Adaptation Comparison: Memento Mori (Memento)

Spoiler warning here for both!

The Book (Short Story)

Memento Mori is a short story written by Jonathan Nolan about a man named Earl who has short term memory loss. The story is written nonlinearly and alternates sections in italics written in the first person addressed “you,” and the others in the third person as Earl in normal font. In the first section, we learn that the first person narrator is writing to somebody because he can help the person but is secretive about who he is helping or what he is doing. The man he is writing to has memory loss and can’t even remember that his wife is dead, but he is reminded by the picture he took at the funeral and hangs by his door. In the second section, we learn that Earl is in an institutionalized hospital, likely for his memory loss which has possibly caused trouble. He lives by a carefully organized schedule that somebody made for him in order to remind him that he needs to do certain things throughout the day. This section ends with him waking up the next day the same way as before, emphasizing that he has no memory of anything he does and everything is as if nothing has happened.

The next section is when the real story begins; when we find out that Earl remembers what happened to his wife and wants to do something about it, something that we aren’t aware of just yet. The first person narrator thus far has been insulting and demeaning Earl for not having the guts to do anything, and now it seems as though he’s motivating Earl to finally hunt down that man. The following section, Earl is no longer in the hospital and instead, in a motel room. It is mentioned that he has a scar on the back of his neck, and this is likely what caused his brain to have the memory problems he now lives with. The section ends with Earl closing his eyes to go back to sleep after reading a note he left for himself, warning him of people coming to kill him. This further emphasizes that his memory loss is an issue, and brings in tension since we now worry for his survival, and the memory loss may be getting in the way of that. Section 5 is back to first person narration, writing to himself about the importance of making lists to keep organized. Section 6 is also short as it is simply about Earl getting a tattoo of the words “I raped and killed your wife” next to a tattooed image of a man’s face. The first person narrator still is unnamed and unknown, just somebody who is writing to Earl to tell him about what he needs to do thus far since he won’t remember to do these things himself.

Section 7 brings in a symbol that is important for the rest of the story and for the encompassing theme: the first person narrator sold Earl’s watch to get him a bell, a bell that is symbolic of when people were buried alive and needed to notify others from their casket. In this way, the narrator refers to Earl as dead since he has no memory, and therefore has no “life,” and he doesn’t need his watch anymore because time has no meaning to him. The unnamed first-person narrator seems to be much more critical about Earl than Earl is about himself, almost as if the narrator is a parent or somebody in charge of Earl, disappointed in Earl about the memory loss. This narrator seems motivated, and Earl seems to just be stumbling around, following the directions left on the notes. Section 8 jumps back to Earl’s perspective, noticing that his watch is gone, and it’s here that time starts to get confusing. We aren’t sure when these sections take place, if they jump around, if they’re chronological, or anything else but the way sections 7 and 8 go together so well make me believe that they may be chronological, or at least written so that the “cuts” between scenes are seamless. Earl then notices the tattoos on himself, the ones that he got just earlier in the story that tell him what he needs to do, almost as if the first-person narrator was the one who tattooed him (maybe he is?). At the end of section 8, Earl takes out a piece of paper and begins to write.

Section 9 begins with the first-person narrator telling Earl that he is not sure when he’ll read the note, and it is here revealed that Earl is both the first-person and the third-person narrator, which also means that the sections with first-person narration all take place here. This rearranging of the sections was most likely done to put us in Earl’s shoes by making us just as confused about time as he is, and unsure as to what exactly is going on. Furthermore, just as he may not be sure who wrote the notes to him, neither were we until now. Earl writing this also mentions that he will soon forget why he’s writing and only has about 10 minutes until he will have no memory of this, and is doing it now because he’s tired of the person he is, hopeless and helpless and is finally deciding to do something about it, by killing the man who raped and murdered his wife. In section 10, Earl is looking across the street at the man he killed, the one matching the tattoo he has. He is in a car and confused about what is going on, forgetting where he is and what he has done. Nolan here uses hesitative adverbs such as “maybe” and “perhaps” to suggest uncertainty about what is going on. “Maybe his progress is impeded by a set of handcuffs,” “Perhaps the cabbie doesn’t speak much English,” “Perhaps the cop isn’t in the habit of talking to suspects,” which further confuses the reader about what has happened, but allows us to understand exactly how Earl is feeling with the confusion of what situation he is finding himself in.

