The Mighty Reviews Netflix's Film Adaptation of 'Brain on Fire'
Netflix’s film adaptation of the bestselling memoir “Brain on Fire” tells the story of Susannah Cahalan, a young journalist at the New York Post, who falls ill with a disease almost no one can figure out.
The film starts with Cahalan, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, waking up restrained to a hospital bed with an EEG cap on her head. The EEG and its colorful wires are attached to her scalp, allowing doctors to analyze the electrical activity of her brain. Cahalan, clearly disoriented, screams for help.
The opening scene gives viewers a glimpse of what’s to come later in the film. From there, the movie takes a leap backward, showing Cahalan’s life before her illness. Cahalan works in the newsroom of the New York Post. We see people clack away on keyboards. Cahalan gives her colleague and friend, Margo, a recent draft of a story for edits. There’s the editor, Richard, who likes to yell and use obscenities. It’s pretty on par for a newsroom.
Later, Cahalan meets up with her musician boyfriend, Stephen, so they can see Cahalan’s mom, dad and soon-to-be stepmother for Cahalan’s birthday. Cahalan basically checks all the boxes for everything going right as a young twenty-something in New York.
The first sign that something is wrong appears when Cahalan seems to “space out” while those around her carry on. In terms of production, everything moves slower and the sound is muffled. As the movie progresses, Cahalan exhibits more symptoms, including hallucinations, delusions, numbness on one side of her body and eventually seizures.
Cahalan shows up for work, but she’s clearly struggling. She’s late on assignments and completely botches an interview. Margo essentially tells her to “get it together.” Each time we see Cahalan at her desk, she just sits there. She’s the only one not working. The scenes serve as a reminder to those of us managing an illness that life goes on, even when you’re sick.
Cahalan finally sees a doctor, who orders an MRI. He calls her over the phone to tell her the results are normal and that’s all that matters. Cahalan sits on the floor in her bathroom. She isn’t happy about the “good news.” It may seem backward to feel defeated by negative test results, but for patients, no news doesn’t always mean good news. It means we don’t have an explanation for our symptoms. We’re not any closer to stopping what is hurting us.
Cahalan moves home to New Jersey with her mother as her symptoms get worse. Shortly after her move, she has a second seizure. Her first seizure occurs while she is with her boyfriend, which prompts her mom forcing her to come home. When she goes to the doctor with her parents, the doctor asks how much she’s been drinking. Though her answer doesn’t line up with alcohol withdrawal symptoms, the doctor ignores her answer and decides she’s experiencing alcohol withdrawal.
When her mother questions this diagnosis, the doctor immediately shuts her down by reminding her of his 20 years of experience. He tells her he’s seen it all. This particular scene made me bite my tongue. A degree and years of experience, does not make a doctor infallible. Ignoring what Cahalan, an expert when it comes to knowing her body, says only makes matters worse. The only thing this doctor accomplishes is stroking his own ego while belittling his patient and the concerns of her mother.
Thankfully, Cahalan’s parents advocate for her. At first, they go with what the doctor says, but when Cahalan gets worse, they begin to push back. When her doctor diagnoses her with alcohol withdrawal for the second time, her parents don’t listen and force him to find a bed for her in the hospital. After a team of doctors fails to diagnose her, Cahalan’s parents are told to move her to a psychiatric hospital. They refuse, pointing out that not all her symptoms can be explained by mental illness. Cahalan isn’t able to advocate for herself while in the hospital because she is barely responsive. Her parents are her voice, and they use it to force her doctors to work harder.
Eventually, we meet Dr. Najjar, who does what a whole team of doctors couldn’t. He diagnoses Cahalan. Najjar asks Cahalan to draw a clock. She does, but puts all the numbers on the right side, indicating inflammation on the right side of her brain. After a brain biopsy, he confirms Cahalan has anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. The illness is an autoimmune disease, but it is rare and unlike many autoimmune diseases, it’s acute.
When Najjar tells Cahalan and her family the diagnosis, there are tears in his eyes — probably a mixture of relief and excitement. Najjar is the doctor we all hope we have.
The film doesn’t delve into Cahalan’s treatment, but those who read the book know she was given medication to quell the inflammation. She remained on those medications for about a year. The film doesn’t show how the experience impacted Cahalan, but I know from reading the book that she does worry about a relapse. While the condition is acute, there is a small chance of relapse.
I’ll always recommend a book over a movie, but for those who don’t want to read, the movie is a good substitute. While there were parts of the movie that didn’t happen in the book, they were small changes that didn’t affect the main storyline. Chloe Grace Moretz was also brilliant in the role. I’ve always thought she was a good actress, but her portrayal in this film was next level.
There were parts of this movie that angered or frustrated me, but that had nothing to do with the movie itself. What got me was the realistic way navigating health care as a patient was portrayed. Seeing parents advocate so fiercely for their daughter was also bittersweet. Not everyone is lucky enough to have such a good support system, especially when symptoms imply a mental health issue. But I’m so happy she had that support. It more than likely made her diagnosis possible.