Thursday, March 10, 2011

Who’s Got the Button?

So I’m a giant Twilight Zone geek. In fact, I like anthology series in general, just because their freedom from the season-long arc allows them to expose their protagonists to all manner of weirdness that would be verboten in a typical, unified series. Recently, I re-watched my favorite Twilight Zone episode. It’s not one from the original series but from the mid-eighties reboot: “Button, Button.” And in looking into the history of the episode, I was surprised to find out that writer Richard Matheson didn’t intend it the way the show eventually depicted.

The episode stars Mare Winningham (St. Elmo’s Fire) and Brad Davis (Midnight Express) as a couple badly in need of money. One day, a mysterious be-buttoned box arrives on their doorstep, and soon after an equally mysterious man shows up and explains that pressing the button will make the couple earn $200,000 with the single consequence being that someone, somewhere, whom “you don’t know” will die. The spineless husband and chain-smoking shrew of a wife agonize over the opportunity; she’s eager to elevate their standard of living, but he’s worried that the victim could be, for example, someone’s innocent child. Eventually, she hits the button. The next morning, the mysterious man arrives with the promised $200,000. He takes the box, which he says will be “reprogrammed” for a person “whom you don’t know.” The episode ends with the wife realizing her mistake and resigning herself to the grim fate that some stranger as greedy as she is will eventually push the button and cause her to die.

The episode, in case you’re interested:


If that plot sounds familiar despite your lack of Twilight Zone knowledge, that’s probably because it was used as the basis for the 2009 Cameron Diaz film The Box. Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly used this simple plot to spin off into all matter of metaphysical nonsense and conspiracy theory. The result was strange and unsatisfying but, for me, sort of fascinating, just to see what depths Kelly would drag the plot. The Box wasn’t without its surprise rewards — Arcade Fire, what are you doing there? Deborah Rush, what are you doing there? — but I didn’t feel it improved much on the original story, which is so wickedly sinister in its simplicity.

But I was surprised to learn that the ending that I thought so much of wasn’t actually Matheson’s. In his original short story, the wife presses the button and, the next morning, her husband dies in a train accident. When the mysterious man comes to collect the box, he explains why his prophecy was accurate: “ Did you really think that you knew your husband?” According to Wikipedia, Matheson so disapproved of the new ending that he asked to be credited with a pseudonym for the broadcast of the episode.

Now I’m at a loss. I love the original plot, with the awful wife forced to lived the rest of her days knowing that she may die at any moment. However, Matheson’s ending underscores the radically different ethics of the husband and wife — and perhaps punishes her even more for her misdeeds by making her responsible for the death of a person she actually loves. On yet another (third?) hand, the moralistic ending of a wife “not really knowing” her husband seems a heavy-handed, even by TV standards.

So I put the matter you all, thoughtful readers. What’s worse: accidentally ensuring your own death as a result of your greed, or causing the death of someone you ostensibly love, more or less because you didn’t know them as well as you thought you did?

By the way: Whatever you decide, the Wikipedia entry for “unintended consequences” makes for a pretty great read.

2 comments:

  1. The Twilight Zone ending sounds stronger to me. I agree that the "not really knowing" ending is too heavy-handed. It's also a little too pat. The TZ version is much more horrifying and preys on the wife's psyche in a deliciously torturous way. She'll be tormented til the day she dies, be it an unexpected box death or by natural causes. The woman in the Matheson ending will probably get over it eventually, perhaps even using the box money for a Caribbean vacation to pick up a boy toy or two. Eff that noise.

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  2. Boy, it really sucks for the original-version husband, right?

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