The portrayal of multiple sclerosis in historical and contemporary motion pictures (1941-2006)

Institute for the History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, University of Cologne, Germany
ajg02 AT

Background: Although the frequency with which multiple sclerosis (MS) has appeared in the mass media has risen dramatically in recent years, fictional representations of the illness on screen have been neglected. For this reason, this presentation takes comprehensive inventory of and analyzes all theatre and television films and series which include MS.

Methods: About a third of the relevant productions could be identified via international cinema databanks. The rest were found by inquiring at large film archives, television stations, MS societies, directors and film cineastes. The author viewed and systematically analysed every film.

Results: MS appears as a theme in 32 films between 1941 and 2006, all of which come from nations with high prevalence rates. Film dramas and TV series were the most highly represented genre. Screenplay writers often fell back upon expert medical knowledge in order to make their film treatment as real as possible. From a neurological perspective, many of these films therefore offer a largely accurate presentation of MS symptoms. Short films, hospital TV series and biographies evidence the greatest degree of authenticity, while soap operas offer the least. The visual character of the medium, the limits of acting and the influence of dramaturgy produced a preference for certain symptoms: ataxia, paralysis, visual symptoms and fatigue were present as frequently on screen as in epidemiological studies whereas diplopia, sensory symptoms, bladder incontinence as well as sexual disorders were underrepresented. the filmmakers made dealing with the effects of MS on patients’ self-image, the psychological process of adaptation, and relations with people close to them priorities. Seen historically, there was a transition from “disaster stories” in early films to “coping stories” in later ones. This tendency correlates with therapeutic improvements and changed social attitudes toward the handicapped.

Conclusion: Films about MS stand out sharply from the strongly stereotyped on-screen presentation of other neurological illnesses principally by virtue of their often realistic stagings. To this extent they exemplify an innovative type of medical film. Because representations of MS in the popular media have an immediate effect upon the millions who watch them including the thousands of people whose lives are touched by this disease, they deserve more attention from professional neurology.

Session IV.  Neurocinematography
Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 4:00 - 4:30 pm

12th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences   (ISHN)
Los Angeles, California, USA, 19-23 June 2007