Section 11 is back to Earl writing the note to himself, discussing how “Time is an absurdity. An abstraction,” which seems to be the theme of the story. “The only thing that matters is this moment,” and it is here that the story ends. Looking back, I’m still slightly confused about the continuity regarding the hospital room he found himself in because it seems as though if the driver at the end of section 10 was a cop, then section 2 would take place after section 10, and all of those after the odd numbered sections in which Earl writes the note(s?) to himself. Additionally, the other sections would also come before section 2 unless he broke out of the hospital and then was arrested and brought back. The ambiguity, or in this case, “indeterminacy” allows us to resonate with Earl and be just as unsure of what’s going on as he is. Although it’s confusing and slightly frustrating, it’s effective and insightful, and it made for one hell of a story.

The aspect of the story that worked best was easily how it played around with time. Not only did this technique place us right into Earl’s mindset of confusion, but it also allowed Nolan to emphasize certain moments and use less words to get across more messages. Just in how the scene ends and changes between past and present allows for a lot to be said not just about Earl but about what is going on in the story. Even though the section changes literally takes the reader out of one story and into another, they do more to ground us in the scene than a linear version of this story would. This notion can be seen best in the transitions between sections 7, 8, and 9 which seem to be chronologically following each other, but are actually not in order at all. Overall, this is one of the most thought-provoking and thought-necessitating short stories that I’ve read, it took me three times going back reading it to fully understand the plot and the theme, but it was worth all of the extra work digging. The nonlinear structure is absolutely perfect for the story and perfect for the characters, and just as I said with House of Leaves, the way that the story is physically organized places the reader in the mindset of the character perfectly. We understand Earl moreso than we would if this was organized chronologically, and the story seems to make more “sense” than it would otherwise. I’m going to give Memento Mori a solid 8/10 and a green recommendation. Looking forward to watching the film now!

The Movie

Written by Jonathan’s brother Christopher, this film follows the same general plot as the short story about a man with short-term memory loss who is trying to kill the person who raped and murdered his wife. Like the short story, this film also takes place in two different times that alternate between each other. In the short story, Earl (now named Leonard or Lenny) was in italics in the scenes in which he’s writing the letter to himself and in regular font during the scenes in which the story takes place. In the film, the scenes in the “past” (when he’s explaining things) are in grayscale, and the scenes other scenes are in color as usual. Again, the scenes are cut together to alternate just like they did in the source material, except the color scenes are in reverse order. So, if there are 20 scenes, this is the order they would be in: 20, 1, 19, 2, 18, 3, 17, 4, 16, 5, 15, 6, 14, 7, 13, 8, 12, 9, 11, 10, with the first half being in grayscale and the latter half being in color. The effect that this has is that it places us in Lenny’s head more so than even the story could. He has no memory of what just happened, and we don’t know what just happened either. This technique is pure genius and it’s extremely effective; furthermore, it makes sense that we see what will happen instead of what has happened because he is also planning what will happen but cannot know what has happened. Not only that, but the way the scenes are spliced together make it sort of difficult to follow exactly what is going on even with great memory since there are two intersecting plot lines that only converge at the end. Until then, they weave in and out of each other and cause a lot of confusion, which is the biggest compliment that one can give to a movie this smart. Since this is based

Since this is based on a short story, of course, things had to be added to expand the narrative into a full-length feature film; what was added and what effect did that have on the entire film? Well, there were many things that were added to expand this story, all of which made sense for the story and honored the source material. For one, the character of Teddy (also known as John G.) acts as the reflection character than Lenny has to remind him about what is going on. That being said, Lenny doesn’t really need Teddy and therefore Teddy is more cannon fodder for Lenny, but important for the story so that we can see Lenny’s condition and how it affects him. Furthermore, the name “John G.” is the name that Lenny knows kills his wife, and so he goes after people with the name John G., even if it may not be the correct John G. So, it’s the idea more than the person that acts as an antagonist in the story. In the end, it is revealed that Lenny has already killed a John G. in the past and that he has now killed three John G.’s just to give his life meaning, all of whom he forgets about soon after he kills them. Therein lies the theme of the story, which mimics the theme of the short story.

