How Should Hollywood Portray Disease?

Kattlove feels that the portrayal of cancer as an always-deadly disease creates an environment of fear, undermining the work of medical professionals who remind people that cancer today is usually not a death sentence.

"It does fuel a lot of unnecessary anxiety," he said. "It's not as deadly as it's portrayed in movies."

But Kattlove appreciates that movies are drama, not science.

"Their function is to make a good story, and a successful treatment of cancer usually isn't a good story," he said.

The 'Rain Man' Effect

Despite the casual relationship Hollywood has with medical facts, in at least one case the film industry has successfully encouraged public understanding of an illness and its effects.

The 1988 film "Rain Man," Dustin Hoffman portrays an autistic man who has been shunted away in an institution -- his own brother, played by Tom Cruise, is surprised to learn of his existence.

"In terms of awareness, there was a pre-'Rain Man' period and a post-'Rain Man' period," said Lee Grossman, president and chief executive officer of the Autism Society of America. "It contributed to people's knowledge of what autism is."

Grossman calls the institutionalization of Hoffman's character an accurate depiction of what many families once experienced when a child was diagnosed with autism. The film, Grossman believes, was responsible for encouraging more humane treatment of autistics.

"Up until that time, hardly anyone had ever heard of autism and most people with autism were being institutionalized or were warehoused at home," he said. "I think it had a very positive impact."

Sensationalizing Autism

The pendulum, however, may have swung too far in the other direction.

Many portrayals of autistics in film and television show characters with uncanny mathematical or musical gifts. Hoffman's character in "Rain Man" was blessed with a mind capable of performing trigonometric calculations that would make a NASA geek blush.

"They show kids with superhuman strength or brainiacs," said Grossman, who wishes media portrayals would more closely reflect the day-to-day realities of living with autism.

"People would like to portray this condition in a sensational manner," he said, "and it's just not that way."

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