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Schizophrenia in “A Beautiful Mind” Film by Howard


Directed by Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind is a chef-d’oeuvre film centered on the life and mental illness of the renowned mathematician, John Forbes Nash. The movie is based on a biography with the same name written by Sylvia Nasar. The storyline starts in 1947 when John Nash, the protagonist, arrives at Princeton University on a mathematics scholarship and gets a roommate, Charles Herman. It follows Nash’s life from the university highlighting his troubled perspectives as he struggles to establish himself as a distinguished scholar. After his initial troubles in economics where he endeavors to develop the game theory, his mathematical prowess leaves him with new roles (Howard). On top of working for the Department of Defense on an intelligence mission, Nash is a teacher, researcher, and husband to Alicia. However, with the increasing complexity of life, he develops schizophrenia that comes with an array of problems like hallucinations and paranoia which affect his normal functioning.

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The screenwriter, Akiva Goldsmith, has changed some aspects of the book’s account of John Nash to fit into the popular culture and redeem heroism by avoiding issues that could dampen the protagonist’s quest to overcoming a mental disease and living a normal life. Despite the changes, the movie’s director succeeds in portraying a balanced story that highlights the plight of schizophrenia and the role of willpower in managing the condition. It is successful in communicating emotional depth and struggle through metaphors and artistic retellings of general film tropes. The film explains how Nash’s disability, schizophrenia, has affected his professional and normal life. The movie goes on to show that having schizophrenia will not stop one from pursuing his or her desires. According to Torres et al., schizophrenia is a “chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves and it causes people to seem as if they are out of touch with reality” (342). This paper explores two perspectives of criticizing the movie. The first one argues that the film shows the positive outcomes of disability and it wants the stigma attached to it to go away. Conversely, the other perspective argues that the film is overly beautified which does not show the negative outcomes of schizophrenia like how it affects the people close to the victim.

Supportive Approach

Despite the inaccuracy, Howard’s use of visual hallucinations to highlight the emotions of a schizophrenic is highly effective as it allows the audience to understand victim’s struggles. Auditory hallucinations would hardly leave the same impact. The movie underscores several key elements that portray schizophrenia as a disability that should be dealt with through medication and social support. Schizophrenic symptoms present in the early 20s, and while Nash shows the first signs of this condition in his 30s, it is within the accepted onset period. The movie highlights different symptoms associated with this disability like delusions and social withdrawal. According to Torres et al., the common symptoms of schizophrenia include “depression, social withdrawal, delusions, flat gaze, suspiciousness, and apathy” (343). Different scenes concerning these symptoms stand out throughout the film. For instance, when Nash gets to Princeton, he has a non-existent roommate called Charles. This scene foreshadows the imminent full-blown schizophrenia that is about to befall the protagonist. In another case where he hallucinates arguing on the university grounds before the students, he appears to be shouting at no one in particular. In addition, he does not speak often as he appears to be withdrawn and even when he talks, he does not show or elicit emotions. Moreover, the film has several examples of tropes like Nash being a broken ace and a successful student having partial difficulties with the onset of schizophrenia. Overall, the events involving Nash in the opening scenes of the movie are consistent with someone showing early signs of schizophrenia and thus the movie is accurate in this portrayal.

The peak of Nash’s delusions is realized at Harvard University as he gives a lecture on the progress of his mathematics research. This section of the movie highlights different truths associated with schizophrenia. Delusions, as the most important symptoms of this disorder, cause Nash to imagine that Soviet agents are in the audience with the intention of capturing him. He thus punches Dr. Rosen and tries to flee. This scene underscores the challenges that schizophrenic individuals undergo in life. Delusions affect one’s way of life and they can lead to life-threatening situations. Howard shows the challenges involved in distinguishing imaginary things and reality. He also employs symbolism to underscore the two sides. Charles and Marcee are symbols of the social support that individuals get from the society. On the other, Parcher and the Russian agents represent the dark side of this condition characterized by paranoia and delusions.

