Below is an analysis essay comparing the short story "Memento Mori" to its film adaptation Memento.
Christopher Nolan’s Memento is an exceptional film that transforms an otherwise simple concept into a perplexing and riveting story. Released in 2000, this post-modern film brings Jonathan Nolan’s short story, “Memento Mori”, to the big screen. The story revolves around a fascinating concept of a troubled man suffering from anterograde amnesia after sustaining a head injury and seeking vengeance for his wife’s unresolved murder. He sets out to accomplish this by deducing from his numerous tattoos, notes, and Polaroid photos because he could not retain any new memories due to his condition. As an adaptation of literary work, the film presents a different portrayal of similar underlying themes found in “Memento Mori”. Although the short story provides a thought-provoking perspective on the passage of time and memories, the plot and main character are vague in comparison to its adaptation. Therefore, while the “Memento Mori” conveys thematic subjects more effectively, Memento proves to be superior due to the characterization of Lenny and the distinctive narrative style.
Compared to the film adaptation, Jonathan Nolan’s short story clearly encompasses a more powerful message. While Memento is primarily concerned with building suspense in the search for the killer and leaving clues in a complicated plot structure, “Memento Mori” delves further into the psychological aspect of losing short-term memory in 10-minute increments. In one of Earl’s notes to himself, he inquires, “How many times do you have to hear the news before some other part of your body, other than that busted brain of yours, starts to remember? Never-ending grief, never-ending anger… Just the same ten minutes, over and over again. So how can you forgive if you can’t remember to forget?” (1-5). “Memento Mori” translates to “Remember your mortality” in Latin, representing the idea of living for the moment. Although the passage of time no longer matters to Earl, he must still use his wisely because time is fleeting. Since there is death, luxuries fulfilled in life are meaningless. Although “Memento Mori” outshines the film adaptation in this particular component, Memento does illustrate Lenny’s turmoil in several scenes when he is forced to relive the memory of his wife’s assault. For instance, the theme is briefly conveyed in a moving scene in which Lenny merely poses the question: "I want time to pass, but it won’t. How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?" Asides from these slower moments of contemplation, most of the film examines the characters’ motives and deceptions as well as obscure clues as a mystery or thriller rather than presenting a meaningful theme to the audience. Overall, “Memento Mori” explores a more profound theme related to time and grief.
Despite lacking in the thematic aspect, Memento excels in the characterization of Lenny. Both versions of the story involve the main character writing countless notes or lists and having his body covered in tattoos as a reminder, referring to the word “memento”. While the short story leaves the reader with a vague sense of the main character, Earl, Memento presents the audience with an engaging character full of complexities. In “Memento Mori”, Earl is more cynical and self-loathing due to his incapability to live a normal life due to his condition. In his notes, Earl always addresses himself as another person as if they are friends working together to catch the killer, “We’re so close now. That’s the way it feels. So many pieces put together, spelled out. I guess it’s just a matter of time until you find him” (10). Most of what the reader learns of Earl is from his own notes as he talks to himself. This technique may give the reader a peek inside the character’s psyche, but does not serve as a compelling method of progressing the story. On the other hand, Christopher Nolan reveals Lenny as an unreliable narrator in a captivating way. While he converses with Teddy in a diner, Lenny remarks, "Memory's unreliable ... Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police; eyewitness testimony is unreliable ... Memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It's an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts." After each episode, some of what the audience once knew as facts becomes lies, relating to the main character’s unreliability. However, an interesting turn of events that explains the entire premise of the film as well as the motivations of the characters occurs at the conclusion. As Lenny frames Teddy as the next John G. by copying down his license plate, he ponders, “Would I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy, yes I would.” Lenny manipulates himself by distorting his own memories and betraying his own principles entirely once he realizes that he has been tricked into killing the wrong men. This decision results in a more complex character, raising the question: what will happen to Lenny once the last John G. is dead? Therefore, Memento depicts a far more fascinating set of characters in an engaging manner.
In addition to the superb characterization, the film is overall more stylistic and unique than the short story in unveiling the main storyline. Both versions present a series of segmented scenes. In “Memento Mori”, some of these sequences are in traditional third person narrative and others in second person through Earl’s notes. As Earl reflects on his situation, re-living the same ten minutes repeatedly, he states, “You can’t have a normal life anymore. You must know that. How can you have a girlfriend if you can’t remember her name? Can’t have kids... Sure as hell can’t hold down a job” (4). While this is an unorthodox narrative for a short story, the fragments become slightly repetitive until the ending, when Earl sits in the back seat of a cop car after murdering a man in revenge. From a brilliant director, Memento’s most notable features are the style and narrative structure, which are excellent in comparison to “Memento Mori”. The film integrates post modern and noir elements, embodying high concept techniques that are quite entertaining to the audience. For instance, the story follows an intricate reverse episodic plot structure, resembling chapters arranged in reverse order and intercut with black and white sequences that are in chronological order transpiring even further in the past. At the conclusion, the black and white and the color sequences merge almost imperceptibly, demonstrating the director’s prowess. While this sequence of events typically bewilders the audience, it prompts them to piece together the mystery on their own, remaining attentive to minute details throughout the film and even engrossing themselves in repeat viewings to make sense of the concept. In addition, the black and white sequences include parallel storytelling, referring to Sammy Jankis who also suffers from anterograde amnesia. As Lenny talks on the phone with a man whose identity is yet to be revealed, he mentions, “every time I see him I catch a look of recognition. Just a slight look, but he says he can’t remember me at all…His condition was psychological not physical.” The purpose of this narration is eventually revealed through Christopher Nolan’s mastery in throwing a twist in the conclusion. Considering the fact that Sammy accidentally kills his wife while giving her excessive insulin shots due to his condition, the director hints at a possible cause of death for Lenny’s wife by flashing abrupt clips of Lenny preparing an insulin shot. This parallel story serves as an example of how Christopher Nolan reveals clues in his layered storytelling. Therefore, Memento’s style exceeds “Memento Mori” by allowing the audience to create their own individual interpretation of the events that transpire in an unconventional order.
Despite the short story’s exceptional representation of its central theme, the film adaptation is preferable in terms of intriguing characters and an influential narrative style. Though the “Memento Mori” is not perfect in every aspect, its greatest quality must be its profound themes, which is not the film adaptation’s strongest point. However, Memento depicts a far more interesting character. In addition, while most of the short story revolves around the main character reading his own notes in a hospital room, the film adaptation is told in a gripping fashion that captivates the audience for the duration of the film, challenging them to piece the puzzle together. Therefore, Memento is ultimately superior to the short story, a must-see for film aficionados.