We Like to Watch

In an era when the vast majority of the population watches more television than ever before, and in a political climate where a certified dimwit can be elected President of the United States just because he knows the right people, Jerzy Kosiński’s 1971 novel Being There still stands up as one of the wittiest and most prescient commentaries on the idiocy inherent in the spheres of politics and the media.

A straightforward allegory, the story centers on a man named Chance, a simpleton who’s lived his entire life in a wealthy old man’s house, working as his gardener. Although Kosiński never gives his hero a clear diagnosis, it’s clear that he’s stunted in some way, probably by autism. When he’s not in the garden, Chance spends his time in his room watching television. He’s so obsessed with TV that, after the old man dies and Chance is thrust into the world on his own, he is only able to survive on his own thanks to the lessons he’s learned from those endless hours glued to the glass teat.

When Chance accidentally collides with the upper crust of society and is taken in by a rich Capital Hill financier named Ben Rand, everyone around him mistakes his plain way of expressing himself (mostly through gardening references) for brilliance. Consequently, he is propelled directly into the highest levels of the political landscape and has everyone – from fat cat to the lowest lobbyist – eating out of his hand. And that includes the President of the United States.

In one particularly funny scene, Rand invites Chance (who is now mistakenly called ‘Chauncey Gardiner’) to sit in on a meeting with the President. When the President asks Chance his opinion on the country’s current economic situation, Chance replies, “In a garden, growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.” After a beat, the President’s response is to thank Chance for “one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements” he’s heard in a long time. Situations like this happen a lot in Being There. Chance’s vague and simple words take on profound meaning to people and they love him for it.

Peter Sellers as Chance Gardner

While Being There remains a modern literary classic, it is probably best known to most as the basis for a 1979 film directed by Hal Ashby, starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLain. As an adaptation, the film closely matches the book in mood and tone. This is most likely the direct result of having Kosiński write the screenplay. Both the Writer’s Guild of America and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts presented him with an award for Best Screenplay in 1980 and 1981, respectively, and Kosiński was even nominated for a Golden Globe.

In addition to the exceptional writing, the acting is equally excellent. Sellers, always a cinematic chameleon, fills the role of Chance with ease. While I imagined Chance to be younger and more handsome (Kosiński often alludes to his youth and good looks in the novel), Sellers is able to pull off the alluring mystery that Chance is suppose to possess. He lends the character a physicality that we don’t get to see in the book. His blank expression and soft-spoken delivery of lines like, “I understand” and “I like to watch” (a phrase that makes for a hilarious misunderstanding in both the book and film) infuse the character of Chance with more tangible reality than we find in the book.

On the flip side of the coin, we do miss the ability to ‘hear’ what’s going on inside Chance’s head. It’s one of the novel’s most compelling conceits. While it would be difficult to pull off this kind of trick on film, unless said thoughts were turned into some manner of voice-over narration, the omission of Chance’s inner monologue is a real shame. Because of it, we loose out on some rather interesting thoughts. For example, when he’s asked to be on TV for the very first time, Chance contemplates if there will be two of him – one who watches the broadcast and one who appears on it.

Details like these lend the story depth and highlight the character’s profound innocence, and without them, the movie runs the risk of oversimplifying Chance’s dilemma. But thanks to Sellers stirring portrayal, our hero remains fully fleshed out. In fact, Sellers’ performance as Chance earned him his second and final Oscar nomination. MacLaine is equally superb as Eve, Ben Rand’s much younger wife. When she falls in love with Chance, he is oblivious to her advances. The more he ignores her, the more enamored she becomes. You can see it in MacLaine’s eyes as she gazes adoringly at Sellers, batting her long lashes and doting on him while he smiles absently at her.

Shirley MacLain as Eve, during a moment of misunderstanding

One particularly comic instance of their bizarre partnership occurs near the end of the film. As MacLaine works herself into a masturbatory froth at the foot of the bed in Chance’s room, he remains unaware of what she’s doing. Instead, he imitates a woman on television doing a handstand. It’s an odd, but memorable scene, and stresses the fact that Chance is a child in an adult’s body, completely ignorant of anything as mature or complicated as sex.

One of the thing film can really accentuate is the power inherent in television. Ashby uses the visual influence of the small screen throughout, providing clips of the multiple commercials and omnipresent programs that our spongy savant eagerly absorbs. As Chance ‘watches’, he physically mimics the things he sees on the screen, thus re-emphasizing the deep-seated effect so-called ‘idiot box’ has on our culture – and on us.

Kosiński tweaked his story for film, writing additional scenes and some telling tidbits into the screenplay. Near the start of the film, after Chance is forced to leave the house he’s been sequestered in since childhood, he soon finds himself in a shady part of downtown Washington, D.C. While wandering about, dressed in a natty suit and bowler hat, he has a run-in with a group of gangsters. His response? He tries to ‘turn them off’ with a remote control. The scene is so funny and fitting, I can just imagine Kosiński kicking himself for not thinking of it when he was polishing his book.

He also reconfigured the ending. In the book, the author has Chance ending up in a garden once again, content to be back with his plants – and at peace. In the film, however, we see Chance wander out onto a pond and calmly walk across its surface. This final image emphasizes the parabolic quality that Being There possesses. It’s as if Kosiński is reminding us not to believe everything we see and hear, especially the latter. Unfortunately, it’s a message we may not be able to take fully to heart. After all, we do like to watch.