In the psychiatric hospital, the audience is exposed to the unconventional methods that were used to treat schizophrenia in the 1950s. According to Carpenter and Koenig, during this time, “psychiatrists would induce fevers in their patients, sometimes using injections of sulfur or oil…sleep therapy, gas therapy, electroconvulsive or electroshock treatment, and prefrontal leucotomy-the removal of the part of the brain that processes emotions” (2063). Nash undergoes painful insulin therapy which creates physical and emotional suffering. The focus on his pained body and lack of focus on Alicia, with her back turned to him, shows the emotional struggle in the scene. Before the introduction of antipsychotic drugs, the management of schizophrenia was a daunting task as victims faced all manner of treatments. Therefore, Howard succeeds in presenting a historically accurate account of schizophrenia.

The element of relapse also stands out in the movie. According to Emsley et al., if antipsychotic medication is discontinued, one has high chances of relapse (118). Howard underscores this fact when Nash relapses after he stops taking his medication. In addition, the drugs are affecting Nash’s ability to think freely and advance his research on mathematics. This assertion underscores a common occurrence with people suffering from schizophrenia when they take such drugs which have a dulling effect. Torres et al. give scientific proof that antipsychotic drugs change brain structure and functioning (342). Therefore, the movie is accurate in this aspect as Nash’s creative genius is affected due to the medication he is taking.

The movie has several moments of disclosure like when Nash realizes that Marcee does not age and after he finally explains the idea behind his game theory. In addition, in the scene where Alicia flees with her baby, Nash runs after her and admits the realization that not everything that has happened is real. At this point, he realizes that he is suffering from delusion. After this period, Nash confronts his condition and starts living a normal life. He goes back to Princeton and continues working on his project where he ultimately wins the coveted Nobel Prize award. This scene portrays the movie’s accuracy in depicting schizophrenia. Psychiatrists agree that talking about one’s mental disorder plays a major role in the management of the condition and the recovery process (Waugh et al. 460). Therefore, it suffices to conclude that the movie captures the importance of mental illnesses and the stigma associated with it accurately.

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Criticism Approach

Critics have questioned the historical and contextual accuracy of the movie. The underlying argument here is that the movie is overly beautified and it does not underscore the negative impacts associated with this mental disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) IV describes delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and behavior, alogia, avolition, and social dysfunction as characteristic symptoms of the disease but there is individual variance in their appearance (Lishman 285). The movie oversimplifies schizophrenia and presents it as an insignificant condition that can be dealt with using willpower. Longmore highlights this kind of trope where movies overlook the prevalence of a disability and find a quick solution to show how such cases are underwhelming. According to the movie, Nash stops taking medication, relapses, and comes back to handle his mental problems through acknowledgment and willpower. This portrayal is misleading and while the director might have used it to achieve heroism and romanticism, it does not happen for people suffering from this debilitating disorder. Longmore notes that rehabilitation is ignored in drama and Howard confirms this assertion by allowing Nash to overcome his condition through willpower. According to Carpenter and Koenig, only one person out of five will recover from schizophrenia (2065). The recovery process is not as easy as Howard puts it in the movie. For the few that recover, they have to undergo a combination of numerous therapies including antipsychotic medication, counseling, and undying support from family members, friends, and society. The insinuation that people can overcome schizophrenia through willpower is misguided and victims of this condition may be tempted to stop their medication which will have adverse effects in the end. Critics point to this twisted portrayal as an indication of how the movie if beautified to overlook serious issues related to the disorder.

In addition, the hallucinations that Nash experiences are mostly auditory. However, other aspects of his behavior tend to contradict with reality which is a show of an inaccurate representation of schizophrenia” (“A Beautiful Mind: Analyzing How Schizophrenia Is Portrayed in Movies Versus Reality”). Nash constantly sees and converses with non-existent people like Charles, Marcee, and Parcher. While this style is pleasing for screenplays, it does not reflect the nature of the condition. According to Carpenter and Koenig, most schizophrenics rarely have visual hallucinations and even when they occur, they are abstract (2065), which contradicts Howard’s portrayal in the film. On the contrary, victims of this disorder are constantly under the siege of taunting voices thus making it difficult to lead normal lives. Such people cannot differentiate reality from imaginations and thus they live in a limbo trying to figure out what makes sense.

