Methuselah’s Daughter: A Review of The Age of Adaline
by Gary Westfahl
In many respects, Lee Toland Krieger’s The Age of Adaline is exactly what it announces itself to be: a classic Hollywood “women’s film.” And one expects that, as in The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) (review here), a seemingly novel trope borrowed from science fiction – here, the secret immortal pretending to be an ordinary person – would be deployed in a perfunctory manner solely to generate an otherwise familiar tale about a tumultuous romance. Yet The Age of Adaline proves to be surprisingly attentive to the demands of science fiction, and amidst its emotional turmoil the film is also striving to thoughtfully explore the possible effects of human immortality. It thus qualifies as a worthwhile addition to a long tradition of science fiction stories about immortality, ranging from Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal” (1833) to Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long and Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth (2007) (editorial review here).
The film’s trailer reveals its fantastic premise: in the late 1930s, a widow named Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is involved in a near-fatal car accident and afterwards discovers that, for some reason, she has stopped aging. Many screenwriters would have said nothing more about this remarkable event, confident that audiences would accept this scientific magic without further justification. Yet in J. Miles Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz’s screenplay, the (at times intrusive) narrator (Hugh Ross) patiently explains that, when her car plunged into cold water, Adaline experienced an “anoxic reflex” causing her to stop breathing and her heart to beat more slowly; then, when a lightning bolt struck the car, this “defibrillated” her heart, “jolted” her to start breathing, and, by inducing “electron compression” in her “deoxyribonucleic acid” (DNA), made her “immune to the ravages of time,” destined to “never age another day” – all in accordance with scientific principles to be discovered in the year 2035. Actual scientists now working to extend the human lifespan would no doubt consider this “explanation” of immortality a nonsensical assemblage of jargon, but the screenwriters were obviously eager to persuade their audience that Adaline did not represent a one-time miracle, but was rather the accidental beneficiary of a procedure that will someday become routine.
As Adaline gradually realizes what has happened to her, she must radically change her lifestyle in ways that have long been recognized in other stories about immortals. First, she must conceal her condition by constantly traveling and adopting new identities, because otherwise both governments and private individuals would try to capture her and place her in a laboratory to discover her secret – the problem faced by the Howard Families of Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children (1941, 1958), Ben Richards of the short-lived television series The Immortal (1969), and many others. In her case, after improbably contriving to escape from the FBI, Adaline begins a new life of starting over with a new name and job every decade, the same rhythm adopted by Bixby’s John Oldman. When the film begins, she is Jennifer Larson, working in the Pacific Archives in San Francisco and preparing to move to Oregon and become Susan Fleischer.
Second, as a necessary consequence of her situation, Adaline can never have a lasting relationship with any man, as she must spurn all advances to maintain her secret; thus, stories of immortality often become cautionary tales, warning readers of the condition’s negative consequences. Suffering from perpetual loneliness, Adaline might have echoed the lament of Shelley’s “Mortal Immortal”: “Thus I have lived for many a year – alone and weary of myself …. [T]he ardent love that gnaws at my heart, never to be returned – never to find an equal on which to expend itself – lives there only to torment me.” Learning that she has rejected a man she felt attracted to, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), her now-elderly daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn) urges her to reconsider: “don’t you miss having someone to love?” Later, receiving similar advice from Ellis’s father William (Harrison Ford), she is told, “You’ve lived, but you’ve never had a life.” There is, of course, a simple solution to this dilemma – find a partner willing to keep your secret and share a life with someone who never grows old – which is precisely what occurs in the most memorable section of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love (1973) and at the conclusion of Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth; and any viewer has to suspect that this will also be the happy ending of this film. Yet presenting a male companion as the necessary solution to Adaline’s plight is arguably a bit sexist; after all, both Oldman and another one of Bixby’s male immortals, Flint of the Star Trek episode “Requiem for Methuselah” (1969), stoically soldiered on for millennia without ever finding True Love, and this film repeatedly demonstrates that Adaline is, as William says, “an extraordinary woman,” more than capable of living a fulfilling life without a male partner.
Indeed, in carefully developing the probable characteristics of a woman with a very extended lifespan, the film at times seems to be working at cross purposes to its sentimental premise. Adaline is impressively knowledgeable: she speaks several languages and can even read braille in Norwegian; she effortlessly wins a game of Trivial Pursuit; and she knows enough about the streets of San Francisco to provide a cab driver with a good alternate route to her destination. She is remarkably observant, emulating Sherlock Holmes as she glances at a man at a party and immediately makes accurate deductions about his background and activities. Preparing to launch a new life, she confidently purchases a home in rural Oregon and obtains the necessary forged identification cards. Adaline needs a man, in other words, like a fish needs a bicycle.
There are also intimations that an immortal, liberated from concerns about aging and death, might develop a more detached perspective, considering everyday worries as unimportant in the broader scheme of things. This is communicated by another aspect of the film that seems related to science fiction, its repeated references to astronomy. The film begins and ends with images of Earth as seen from space, emphasizing how small humans are from a cosmic viewpoint; Adaline’s positive effect on William’s life was to encourage him to abandon medical school and pursue a career as an astronomer; William becomes famous for discovering a comet that he names for Adaline (“Della,” the name she was using at the time he knew her), and he likens her to that comet, which will provide a spectacular show for humans but, as a “near miss,” will come close to but not reach the Earth; she surprises Ellis by taking him to “someplace he’s never been before” – an abandoned, enclosed drive-in theatre with a roof covered with glowing stars forming the constellations; and the narrator finally informs us that Adaline’s car accident was the last in a chain of events inaugurated by the impact of a meteor on the Moon centuries ago. Ellis is interested in the stars in another way, as we observe a copy of Louis MacNeice’s Astrology (1964) on his desk.
Even more intriguing, perhaps, are the film’s subtle suggestions that an immortal, while rising above petty concerns, might be able to transcend gender boundaries as well. Although Lively’s Adaline is a beautiful and glamorous woman, I sometimes detected an aura of androgyny in her performance, as brusque actions and comments suggested that she had been directed to act like a man in woman’s clothing. Perhaps this was intended solely to communicate her unusual independence, but it led me to recall that Bixby’s Oldman did seem like an unusually gentle and sensitive man, almost feminine in his inability to be harsh or violent. Living many lives, and keeping one’s distance from society, might therefore enable immortals to get in touch with both their masculine and feminine sides. And this would naturally influence their choice of companions, as Huisman’s Ellis is a preternaturally nice guy who patiently endures a series of rude rejections and happily welcomes her without complaints when she finally decides to seek out his company. He is, in other words, the sweet Boy Next Door that the typical romantic heroine would unhesitatingly reject in favor of the colder but more appealing Tall Dark Stranger. Adaline, clearly, is not a typical romantic heroine.
In being lonely, knowledgeable, wise, detached, and slightly androgynous, Adaline is arguably similar to other science fiction immortals; but in one respect, she falls short of her precursors, since she has accomplished nothing. Flint, after all, had previously lived as Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Brahms, and other luminaries, and Oldman had been Jesus Christ Himself; but Adaline has always been a nonentity. True, when William celebrates his fortieth wedding anniversary by proclaiming that “I could have no greater ambition in life than to be the best possible husband for my wife,” he suggests that, in keeping with the traditions of the romance novel, forging an enduring relationship is the greatest thing that anyone could achieve. Yet William’s own career as a noted astronomer indicates that he in fact had other, more conventionally greater ambitions, and the need to aspire to lofty goals – to reach for the stars, one might say – is a recurring theme in the film. One of the first things that Adaline says, to the talented young man who forges her documents, Tony (Richard Harmon), is “I just hate to see wasted potential,” and when she first meets Ellis, who has become rich after a chance discovery proved immensely profitable, he remarks that “If you want to make a real difference in the world, it’s harder than it seems.” Adaline is just as intelligent and capable as William, Jeff, and Ellis, if not more so, but her only victory is literally “Trivial.” Her desire to avoid becoming “a specimen” has forced her to become invisible, and after living for over a century, she has left absolutely no mark on the world.
