Neuroscience at the Movies

Brain Tumors

This lesson was developed by Ms. Heather Stewart, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant
"What I'm talking about is the human spirit - that's the challenge, that's the voyage, that's the expedition."
-- George Malley, in Phenomenon

A brain tumor is a collection of cells that multiply uncontrollably within or around the brain. They are categorized in several ways, including by:

  • site of origin ("primary" if originating in the brain, "secondary" if site of origin is elsewhere in the body and cancerous cells have spread or metastasized to the brain)
  • degree of malignancy
  • rate of growth
  • involvement with surrounding tissue (ranging from "focal" or localized to highly invasive)
  • type of cells involved. The majority of brain tumors originate from glial cells especially astrocytes. Others types of brain tumors originate from vascular, meningeal or glandular tissue within the brain.

All of these factors can affect the ultimate outcome for the patient. Often in cases of small, localized, slow-growing and/or benign tumors located in a noncritical area of the brain, no treatment other than periodic monitoring of the tumor to detect any change in condition or state is prescribed. In more serious cases, treatment may include any combination of surgery, radiosurgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy to remove as much of the tumor as possible and to halt or slow its growth. As with tumors in other parts of the body, treatment may be extremely successful with total functional recovery and complete remission of the tumor; at other times, in the case of extremely invasive and/or fast-growing or recurrent tumors, the prognosis may be less favorable.

Film characters with brain tumors usually have little time to live -- usually less than a year. This limited time span may be due to artistic license in order to have a greater emotional impact or, especially in the case of earlier films, due to limited treatment options available. Regardless of the reason, we see characters, their families and friends come to terms with the illness before proceeding to rearrange their life priorities in order to live as meaningfully as possible in the time remaining. This may include reaffirming ties with close family and friends while taking some relationships to the next level, such as from friendship to romance (George in Phenomenon) or romance to marriage (Judy in Dark Victory). Future dreams become immediate goals in some films, as seen in Judy's ambitions for her horse and her marriage aspirations in Dark Victory and in George's desire to get his notes on agriculture, solar energy and seismology in order in Phenomenon. Sometimes family members are recruited to help bring life and last wishes to pass (Gilbert in Garbo Talks). In their numbered days, characters show their inner strength, and the noblest and truest picture of themselves is brought out, as seen in the fiery, independent and in-control Judy Traherne of Dark Victory, in the eternal social activism of Estelle in Garbo Talks, and in Phenomenon's George Malley, the man who wants to fix all that's broke in the world. In poignant terms, these characters remind us that none of us is guaranteed a full count of days, that every moment is a gift to be cherished and that being reminded of our mortality may be a blessing if it allows us to really live in a meaningful way -- even if only for a while -- without taking the most precious things for granted.

Questions to consider while viewing:

  • What kind of brain tumor did the characters have? What symptoms did the characters exhibit? What was their prognosis?
  • Did the character(s) have a support system -- family, friends, community -- to help him/her deal with the experience? If so, who or what was it? In what ways did these help?
  • Did the character decide to make some changes in his/her life after learning of the diagnosis? If so, what were they? Did the character have a last wish or something he/she wanted to accomplish before dying? If so, what was it?
  • If you had a similar diagnosis and prognosis, what support structure and resources would you draw upon? Would you change any priorities in your life? What would be your last wish or desired accomplishment?
  • If you watch two or more of these films, compare and contrast the affected characters' experiences, and how each responded to it.

Dark Victory


Middle School

Rated: NR


104 min.

"Someday you'll learn that courage is in the blood" -- Judy Traherne, about her horse to trainer Michael O'Leary (Humphrey Bogart). The 23-year-old Long Island socialite Judy Traherne (Bette Davis) develops a brain tumor (glioma). Although surgery is successful, recurrence of the tumor is inevitable and she's given less than a year to live. Defiant at first, she soon comes to terms with her illness, shifts her priorities and decides to spend the rest of her short life in a more meaningful way. She abandons the party circuit and favorite drinking buddy, Alec Hamin (played by future president Ronald Reagan), marries her surgeon (the eminent and refined Dr. Fredrick Steele, as played by George Brent), and moves to the bucolic Vermont countryside to spend the last of her numbered days enjoying life and supporting her husband's research into brain tumor growth. Surprisingly, from the initial neurological exam to discussion of the particular tumor type and surgery, this film gives more information regarding the patient's medical condition than most others. Worth discussing are the prevalence of smoking and drinking in the films in the days before the individual and social consequences of such were fully understood. Also, this is a good film to discuss aspects of patient confidentiality, i.e., is it ethical to withhold information about the patient's condition from the patient or to share that information with others without the patient's knowledge or consent.


Middle School

Rated: PG


123 min.

"I always said George Malley had something extra to offer" -- Doc, about George at his birthday party. On the night of his 37th birthday, after a party thrown by the town in his honor, well-loved mechanic and "regular guy" George Malley (John Travolta) witnesses a strange phenomenon: a bright approaching light and is never the same. Almost immediately he begins solving previously incomprehensible problems with ease, reading several books a night, sensing ULF (ultralow frequency) waves that herald earthquakes, learning foreign languages in 20 minutes and deciphering encrypted military codes. A few medical tests later, his doctor (Robert Duvall) reveals that a rare and extremely invasive brain tumor (astrocytoma) is responsible for his enhanced mental abilities, and that his time remaining is extremely limited. But the chase is on -- the military is after him to crack codes, the medical establishment wants his brain for research, and the local townsfolk want him to share his "UFO" story and the "trick" behind his telekinetic powers, while George just wants to spend his last days with his best friend, Nate Pope (Forest Whitaker) and love interest Lace Hinnamon (Kyra Sedgwick), and leave the world a larger legacy through his discoveries in agriculture and solar energy research.

A very enjoyable film with well-considered observations on human nature, in individuals as well as in groups (i.e., community, military, medical research establishment). Topics for further discussion: did George make the right decision in not helping the military or medical research groups? Who should decide how and where a possibly mentally compromised individual spends his last days? What problems would you work on solving if you had enhanced abilities and limited time? Inspiring soundtrack includes Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Garbo Talks


Middle School

Rated: PG-13


144 min.

"Perhaps it is better if I live in your heart where the world can't see me." -- Greta Garbo, Camille clip at film's opening. Estelle Rolfe (Anne Bancroft), lifelong social activist and Greta Garbo fan, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and given about six months to live. "I know everybody's gotta die, but I really thought I was gonna be the first exception." She tells her dutiful son, Gilbert (Ron Silver) that her only and last wish is to meet the elusive and reclusive Greta Garbo. Gilbert rearranges his life in order to try to fulfill his mother's wish, and ends up as a leading man instead of a walk-on character in his own life. A good look at how a challenging event for a lead character can transform the supporting characters - whether in film or in life, whether for better (Gilbert) or worse (Elizabeth, Garbo's understudy). "Make waves..start something." The big, as in Broadway-style, music is sometimes distracting, but not enough to miss this film.

Related links:

Movie Topics
Amnesia Autism Blindness Cognitive Impairment
Deafness Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Brain Tumors Feral Children
Neuroscience at the Movies


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