Akiva Goldsmith changed the original story as a way of beautifying the movie script for different purposes including heroism. The life of John Nash was different from what the movie shows in different aspects. For instance, the protagonist in the film could not come out as sexist and abusive towards women due to the popular culture whereby such traits were unacceptable. To allow the protagonist to have qualities of that nature and still be the hero of the movie is tantamount to supporting such vices and it passes the wrong message to the audience. Therefore, some critics agree that it is highly relevant that the movie misses the protagonist’s terrible treatment of his wife, his sexist nature, and homosexual innuendos that characterized Nash’s life (Tunzelmann). Therefore, it suffices to conclude that the movie is overly beautified as it fails to capture important aspects of schizophrenia and the stigmatization associated with it.

Other Movies

One other movie with an outstanding portrayal of schizophrenia is Revolution #9 directed by Tim McCann. The storyline chronicles the life of Jackson, a successful New Yorker living a normal life with a wife and an apartment. Jackson suffers from schizophrenia at a young age, which affects the way he relates to people around him. He becomes delusional and thinks that a television advert is orchestrating his downfall and thus he becomes obsessed with it. At the peak of his delusions, Jackson performance at work slumps and he is finally fired (McCann). His family and friends abandon him before becoming broke. He believes that a certain advertisement company is behind his woes and he sets out to unravel the conspiracy. He poses as a film journalist to meet the director of the company where he confronts him and expresses his concerns. He later ends up in hospital, but he does not get the relieve he is yearning. Tired of the medication, pain, and stigma associated with schizophrenia, he accesses the hospital’s rooftop and contemplates committing suicide by jumping. The movie’s portrayal of schizophrenia is similar to A Beautiful Mind in several aspects. Jackson develops the mental disorder at a young age just like Nash. In addition, the two characters are obsessed with something that they think is after their lives. While Jackson blames a television advert, Nash thinks some Russian agents are out to kill him. The pain that accompanies treatment of schizophrenia and the associated stigma stands out in the two movies, which explains why Jackson wants to commit suicide. Overall, the two films show the debilitating effects of schizophrenia coupled with how it can negatively change the lives of those affected.


The film, A Beautiful Mind, chronicles the life of John Nash as he struggles to cope with schizophrenia as a student, husband, father, and mathematician. The portrayal of this disorder in the movie has drawn different opinions. Proponents of the movie argue that the director, Howard, portrays schizophrenia in a way that underscores its seriousness and the accompanying stigmatization. On the other hand, critics hold that the movie fails to highlight important aspects of the disorder by being overly beautified. Proponents cite Nash’s delusional episodes coupled with paranoia together with the medication process as some of the issues underscoring the film’s accuracy in portraying schizophrenia. However, according to critics, the suggestion that this mental condition can be overcome through willpower is a beautification quest to water down the seriousness of the disease. Nevertheless, some of the critics acknowledge the necessity of changing the original story to fit into the social demands and popular culture at the time. This paper holds that the proponents’ views outweigh those of the critics and thus it suffices to conclude that the film, A Beautiful Mind, is an accurate portrayal of the effects of schizophrenia to its victims.


Works Cited

“A Beautiful Mind: Analyzing How Schizophrenia is Portrayed in Movies Versus Reality.” Osu.Edu. Web.

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Carpenter, William, and James Koenig. “The Evolution of Drug Development in Schizophrenia: Past Issues and Future Opportunities.” Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 33, no. 9, 2008, pp. 2061–2079.

Emsley, Robin, et al. “The Nature of Relapse in Schizophrenia.” BMC Psychiatry, vol. 13, no. 50, 2013, pp. 117-121.

Howard, Rob, director. A Beautiful Mind. Universal Pictures, 2002.

Lishman, William. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

McCann, Tim, director. Revolution #9. Rockville Pictures Inc., 2001.

Torres, Ulysses dos Santos, et al. “Structural Brain Changes Associated with Antipsychotic Treatment in Schizophrenia as Revealed by Voxel-Based Morphometric MRI: An Activation Likelihood Estimation Meta-Analysis.” BMC Psychiatry, vol.13, no.4, 2013, pp. 342-348.

Tunzelmann, Alex. “A Beautiful Mind Hides Ugly Truths”. The Guardian, 2012. Web.

Waugh, William, et al. “Exploring Experiences of and Attitudes towards Mental Illness and Disclosure amongst Health Care Professionals: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Mental Health, vol. 26, no. 5, 2014, pp. 457-463.

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