I am not alone in this reaction, but I am in a minority. Most people haven't read the book, and most people won't even try. There are just too many preconceptions standing in their way. And, unfortunately, the movie has helped further those preconceptions. People assume it isn't the type of book they'd like to read. They think it is too "New Agey" for their tastes, or too sentimental. On the first point, they are probably correct; on the second, they couldn't be more wrong.
Why do I like the book so much? Put simply, it is the most vivid, complex, and surprisingly convincing depiction of afterlife I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. Nothing else I have seen on the subject, in literature or in film, comes close--certainly not the movie version of the book. Before I read the novel, I had no idea that a story about Heaven and Hell could have such a profound effect on me. I have always believed in afterlife as a matter of faith, but I would never before have thought it could be convincingly described in human terms.
The story involves a middle-aged man named Chris who dies and goes to Heaven, and who ultimately descends into Hell to rescue his wife. It's basically a modern-day variation on The Divine Comedy, as a man gets a tour of the afterlife. In the metaphysics of the film and the book, dying involves shedding your physical body and entering a mental environment shaped by thoughts. Your fate in such an environment is largely self-imposed. If you're a decent, pleasant person, your afterlife experience will be pleasant; if you're someone with moral problems, you'll naturally have a more difficult experience. As the novel puts it, "People are not punished for their deeds but by them" (p. 265).
That much of the movie intrigued me, the first time I saw it. The problem was the schmaltz. I mean real schmaltz, piled on in large mounds, in place of strong narrative. The beginning gives us scene after scene of two lovers (Robin Williams and Anabella Sciorra) doing little more than stare at each other and giggle, with solemn music in the background. The film is so inept at fleshing out their lives that it shows their wedding, the tragic death of their children, and fifteen years passing before it reveals out of the blue that Chris is a doctor! The performances by Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr. are surprisingly atrocious, maybe because they could scarcely believe their own lines.
For those who have only seen the movie, it's hard for me to convey just how very different the novel is. Of course there are major differences in the plot. One such difference is the ending. (Even Roger Ebert, who heaped high praise on the film, was disappointed by the ending.) Another is the beginning, where the film has Chris's children also die and go to Heaven. In doing this, the movie (1) makes the early scenes so depressing they become surreal (2) needlessly clutters the story with extra characters (3) introduces a silly and confusing subplot about Chris's attempts to find his children, who are in disguise.
In the book, Chris's children are adults, not youngsters, and they're minor characters. The details of Chris's life on Earth differ so greatly between the book and the film that it's like reading about a completely different person. Even though I saw the movie first, the image of Robin Williams completely vanished from my mind as I read, because he was so unlike the character described in the book.
The entire feel of the book is different, telling a touching love story that uses real characterization, not cheap manipulation, to move the audience. And Matheson's vision of the afterlife truly comes alive on the page. The Hell scenes are actually terrifying, reminding us, as the movie does not, why Matheson is primarily famous as a horror writer.
I won't overlook the movie's gorgeous visual effects, which earned the film a well-deserved Academy Award. They just aren't put to good purpose. The movie's vision of the afterlife as like being inside giant paintings fails to evoke a sense of reality. The book, in contrast, bases its afterlife imagery (vividly brought to life by Matheson's skillful prose) much more on Earth-like scenery. This approach ironically leads to far more exotic ideas, such as architects who build things using their minds, and a library containing history books more objective than those on Earth. Matheson puts the reader right inside this setting, as the following passage illustrates:
I noticed, then, there were no shadows on the ground. I sat beneath a tree yet not in shade. I didn't understand that, and looked for the sun.And here is a passage from one of the book's Hell scenes: "Now I saw that, interspersed throughout the area we crossed, were pools of dark and filthy-looking liquid; I hesitate to call it water. A loathsome stench beyond that which I had ever been exposed to rose from these pools. And I was horrified to see movement in them as though unfortunates had slipped beneath the surface and were unable to rise" (p. 183).
