When The Normal Heart debuted in 1985, it was supposed to break your fucking heart. Larry Kramer’s drama chronicled very real, recent and still-raw history: the gay community’s battle with AIDS, the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the widespread indifference from the powers-that-be in the straight institutions that control the world. He wanted to get you engaged, get you enraged, get you up out of your seat and out into the street to join in the fight in whatever capacity possible. To that end, he emotionally manipulated the hell out of you; I mean, there’s a deathbed wedding, fer chrissakes. But his scheming feels rooted in the real, and rooted in good cause, so you not only forgive him for what he’s done—you ask him for more.
Seeing the show on Broadway in 2011 was gut-wrenching in a way last weekend’s perfectly fine made-for-HBO movie was not. And it’s for two reasons having to do with the nature of film and the way the medium’s used. For starters, the movie, thanks to the immersive nature of cinema, feels like a period piece, stripping the play of its last and maybe hardest-hitting punch: the connection to today, the realization that though the disease now has a name that politicians aren’t so afraid to speak and an arsenal of medical treatments doesn’t mean that it’s cured, or that it’s stopped killing, especially when you stop confining your focus to Manhattan and look at the whole wide world. When you left the Broadway production, Larry Kramer himself (or at least one of his people) handed you an open letter that doubled as a fact sheet.
Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague… Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still minuscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated… Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were 41.
You get similar, though less politically trenchant, information at the end of the HBO movie, but as title cards, it’s easier to ignore, to gloss past, than a piece of paper shoved into your hand on W. 45th Street. And it’s easier to relegate the AIDS epidemic to the past, to safely distance it, when you see the people dealing with it so steeped in period, the clothes and the historical references (Koch, Reagan), the Fire Island idyllic bacchanal that opens the film, giving you a sense of the gay liberation at stake, the freedom to be lost by Kramer’s moralized hectoring. Film can make the past seem real, but in this instance it’s to the material’s detriment.
But what makes the HBO film so much less effective than the stage production I saw is that it’s just not as emotionally manipulative—and The Normal Heart‘s power is derived from its heartstrings-tugging. Two scenes illustrate the problem. One of the most moving scenes on stage was Patrick Breen’s “I’m not a murderer” breakdown, the character Mickey’s big scene in which he confronts the disease’s unknowability and his own potential complicity in its spread. On screen, Mickey is played by Joe Mantello, the excellent actor who played the lead onstage (replaced for HBO by Mark Ruffalo), and he gives the scene just as much stomach-collapsing heft, gasping for air by the end as though almost physically destroyed. Director Ryan Murphy doesn’t need to cut away, to visualize what the character’s describing, because Mantello holds the camera’s attention. How could any man or machine look anywhere else?
So I couldn’t tell if it was Murphy’s incompetence or the lacking talent of one his stars that ruined the other most powerful scene in the show: Bruce’s description of the bureaucratic morass of trying to get his dead boyfriend’s corpse out of a Phoenix hospital, and the orderly who helps by stuffing the body in a trash bag and tossing it into the alley out back. It’s harrowing and horrible, but less so when Murphy makes it literal, showing us the flashbacks as they’re narrated by Taylor Kitsch. It’s self-defeating: no image of a trash-lined alley can compete with the trash-lined alleys of the imagination. Was it that Kitsch, known for his work on Friday Night Lights and action movies, couldn’t handle the grand emotions? Or Murphy couldn’t pass up visualizing the hospital scene?
Either way, it hurts the movie, making it seem sappier and soapier than it should. It’s not as though Murphy’s adaptation, written for the screen by Kramer himself, isn’t often moving, often infuriating, just like The Normal Heart should be. It’s just that sometimes you wish it worked a little better—as well as you know it could.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart