The Polish émigré writer Jerzy Kosinski provided distinctive bookends to the 1970s with his two brilliantly fashioned versions of Being There. He published his short, satirical novel in April 1971. Then, after many false starts, the film adaptation starring Peter Sellers—and for which Kosinski wrote the screenplay—appeared in the final months of 1979 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Betwixt book and film, America in the sullen Seventies was defined by defeat in a protracted Asian war, an almost equally protracted bout of economic mismanagement and stagnation, culture fracturing and confusion, and vitriolic partisanship. Set against the rising challenge abroad of a still formidable Soviet Union, many began to question deeply—and really for the first time in the postwar era—whether the United States still possessed the will, wisdom and wherewithal to “lead the free world”, as common parlance then had it.
Revisiting the two versions of Being There today, however, does not conjure up facile analogies between the 1970s and this new decade, another time of Asian wars, economic challenges, and an emerging potential “peer” competitor to American international leadership. Rather it offers, through the eyes and experiences of Chance the gardener, the main character in both book and film, a disturbing vision of how modern media machinery and habits are transforming how we think, and perhaps even how we govern. More than thirty years on, what once appeared to be light if enigmatic and far-fetched amusement now strikes us as darker, and possibly prophetic.
Kosinski’s fable chronicles a man’s transformation over a single week. Being There begins on a Sunday morning with Chance tending the garden of the “Old Man”, in whose house he has spent his entire life. Chance is a middling-aged man of limited intellect and of even more circumscribed ambition. He can neither read nor write. No record of him exists, since he has never been paid, seen a doctor or obtained a driver’s license. He is also essentially asexual, rendering him childlike to the reader and viewer. The old man’s maid, Louise, provides his meals; otherwise, he has no other face-to-face contact with humans. Television provides his only window on the world beyond the walls of the house and its walled garden, and it is television that provides the pivot upon which the story turns.
After the Old Man dies in his sleep, lawyers come to the house. They compel Chance and Louise to leave. Chance dons one of the Old Man’s fine, hand-tailored suits, complete with homburg hat, and for the first time emerges on the street in front of the house, which...