Tuberculosis in Novels and Film

Last week we posted about the history and science of tuberculosis to highlight the upcoming World TB Day program coming to the Central Library on March 24. This week, let’s take a dive into representations of tuberculosis in literature and movies.

If you like historical fiction at all, you’ve heard of the heroine who tragically died of consumption—or, in modern terms, tuberculosis. There are characters in Dostoyevsky’s novels Crime and Punishment and The Idiot who suffered from tuberculosis, and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain actually takes place in a TB sanitarium. The scathing novel The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, relates how Chicago’s meatpackers were exposed to the disease through their work, and The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré deals presciently with TB testing and drug resistance. Also, Northwest writer Betty McDonald’s memoir The Plague and I humorously relates her experiences fighting what was then a frightening disease.

Moving on to film, why not start with opera and musicals? The death of Mimi from consumption in La Bohème by Puccini is one of the most moving scenes in all of opera. You might also want to check out Moulin Rouge, in which Nicole Kidman as Satine dies of consumption, or even Les Misérables (aka Les Miz), in which Anne Hathaway as Fantine also dies of tuberculosis… and, hmm, all three movies are set in Paris.  Traveling across the channel, check out the movie Bright Star, featuring the passionate relationship of poet John Keats and his love Fanny Brawne, doomed to end sadly as Keats died at 25 of—you guessed it—tuberculosis. There’s The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which Ingrid Bergman plays a nun with TB in New York City. And don’t forget Heavenly Creatures, set in New Zealand, in which Kate Winslet’s character Juliet is diagnosed with TB and makes some very bad choices (also, in a strange real life twist, the character she plays, Juliet Hulme, grew up to be crime novel writer Anne Perry).

Last but not least, after all that drama a creepy (and fascinating) non-fiction film may be just the thing! In Cure from the Crypt, we see Hungarian mummies being disinterred in the interests of science; it turns out that there is a genetic difference between mummies that had TB and those that didn’t, which may lead to cures for today’s sufferers. Pretty cool!

TB beds

From the Seattle Municipal Archives: “Firland Tuberculosis Hospital, Beds, 1927”

~posted by Ann G.

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