I think I should like to read the original screenplay so that I could compare the beginning ideas with the final draft, as we might call the film version. What appears to be a simple plot of a man-boy genius, Will not being of age emotionally while possessing a strong body borne of hard work, is far more complex and revealing. This film is really about patterns. I’ve always been an advocate of seeing the world as well as the brain as a medium of pattern recognition and pattern processing. The human brain uses in its occipital cortex a great number of neurons that identify a pattern as signals or impulses are sent by the retinas. The various parts of the brain that are used in speech recognition and production respond in a similar manner with the effect that phonemes are recognized and put together into the patterns of words that each individual comes to learn over a lifetime period. Indeed, we are usually learning new words simply because language is a living “thing” in the human brain. Language is malleable and changes as new words and usage come in and out of fashion. One could even call it a toy that no other animal can treat in that same way. But another day for that explanation.
Why do I place such importance on patterns and why do I believe they deliver the conceptual understanding this film demands when viewing? Character traits are patterns. We judge ourselves and others by these patterns. And our experiences give us the means for seeing patterns that can be good and bad behaviors. Essentially we determine what patterns of behavior means mean to us by experience. This is something that Will’s therapist touches upon in the film. But our pattern processing is never an exact science. Sometimes the patterns are too general, that is, they do not discriminate finely enough to make important distinctions. Hence we tend to lump various behaviours together regardless of the validity of doing so. We make errors and create false assumptions. We are fooled by illusions made by others as well as ourselves.
But behaviours do not exist in a vacuum, they are the result of the interplay with our environment and that environment usually includes a number of significant other individuals. But Will calls our attention to another aspect of our environment, that wold of information bestowed by books. Will is a voracious reader but an undisciplined one. The normal experience of reading for the person of average intelligence is the public schooling and sometimes parents guide the reading of their children. For those of us who are more gifted in the manner of IQ, we tend to disregard much of what is presented by authority figures (genius is never a docile being that accepts the molding by authority) and seeks the excitement of finding things out for ourselves. We may accept a bit of guidance but unless we see the need we pick and chose for ourselves. This is a pattern that, while general, is fairly valid. The young genius picks up bits of knowledge and then attempts to make sense out of the patterns he finds when putting that knowledge together. Apparently Will has picked up enough knowledge that he can recognize patterns in mathematics that are very vague to most individuals but stand out enough for him to discriminate between them. I love the Mozart analogy he uses to describe his own abilities.
But Will suffers from the inability to use that same power of discrimination to see the disparate patterns of other individuals. It all looks alike to him. Fear and pain are a very strong reinforcement of avoidance and the tendency not to look any further than necessary. The question for the therapist is how does he explain the world in general and in specific circumstances so that Will can see the differences in those patterns he has lumped together. Indeed, that is the process our parents and school teachers attempt. We teach mathematics and English and history to ourselves but we learn about the world of behavioral patterns from family, friends, and social interactions. One can see that Will has had limited contact with what many of us have experienced. Thus Will is still a child trying to grow up but not aware of what process, if any, to use. The therapist sees the problem and offers a solution, one that cannot be forced, only tested and accepted by Will when he finds it true, when he finds that it works for him.
But there are other currents running though this film. The professor of mathematics is a most brilliant fellow, one of the very few of those who have won the Fields Medal. He recognizes that Will has a very great gift and wants to sponsor him into the world of exceptionally high levels of mathematical theory. To use a freudian term, the good professor wants to add to his own glory by becoming know as the sponsor and associate of a more than brilliant theorist. It is that subconscious need in his psyche when he come into contact with a greater mind than his. He has spent all his life gaining admittance to Mount Olympus, gaining stature by climbing higher on that sacred mountain. And succombing to the jealosy he feels towards Will for being almost an instant god soaring far above himself. History is replete with numerous examples of such jealousy in the sciences, not so much in the social sciences, which aren’t science at all, only interpretations of social behavioral patterns. We can try and quantify these patterns as the DSM version five tries to do. Observe the behaviors, check off the boxes and viola we have a statistical diagnosis. Except it really isn’t statistical. Behavior is not mathematical formula where one plugs in the numbers and the answer appears on a display. Individual variation is exceptionally difficult to quantify or we’d all be robots.
By the final scene our man-boy grows up enough to start his own sense of destiny. No longer sheltered by a world of dead authors whose knowledge feed his mind, he can venture out, find out about love and the pain love can bring. This is the transition we want our children to make. To become independent and able to face life on their terms sure in the knowledge that they can find something of worth, something of value in living life.