The Long & Short of It: Button, Button Vs. The Box


In 1986, Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” was the translated to one of “The New Twilight Zone’s” episodes. Nearly twenty years later, it would find its way to our screens again in The Box, starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. How Hollywood thought this was blockbuster thriller material is beyond me. The premise is simple, which makes it ideal for a television show’s episodic format: A cash-strapped couple are approached by a mysterious stranger and given a box, inside of which is a button. A choice is set before them: Press the button, and receive a large sum of money. The only catch is that, in doing so, someone they don’t know will die.

Adapting this to the big screen was destined for disaster, not just because it was based on a short story, but because this specific story is purposely ambiguous. Feature-length films are built on some amount of exposition, but “Button, Button” is meant to have no clear-cut answers. Under the Hollywood treatment, The Box starts to unravel when it stretches a relatively simple plot into a bloated movie-length running time. It strains under the weight of a lenghy backstory for the box, suggesting that it’s all a divine setup meant to measure mankind’s goodness. The story was never meant to be that damn complicated.

button - The Long & Short of It: Button, Button Vs. The Box

You’re not supposed to think about where the box came from, but the moral conundrum the box poses. In “The New Twilight Zone” episode, the couple even tries taking the box apart, only to find that it has no mechanism inside. There’s no visceral gore or jump scares, it’s mostly dialogue. Its strength is in the back-and-forth between the husband and wife, who debate opposing arguments. This decision’s not so cut-and-dry as you may think; it’s easy for anyone to be selfish when they have so much to gain and nothing to lose.

The episode’s ending differs wildly from that of the original text, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I honestly think it’s an improvement. Matheson’s version gives readers a Monkey’s Paw-like twist, wherein the woman’s husband dies in exchange for the money after she pushes the button, begging the question, “How much do you really know somebody?” But “The New Twilight Zone” gives this couple a taste of their own medicine when, after pressing the button, it dawns on them that the box will then be given to another family whom they don’t know.

box - The Long & Short of It: Button, Button Vs. The Box

The characters in “Button, Button” are left to stew in the terrible realization that their fates now depend on the goodwill of strangers. They may very well be the next victims of the box–and worse, they know they’ll deserve it. On the other hand, by pulling a literal deux ex machina The Box fails to be as thought-provoking as its “Twilight Zone predecessor.”

See, the argument for humanity is a lot less compelling if, as the movie suggests, our actions all boil down to a Sodom-style litmus test of righteousness by God. If we knew for a fact that there was a higher power, we’d all be falling over ourselves being upstanding citizens. It’s more interesting to wonder if we would still do the right thing if we had absolutely no incentive to do so. The couple in the story had exactly the same chances of being killed by the box if they took the money as if they hadn’t. Goodness has to be a choice, an active decision, otherwise it carries no weight. The Box chose cheap thrills and a convoluted twist in lieu of exploring this ethical grey area, and in doing so lost sight of what made the story so interesting to begin with.

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