Memories: cherished and forgotten, fleeting and forever, and always, deceptive. Our interior and exterior worlds bombard us with all sorts of information, and our brains sort it for us, differentiating their relative importance and durability. Stimuli induce electrical currents to run through bundles of nerve cells; neurons strengthen their connections, and even remodel themselves, stabilizing what becomes for us, memories. Just as infinitesimal bits of information are mapped onto our cerebral pathways, we map the world around us with our memories. We remember assignment due dates; we remember a fun day spent with friends; we remember just how to balance our body when riding a bike. But we also remember ourselves: we remember, and then understand, who we have come to be––our character, our relationships, our fears and our great joys. Any new memories are filtered through this remembered understanding of the self: to put simply, we rely entirely on our memory. So what happens when one loses the ability to make new ones?
Memento Mori (Jonathan Nolan, 2001) and Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) offer two sides of the same coin. Both are narratives about a man whose life is delimited by anterograde amnesia––he can no longer make new memories, and is only able to remember things for a matter of minutes. Christopher Nolan credits his brother Jonathan’s short story as the basis for his film Memento, though the two are drastically different. To regard Memento as an adaptation is a bit of a stretch; regardless, the comparison of Memento Mori to its film version remains valuable––revealing the difference between a language crafted with words alone, and another with images. When articulating the difference between source material and adaptation, it is crucial to understand the particular semiotics of written versus filmic language. Each system provides something the other cannot, and each is consumed in wholly disparate manners. Memento Mori and Memento are studies in their respective languages, highlighting sets of technique which enable two equally suspenseful stories.
Jonathan Nolan’s story is a quick read, taking only about a fourth of the viewing time of his brother’s two-hour movie. Memento Mori is however, perhaps slightly less ambitious is narrative, amounting to much less of a plot-heavy tale. Slightly subdued, the written story centers around only two presences: the central character, Earl, and an omniscient second-person narrator, who directs their words towards Earl. The story switches between their perspectives with no warning, continually shifting between the two to replicate Earl’s amnesia. Just as we digest new information from his point of view, we are cut off by the almost oppressive language of this unknown narrator. His words hit sharply, for he knows far more than we do, and certainly more than Earl himself:
“But they already put you in a little room, didn’t they? Only they don’t really lock it or even guard it too carefully because you’re a cripple. A corpse. A vegetable who probably wouldn’t remember to eat or take a shit if someone wasn’t there to remind you. And as for the passage of time, well, that doesn’t really apply to you anymore, does it? Just the same ten minutes, over and over again. So how can you forgive if you can’t remember to forget? You probably were the type to let it go, weren’t you? Before. But you’re not the man you used to be. Not even half. You’re a fraction; you’re the ten-minute man.”
The narrator’s tone know-it-all tone condescends, and puts readers on edge. The whats, whys and whos go on unanswered; and even so his words have actual consequences for Earl. They provide the motivation for revenge, based on the last memory that Earl does have: the image of his wife’s face in need of help. Ink tattooed into his arm tells him: “I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE.” Of course, we understand later that this unknown narrator is Earl himself: Earl writes to Future Earl, who upon reading the letters, has no recollection of him. They are two different people––Earl is, after all, the ten-minute man.
The arc of Earl’s story, though full of gaps, is far less complicated than that of Leonard, his filmic counterpart. Memento Mori only really gives us a (vague) sense of two settings: a mental hospital of some sort, where Earl is locked up, and a car––a taxi or a cop car, we never know––in which he leaves the scene of a murder, presumably that of the man he took revenge on. Perhaps attributable to the story’s length, Memento Mori feels somewhat cramped. Earl’s point of view is blurred, and the pictures readers make in their heads can never quite come to full view. Just like Earl, we never have any sense of concreteness:
“He begins to pat down his pockets; leisurely at first, like a man looking for his keys, then a little more desperately. Maybe his progress is impeded by a set of handcuffs… He hammers at the plastic divider between him and the driver, begging the man for a pen. Perhaps the cabbie doesn’t speak much English. Perhaps the cop isn’t in the habit of talking to suspects.”
In Memento, the viewer’s relationship to knowledge is structured differently. Though Leonard (Guy Pearce) lapses in forgetfulness, the viewer’s memory remains intact. There are gaps in memory for Leonard, but they are much more sketched in for the audience. Christopher Nolan replaces second-person narration with first-person narration; the image of Leonard and his voice give the narration an immediacy in recognition that is absent from Memento Mori. The dual narrative structure of the written work is instead replicated by two color systems: a series of black-and-white shots, which are shown chronologically, and a series of color shots, which are shown in the reverse. The relationship between the black-and-white––which in familiar Hollywood language, is typically used to connote memory or past––and color simulates an experience of utter disorientation for the viewer. As we piece together information, our trust in our knowledge only wanes.
With an almost two-hour run time, the narrative is stretched to extremes. The divide between fabula, the actual events of a story, and syuzhet, the order in which the events are told, is immense, as illustrated by this chart. There are a variety of characters (and places) who are given much more depth than would have even been possible in short-story format. And while the addition of characters in adaptations often fails, Nolan works them in seamlessly to the psychologically thrilling ethos. Each character adds complication to the revenge plot, mystifying our perception of who we can trust. Nolan capitalizes on the language of continuity popularized by Hollywood, to which audiences are already trained in. From the get-go, we trust that Leonard will avenge his wife’s death, that he himself is the good guy wronged. Nolan fortifies this trust, and then completely betrays it.
In the same way we discover that the mysterious narrator of Memento Mori is Earl, we discover that our understanding of Leonard (and his own understanding of himself) is based on deception. Leonard is pathological. He’s his own puppet master, creating new realities and changed pasts for his future self:
“I’m not a killer. I’m just someone who wanted to make things right. Can I just let myself forget what you’ve told me? Can I just let myself forget what you’ve made me do? You think I just want another puzzle to solve, another John G. to look for? You’re John G. So you can be my John G. Do I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy, yes, I will.”
For Leonard and for Earl, memories equate to the self. Summarized succinctly in the self-referential “ten-minute man,” neither Leonard nor Earl exist in the same way outside of their memory lapses. Each ten minutes is a new version of the self, a Leonard and Earl with different pasts, and different realities.
Brothers Jonathan and Christopher craft two stories, far apart in plot––each well adapted to its format. Each uses perspective, tone and stylistic flair to engage their audience, and to manipulate them into dizzying narratives that question memory, existence, and subjectivity: Do we all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are?
*Memento is available to stream for free (with ads) on Tubi. Memento Mori is available to read here (though this version’s ending is wrong––this version here is correct, though far less legible). An audio recording of the story read by Jonathan Nolan can be found here.
Anelli, Melissa. “GU Alum Becomes the ‘Memento’-Man.” The Hoya, 16 March 2001, https://web.archive.org/web/20070926225002/http://www.thehoya.com/guide/031601/guide1.htm. Accessed 14 November 2020.
Gresko, Michael. “Human memory: How we make, remember, and forget memories.” The National Geographic, 4 March 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/human-memory/#close. Accessed 14 November 2020.