master the skills or knowledge covered by the lesson. In schools which teach a standards based curriculum, the "THROUGH" relates directly to the applicable standards.


Additional Discussion Questions:

Continued from the Learning Guide...

See Discussion Questions For Use With Any Film That Is A Work of Fiction and specific questions in the Student-Centered Lesson Planning Materials provided with this Learning Guide.

Additional Assignments

Continued from the Learning Guide...

See Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction and Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories and Plays. See also the assignments in the following sections of the studen-centered lesson planning materials: Through/Debates, Through/Persuasive Essays, Through/Expository Essays, Through/Presentations and Beyond/Activities.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


1. See questions 1 - 9 in the INTO Section of the student-centered lesson planning materials and discussion questions # 2, 3 6 and 8 in the THROUGH Section of those materials.

2.   What was one of Charly's best coping strategies before the operation? Suggested Response: It was his good humor and his capacity to see things in their best light, even if he didn't understand them. This allowed him to ignore the cruel jokes that his "friends" at the bakery perpetrated on him.

3.   Before the operation, would you have classified Charly as mildly mentally disabled or severely mentally disabled? Explain your reasoning. Suggested Response: Charly was probably mildly mentally disabled with some learning disabilities such as dyslexia. He is able to read simple texts, but his spelling is very poor. He can live independently.


4.  Was Charly Gordon courageous? Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer but the stronger answer is "yes". Charly lived with good humor in a world in which there was a lot that he didn't understand. He was willing to undergo a dangerous operation on his brain to get something he wanted, intelligence.

Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

See question #9 above.


(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

See questions #2, #6 and #10 above.

Bridges to Reading:

Flowers for Algernon and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

Links to the Internet:

Common Core State Standards that can be Served by this Learning Guide
(Anchor Standards only)

Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.") CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards:   1969 Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Cliff Robertson); 1969 Golden Globe Awards: Best Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant); 1969 Golden Globe Nominations: Best Picture and Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama (Cliff Robertson)

Featured Actors:   Cliff Robertson as Charly Gordon; Claire Bloom as Alice Kinnian; Lilia Skala as Dr. Anna Straus; Leon Janney as Dr. Richard Nemur; Ruth White as Mrs. Apple; Dick Van Patten as Bert; Edward McNally as Gimpy.

Director:   Ralph Nelson.


  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; and

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