There wasn't any.... There was light without a sun. I looked around in confusion. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the light, I saw further into the countryside. I had never seen such scenery: a stunning vista of green-clad meadows, flowers, and trees. Ann would love this, I thought.
I remembered then. Ann was still alive. And I? I stood and pressed both palms against the solid tree trunk. Stamped on solid ground with my shoe. I was dead; there could be no question about it any longer. Yet here I was, possessed of a body that felt the same and looked the same, was even dressed the same. Standing on this very real ground in this most tangible of landscapes....
I turned my hands over and noticed that their skin and nails were pink. There was blood inside me. I had to shake myself to make certain I wasn't dreaming. I held my right hand over my nose and mouth and felt breath pulsing warmly from my lungs.... (p. 55-6)
Matheson, as I mentioned, is a famous horror writer. One of his unique qualities is his almost scientific approach to the supernatural. As Roger Ebert explains in his review of the Matheson-penned Legend of Hell House:
Matheson labored for years in the elusive territory between straight science fiction and the supernatural horror genre, developing a kind of novel in which vampires, ghouls, and the occult are treated as if they came under ordinary scientific classifications.In What Dreams May Come, Matheson makes Heaven and Hell seem like a scientific, natural process, and one of the joys of the book is discerning all the intricate "rules" of how everything works. (That's another area where the movie falls short.) What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that Matheson doesn't do this just for entertainment purposes. In the novel's introduction, he tells his readers that the characters are the only fictional component of the novel, and that almost everything else is based on research. The book even includes a lengthy bibliography. Thus, the afterlife that Matheson describes isn't some fantasy world he concocted from his own head, but something he believes to be an accurate description of reality.
There was, for example, the Matheson classic I Am Legend.... In that one, a single normal man held hundreds of vampires...at bay by figuring out the scientific reasons for old medieval antivampire measures like mirrors, crucifixes, and garlic. The Matheson novels of the 1950s and early 1960s anticipated pseudorealistic fantasy novels like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist.
Some people may wonder, at this point, about Matheson's religious background. He was raised a Christian Scientist, but gradually developed what he calls his own religion, taking elements from many sources. One of the book's main influences, I believe, is eighteenth-century Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
The book avoids seeming "religious" in any way other than its setting. There are no deities, no mention of Christ or anything specific to the theology of a particular religion. The characters occasionally talk about God, but it is left up to the reader to decide whether the Creator in charge of this system is at all like the Judeo-Christian God or like something more pantheistic. The book even implies that no single religion has the whole truth:
"For instance, you'll find, in the hereafter, the particular heaven of each theology."From what I've seen, people react negatively to this book based on how far it departs from their personal beliefs. Christians complain about the absence of Jesus, while those who don't believe in any afterlife consider the story too nonsensical to accept. Most readers, it seems, are put off by the New Age terminology and concepts scattered throughout the book.
"Which is right then?" I asked, completely baffled now.
"All of them," he said, "and none. Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, Christian, Jew--each has an after-life experience which reflects his own beliefs. The Viking had his Valhalla, the American Indian his Happy Hunting Ground, the zealot his City of Gold. All are real. Each is a portion of the overall reality.
"You'll even find, here, those who claim that survival is nonsense," he said. "They bang their nonmaterial tables with their nonmaterial fists and sneer at any suggestion of a life beyond matter. It's the ultimate irony of delusion." (pp. 90-1)
These reactions are puzzling, if you stop to think about it. Books about elves, fairies, dragons, and wizards remain popular even though nobody believes in any of those things. Why should people be bothered by a fiction book portraying a Heaven and Hell that conflicts with what they believe? The book is perfectly enjoyable whether or not you accept Matheson's metaphysics.
Of course, I personally do think Matheson provides insight into the subject--though I admit I'm a little wary of his acceptance of paranormal phenomena. But it amazes me how so many people refuse to even touch the book, thinking that any story with such a plot must automatically be hokey. In most cases, they'd be right. What Dreams May Come is a big exception. It suggests the endless possibilities in a subject that normally is dead weight for fiction. And it really makes you think.