In addition, the character of Natalie is added to also show Lenny’s condition and how it affects him, but also to add an opposition into the story as she is somebody who takes advantage of him. She also makes Teddy seem like less of a villain than we originally thought, so we now pity Lenny more since the first scene shows him killing Teddy. At the end of the film, we now pity Lenny as well as Teddy, and hate Natalie, which are vastly different opinions than the ones we held at the beginning. One of the most important parts of the film is the sequence of scenes in black and white, in which Lenny talks about Sammy Jankis. Sammy Jankis is a man with Lenny’s condition and was somebody that Lenny studied for insurance purposes. Sammy’s wife was heartbroken about his memory loss and often testing him to see if he would ever be able to make new memories. Lenny tells everybody about this story, and how Sammy’s wife (who has diabetes) would ask Sammy for Insulin injections as she always would, until one time she decided to keep asking and asking for them until she died of Insulin overdose, just in order to see if Sammy would be able to finally remember something. In the end of the film, it is revealed that there is no Sammy, and than Lenny was the one who killed his wife but has no memory of it. Now, he’s looking for a John G. that may not even exist, and this wild goose chase of murder is the only thing that gives his life meaning.

What was taken out? Well, the plot point about the watch was removed, but we get two hours of evidence of Lenny’s memory loss and the theme of that time is replaced with the theme of memory so the watch would be extra fat that could be trimmed anyways. One element that was also rightfully removed was that Lenny was in the hospital, or asylum, or mental ward or something that he broke out of when the story began. Not only did that not really make sense for him, but it also allowed for Christopher Nolan to add a lot of story before hand regarding Sammy, the other John G’s, his wife, etc. which flush out the character of Lenny and his condition very well. Finally, the arrest at the end was also removed so emphasize Lenny’s neverending circle of John G-killing in order to give his life meaning. In the short story, Earl finally worked up the courage to do something while in the film, Lenny has been doing this for an unknown amount of time and will continue to do this for much longer since he has no sense of time (there’s the theme!).

The movie is absolutely amazing in every way; it’s completely cerebral and fascinating, not only in the way it’s organized but also in the plot in general. Watching this film the normal way (as it’s presented) makes for one hell of a mystery as the audience is trying to piece together what is going on and what has happened, but watching this film on YouTube with the scenes in chronological order makes for one hell of a thriller as we know everything, and Lenny is lost because of his disorder. The way the film was organized out of order is a better experience because we are grounded in the psyche of Lenny, which is incredibly original and unique to this film. It’s really a great adaptation and remains absolutely faithful to the source material, as Nolan always does. I’m going to give Memento 10/10 and a gold recommendation!


This is easily one of the most successful and faithful adaptations that I’ve seen, and the way that it stays true to the source material whilst expanding and improving on many of the aspects is nothing but impressive. The changing of the name worked because while “Leonard” and “Earl” are both typical souther-style names, Leonard can adopt a nickname which allows the audience to feel closer and more like kin or friends than simply “Earl” could, I thought. The addition of the characters of Teddy (John G) and Natalie both worked on all levels as they allowed us to witness how Lenny’s condition affects him while having other characters to observe and learn about the plot through. The organization of the story remained the same (past and present going back and forth) but was improved much by the intersection at the end, and the relevance that they had to each other in sharing the tale of Lenny setting up for the killing (twice). Not only is it a great movie, but it’s an incredible adaptation and really makes the short story even more impactful because we can see more in the story through the film than we would have otherwise.

Published by Blake Carson Schwarz

Indiana University graduate in Media and Creative Writing. I love to write my own stories as well as experience the work of others. On this site, I post reviews, essays, and other fun posts that I hope you have as much fun reading and I have writing. Please share any comments you have, I'd be happy to hear what you think! *Never a critic, always a fan*

One thought on “Adaptation Comparison: Memento Mori (Memento)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: