What Blake Lively's All I See Is You has in common with The Ticket, At First Sight.

The Long, Strange History of Blind People Regaining Their Sight in Fiction

The Long, Strange History of Blind People Regaining Their Sight in Fiction

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 1 2017 5:55 AM

The Movie Where a Blind Blake Lively Gets Her Sight Back Is Part of a Long, Weird Tradition

Jason Clarke and Blake Lively in All I See Is You.
Jason Clarke and Blake Lively in All I See Is You.

Roland Neveu/Open Road Films

In All I See Is You, Blake Lively stars as Gina, a blind woman who lost her eyesight as a teenager in the same car accident that also killed both her parents. Now an adult, she and her husband (Jason Clarke) have relocated to Bangkok, where the combination of the language barrier and Gina’s blindness leaves her isolated and dependent—that is, until she learns that there is a possibility that her eyesight can be restored. While Gina’s left eye is damaged beyond repair, a doctor is able to successfully restore the vision in her right—with the unforeseen side effect that her newfound sight strains her marriage to the breaking point.

If that synopsis gives you a vague sense of deja vu, you’re not alone. The Ticket, released earlier this year, stars Dan Stevens as James, a blind man who wakes up one morning to find that his sight has been suddenly restored. Like Gina, James is married, but his life is otherwise very different; he lives with his wife (Malin Akerman) and their son in a small, rural town where the local church is a community hub. Regaining his vision has a profound impact on James’ life, bringing out a more materialistic, ambitious side, one that eventually leads him to leave his wife.

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Both movies take different approaches to the circumstances of their protagonists regaining their sight: Gina, whose vision was damaged suddenly and unexpectedly, actively seeks to restore it through a complicated, carefully planned medical procedure, involving corneal transplantation, iris reconstruction, and intraocular lens implantation. The opposite is true for James, who lost his eyesight gradually as a child and has made peace with it; when his vision comes back, it happens literally overnight and without a real explanation, a “miracle” he did not actually pray or plan for. But the results are the same: Each character’s marriage buckles under the weight of one partner’s newly regained sense.

There’s no shortage of tropes about blindness on film, but this particular plotline—that of a blind person whose romantic relationship is jeopardized by sight—is specific enough, and common enough, that it has formed a mini-genre of its own. Wilkie Collins immortalized the plotline as early as 1872 in the novel Poor Miss Finch, part of a wave of Victorian “sensation fiction” that drew on the literary traditions of melodrama and gothicism. The titular Lucilla Finch is blind but harbors an irrational fear of dark colors, which extends to dark-skinned people, as she explains in a very on-the-nose bit of dialogue: “If I married a man with a dark complexion, and if I recovered my sight afterwards, I should run away from him.”

That none-too-subtle foreshadowing, naturally, comes into play later, when Lucilla becomes engaged to her neighbor, Oscar. To to treat his epilepsy, Oscar is prescribed Nitrate of Silver, which has the side effect of turning his skin blackish-blue over time. This is a manageable symptom so long as he can conceal it from Lucilla, but when an oculist arrives to operate on Lucilla’s eyes, it becomes impossible to hide his condition, and the relationship is in thrown into jeopardy. Lucilla is manipulated into believing that Oscar’s twin brother, Nugent, is really Oscar, but all ends happily once Lucilla realizes the truth and strains her eyes, leaving her blind again and content to be so. She and Oscar can finally begin their lives together, and Nugent dies on a polar expedition. (Subtlety is not one of the hallmarks of a sensation novel.)

The core of Poor Miss Finch, minus the doppelgangers and arctic explorations, has been copied on film many times, most famously in the 1999 drama At First Sight, which is based on the real-life case of Shirl Jennings, as documented by Oliver Sacks. Val Kilmer stars as Virgil, a blind massage therapist encouraged by Amy (Mira Sorvino) to gamble on an experimental treatment that will allow him to see for the first time since very early childhood. It works, to the detriment of the relationship, which can’t survive the strain of Virgil having to relearn how he interacts with the world with a new and overwhelming sense.

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The Dutch movie Blind (not to be confused with the schlocky Alec Baldwin movie of the same name that came out earlier this year) is part period romance, part fairy tale, with a blind protagonist who falls for the woman hired to read to him, unaware that she has albinism and is physically scarred from childhood abuse. When he has surgery to restore his vision, she flees out of fear that he will realize that she lied about her appearance. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the 2006 rom-com Blind Dating, which stars a pre-fame Chris Pine as a man who has been blind since birth but wants to change that using an experimental microchip surgery. Pine’s character, like Virgil in At First Sight and Lucilla of Poor Miss Finch, gets a happy ending with his love interest—but that only happens when the surgery fails and the character is blind once more.

Why does this particular plotline keep creeping up? On the one hand, it seems like screenwriters are simply following an old saw to its natural conclusion: If “love is blind,” then what does that say about sight? But there’s also a more realistic explanation at work here, too: Any major medical change is bound to cause a certain amount of stress, which can take a toll on a relationship. Blindness just happens to be a convenient catalyst.

All I See Is You and The Ticket are interesting additions to this canon in 2017, because while their characters embark on very similar journeys, the two films come to drastically different conclusions. Both newly sighted characters are dissatisfied with their physical surroundings: for Gina, a sterile apartment; for James, a small, slightly dilapidated house. Both discover, searching their own reflections in mirrors, that they are played by conventionally attractive actors, and start spending more time on their appearances. Both resent their spouses for being, as they see it, too controlling. Both have extramarital affairs.

In All I See Is You, however, Forster gives us time to get to know Gina and her husband before her surgery—enough time to see the red flags in the relationship and hints that Clarke’s character really is a little too controlling. He nags her about smoking; he smacks their dog for having an accident; he sheepishly tells Gina, who is gyrating wildly on the dance floor of a club, that dancing makes them “look stupid.” When she later becomes overwhelmed by a throng of clubgoers shouting in Thai and touching her, her husband watches passively for just a beat too long before coming to her aid. There’s even a very telling scene, before the surgery, in which Gina asks her husband, “Does it ever bother you, having to take care of me?” “No,” he replies. “It makes me feel special.” It’s unsurprising to us as the audience, then, Gina’s husband feels threatened after her surgery by her newfound independence, not to mention inadequate when she tells him that he doesn’t look the way she expected. And that sense of inadequacy manifests as some ugly, manipulative behavior.

The Ticket, on the other hand, begins just minutes before James wakes up with his vision almost fully restored, meaning that we never get a chance to experience what his life and relationship were like beforehand. There are hints that his wife, Sam, may have been shielding him from some things when he was blind, like when their son comes home with a black eye and James realizes that he wouldn’t have been told about it if he hadn’t seen it for himself. He certainly accuses Sam of exercising too much control. But The Ticket is not all that sympathetic toward James, whose newfound confidence is accompanied by a ruthless streak that strains his relationships not just with his wife and son, but with his friends and community, too. The movie is less interested in how James’ vision affects his marriage than it is in philosophical questions about what’s driving him: Did regaining his sight change him, or was he always kind of a jerk just waiting for the opportunity?

Both movies end with their protagonists’ sight fading again—and that’s also where both deviate from the Poor Miss Finch formula. James’ vision starts to disappear as inexplicably as it came back, perhaps as another act of God, but his relationship with Sam is damaged beyond repair, and there’s no happy ending for the two of them. Meanwhile, there’s a clear culprit behind Gina’s latest problems with her sight, one that makes you root against a reconciliation with her husband—and one which leads to a conclusion so poetic and over-the-top, even Collins himself would approve.