This thought opens up another, entirely different way to look at this film, which is signaled by its title. Of course, Adaline’s most remarkable feature is her “age,” which is 108 years as the film begins, and one way to read the title is as “Adaline’s Age.” However, when the phrase “The Age of” precedes someone’s name, it is usually describing a period of time that was dominated by that individual, like “the Age of Pericles” or “the Age of Napoleon.” Interpreted that way, the title is describing the time period covered in the film – from 1908 to 2015 – as an era dominated by Adaline Bowman, which would be ludicrous because virtually no one during that time was even aware of her existence. If we see Adaline as a symbol of immortality, though, one could read the title as a reference to the twentieth century as “the age of immortality” – and arguably that is an apt description.
For this was the era when one way to achieve a form of immortality – photography – became ubiquitous. True, the art was first mastered by professionals in the 1850s, but only in the twentieth century did it become commonplace for virtually everyone to own a portable camera, and thus to have the ability to forever preserve their own images. Photographs permeate this film: Adaline keeps a photo album to remember her only companions, her dogs; she stares at a photograph of her wedding in her apartment, and while attending a New Year’s Eve party at a hotel, she sees a photograph of herself on the wall, celebrating during the same event decades earlier; people are regularly interested in taking her photograph; and in the final scene, we see that she still owns an old-fashioned camera. When William suspects that Adaline is the woman he met many years ago, he rifles through a box of old photographs to find one photograph that might provide definitive evidence. The twentieth century also ushered in a new way to record moving images – motion pictures – and these figure in the film as well, as one of Adaline’s early tasks at the Pacific Archives is to prepare some old newsreels for digitization, and she happily watches old films of San Francisco in 1906 and other eras. The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” (1966) blaring on Ellis’s car radio references the new way that twentieth-century people could also preserve their voices – sound recordings – and Adaline carries with her the modern device that enables anyone today to produce their own photographs, movies, and recordings, a smartphone. Thus, while we can read accounts or look at paintings of life in earlier centuries, the twentieth century is the first century that people will always be able to actually look at and listen to – the first immortal century.
Ironically, throughout the film, Adaline displays an aversion to being photographed; and there are practical reasons for this, since she has no desire to create potential evidence of her agelessness. But since she always looks the same – she dismisses photographs of herself by telling her daughter, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” – Adaline also has no need for photography, explaining why she never wants to be photographed. Blessed with true immortality, she has no desire for the ersatz immortality provided by photography.
Still, Adaline remains captivated by images of other people, much like almost everyone else, and this might be regarded as a harmless diversion, a new way to be entertained. But The Age of Adaline also indicates that having access to all these records of the past might have harmful effects, as it sometimes seems that everyone in the film has an unhealthy obsession with the past. Adaline’s job at the Pacific Archives involves preserving old books and films, and facing the challenge of showing each other something they are not familiar with, both Ellis and Adaline do not turn to some new attraction, but rather to an ancient artifact – a nineteenth-century boat buried underground and an early drive-in theatre. William’s harmonious forty-year marriage is briefly disrupted when he first sees Adaline and starts babbling about how wonderful this woman he once knew was, inspiring his wife to complain that she is now feeling like his “second choice.” Certainly, any marriage might be threatened if the wife discovered that her husband had saved photographs of an old girlfriend, which is precisely why William kept his photographs of Adaline hidden away in a storage room, inside a box with a misleading label. William also muses that as astronomical instruments keep improving, astronomers keep look further and further into the past. The narrator’s reference to 2035 is thus jarring because nobody else in the film seems to be thinking about twenty years in the future – or even one year in the future; instead, their eyes, and their thoughts, are constantly drawn back to the enticingly clear images of the past that surround them.
The film itself, despite its virtues as a work of science fiction, is also studiously avoiding any consideration of the future it envisions – a world in which human immortality is not a rare accident, but something that scientists can achieve as a matter of routine. Since Adaline will still be alive in 2035, the filmmakers could conceivably craft a sequel wherein she lives to witness the emergence of such a world, but one doubts very much that they would ever do so. For there are many fanciful films about immortal vampires, and films about solitary immortals or handfuls of immortals (as in the Highlander films), but other than the cartoonish Zardoz (1974), one is hard pressed to come up with examples of films that ponder the implications of an entire society where immortality is commonplace. To find such stories, which do not lend themselves to conventional Hollywood formulas, one must turn to the literature of science fiction, not its films.