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166 of 169 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So much better than the film it's scary, May 7, 2007
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This review is from: What Dreams May Come (Mass Market Paperback)
This novel 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 1998 film. Before I read the novel, I had no idea that a story about Heaven and Hell could have such a profound effect on me.

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. 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.

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 adds Chris's children to the list of characters who 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 who never die in the course of the story. 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.

One of Matheson's unique qualities as a fantasy writer has always been his almost scientific approach to the supernatural. Here, 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.

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.

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.

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.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 16, 2009 2:32:09 PM PDT
Caspar says:
I think the problem with the metaphysics of his heaven comes primarily from the absence of God and the apparent elevation of the creature over the creator. Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee"--recognizing the existence of a God-shaped hole in the hearts of all mankind. The story seems to keep God at a distance, suggesting heaven is merely a better, brighter version of the world much more completely within our power, rather than the fulfillment of human nature and desire.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 15, 2009 4:30:12 AM PST
Kylopod says:
The book says repeatedly that Chris's experiences are at a low level in the afterlife, and that at much higher levels a person gets close to God.

Posted on Jan 31, 2011 9:23:21 PM PST
Saw the movie, and like you, felt the plot lost all credibility the moment that both children were dead. Perhaps the director felt he had to load the deck because no one would ever commit suicide over losing Robin Williams as a mate. The rest of the film seemed little more than excuse for some whiz bang special effects. But as I read your review, the book sounds fascinating, especially the after death research and Matheson's vividly imagined after life. I am also interested in Swedenborg. Thank you for a great review. I can see I've gotta have this book.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 13, 2011 3:51:15 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 13, 2011 3:52:39 PM PST
Wanderer says:
Another person greatly influenced by Swedenborg was Joseph Smith. Swedenborg had marriage in heaven with sex, as well as schools and shops, and levels of heaven. He also believed that the planets within our solar system were inhabited. After Swedenborg died in the 1700s, his followers established churches in the United States in 1816 (Joseph Smith was 11 then). The "Church of New Jerusalem" is still around today and teaches that there is marriage in heaven.

The most famous "Swedenborgian" in the US was Johnny Appleseed, who planted apple seeds and spread Swedenborg's ideas around the country.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 9, 2012 11:30:13 AM PST
dicerotops says:
I read that the movie decided to have the children die in order to make Ann more sympathetic. Someone watching a movie won't feel for a woman who kills herself and leaves her children behind, and it is important for the audience to understand Ann's depression. Any movie goer is going to understand though why a woman who lost her children AND husband would cave into suicide.
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