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  • Thursday, March 28, 2013
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  • William Dietrich
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  • Serendipity at work. I recently finished re-reading William Goldman's 1974 thriller "Marathon Man" and caught a PBS special on pleasure and pain.

    The Goldman book and subsequent Dustin Hoffman-Lawrence Olivier movie were famous for tapping our fears of dentistry. Its Nazi villain uses a dental drill as torture for his baffled victim, Thomas Babington "Babe" Levy. The first thing that makes the scene excruciating is that Babe truly doesn't know the answer to Christian Szell's nonsensical and endlessly repeated question, "Is it safe?" No amount of confession will stop the pain, because he doesn't know what to confess.

    Confusion and disorientation add to the torture.

    PBS host Michael Mosley points out that pain serves a vital purpose by protecting our body. He shows a young girl with no pain sensitivity who must be constantly watched because she doesn't know she's hurting herself. We need pain to survive.

    But pain is also in our heads. One thing that adds to it is anticipation, Mosley warns. Nazi Szell expertly plays on this by giving Babe (and the reader) plenty of time to build up dread before the drill starts to work. He describes the horror so Babe can build it up in his own mind.

    Another is setting. Pain is worse in strange and threatening surroundings. Babe awakens from assault  strapped into a dental chair in a sterile, windowless room. He doesn't know where he is, why he is there, or who is torturing him. There's a reason a good dentist has soothing music and pleasant pictures - it works to reduce the discomfort.

    Pain can be overcome in a dire emergency. Mosley interviews a Carolina farmer whose arm became enmeshed in a corn shucker that then caught fire. To save his life, the farmer cut through the muscles and nerves of his trapped arm and then literally snapped off his bone against the machine. The pain was excruciating but the farmer's first thought, he recalls, was, "I'm free."

    The Marathon Man also overcomes the pain of a beating and drilling to run free of his captors.

    In the PBS special, Mosely does a terrifying bungee jump off a dam, which he describes as the worst experience of his life. He doesn't really get an adrenaline rush, but he does feel intense relief once it's over.

    Goldman plays on this instinct expertly. Babe is rescued by the man who seems his only ally in a suddenly terrifying world, and we readers feel a rush of relief that our hero is finally free of the crazed Nazi. And then, in a hideous twist, our hero is returned to the demonic dental chair once again.
    The author plays the chemicals in the reader's fevered brain like a pipe organ.

    Thriller writing taps into primal emotions like pain, fear, greed, longing, lust, love, and vengeance. A
     skilled wordsmith like Goldman can set chemicals brewing in our brain that sets off these feelings, giving a vicarious thrill.

    It's interesting how the movie improves on the book. In the original, the hero turns into cold-blooded executioner, reduced by Nazi cruelty and pain to the level of his persecutor. He shoots Szell.

    The film has a more satisfying if less realistic conclusion in which the villain's attempt to kill the hero with a hidden knife is foiled by his greedy clutch at Holocaust diamonds. As he tumbles down some stairs, Szell fatally stabs himself. Serves you right, sadistic dentist!

    The last thing we see is Babe's lip curling in exhausted satisfaction, revealing the hole drilled in his front tooth.

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