Diabetes in the Movies


The only movie I’ve ever seen in which diabetes plays a prominent role is Christopher Nolan’s 2000 thriller Memento. The protagonist of this film, Leonard, looses his short-term memory, but his diabetic wife thinks he’s faking. To force him to stop “pretending,” she asks him to give her an injection of insulin. He does so. A few minutes later, she tells him again: “It’s time for my insulin.” Leonard repeatedly injects her with insulin until she goes into a coma and dies.

image from www.wikipedia.org

When I saw this movie for a high school assignment, I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with diabetes, but my brother had. My mom made a reassuring assessment of the movie’s plotholes (Once Leonard has given his wife several injection, wouldn’t she finally realize he’s not faking his condition and drink some orange juice? If Leonard saw his wife going into a coma, wouldn’t he call an ambulance?) Still, I found the movie very disturbing. It reminded me that diabetics are constantly vulnerable, despite every attempt to manage their condition as well as possible.

After watching Memento, I’ve never felt the desire to watch another movie about a diabetic. This is partly just my taste; while some people find it comforting to watch movies that address their health issues, I’m usually more of an escapist–I’m not sure I’d seek out a movie about a diabetic character even if the portrayal wasn’t depressing. Still, watching Memento made me curious. Were there any other movies about diabetics?

My google search of “diabetics” and “movies” yielded a list from dLife.com of several movies with diabetic characters. From the accompanying short description of each, I found out that there are films with diabetic characters in all different genres. You can see the full list here.

In most thrillers, like Memento, diabetes is introduced as a fatal flaw for other characters to exploit. As you can probably imagine all too well, inducing hypo- or hyperglycemia in a diabetic is an effective way to put that character’s life in danger. In Big Nothing, an agent is killed when he is force-fed sugar by his nemeses. In The Panic Room, a girl has a seizure induced by low blood sugar while trapped in the panic room without her glucagon. In Con Air a convict’s syringes are destroyed in the middle of an airplane flight and the convict is unable to take a necessary shot of insulin.

Dramas also explore the hardships associated with diabetes, albeit less sensationally. The problems mentioned in many of these movies are ones with which many people, including me, can empathize. Bread & Roses portrays a woman in financial difficulties because of her husband’s diabetes. In Mad Money the protagonist’s coworkers mistakenly believe she’s a drug addict after seeing a syringe fall from her purse. In Chocolat (the one movie on dLife’s list I’ve seen besides Memento), Judi Dench plays a grandmother with diabetes. Despite pressure from her daughter to stick to a diet, Dench’s character secretly buys hot chocolate at the the newly opened chocolate shop in town. dLife includes a quote by Dench about the grandmother’s role in the film: “At the end, through the metaphor of chocolate, people are able to embrace a free lifestyle and sexual freedom and reject repression of all kinds. And that wasn’t available to the woman with diabetes. Well, it was, but at a price.” This price, eventually, is death. Nevertheless, the film isn’t moralistic. While the chocolate shop contributes to the deterioration of the grandmother’s heath, it also heals her emotionally and prompts her to take a new interest in her grandson and the other townspeople.

If the depiction of diabetics’ weakness in most films depresses you, you might appreciate the fantastical superpowers somehow attributed to diabetics in horror flicks. In Scarecrow Gone Wild, a diabetic boy goes into a coma and emerges as a scarecrow bent on taking revenge on the football players who’ve tormented him. In The Warlock, a syringe is a diabetic girl’s weapon of choice when she destroys the warlock. (Apparently an injection of salt water is lethal to warlocks. Who knew?) At least it’s gratifying that a character’s diabetes condition empowers her to defeat an evil character, and not vice versa.

I’m curious as to what other people think about movies with diabetic characters. Do you enjoy or avoid watching them? Are there portrayals of diabetics from certain movies that you find especially accurate or moving? Which movies with diabetic characters would you recommend to others?

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Richard Martin Taylor
Richard Martin Taylor
9 years ago

I had a hypo whilst out shopping not long after Panic Room had been released. Thinking the movie was an educational video a kindly stranger read my medic alert bracelet, and rather than calling for an ambulance thought my insulin injection pen was glucagon and decided to give a 60 unit dose. People don’t distinguish between movies and reality.

11 years ago

I just saw “I love you, Phillip Morris” and the character Phillip Morris Has D. I half expected it to lead to some sort of plot twist, but It didn’t really. It was just kind of like”Oh, By the way, I’m Diabetic.” Which I kind of liked, mostly because usually in movies, when a character has D, the writers put it in the script so it can lead to something bad happening, which makes people think that if you have D, you’re pretty much doomed to be held hostage, or have a low at an inopportune time, Which generally isn’t… Read more »

jane gardiner
11 years ago

Just rewatched the Godfather films, and Michael Corleone has insulin dependent  diabetes in the third film – loved the scene with the priest, where he very convincingly gobbles down orange juice and food. He does recover very fast, though! However, not so keen on the “diabetic coma” and the diabetes being used as a symbol of his weakening, aging and dependency on others.

12 years ago

Memento was a pretty dang good movie! Very interesting! The DO need to make a movie that better displays living life with diabetes. I shall go talk to my friend Stephen King. ;)

Dr. Margaret A. Morris
12 years ago

In the second season of Damages, the character played by William Hurt is a diabetic, and is shown taking injections. I kept thinking this would become a plot point, and someone would try to kill him with insulin or something, but thus far it hasn’t… (But I’m only in season two! Please don’t tell me if something does happen later on!)

12 years ago

In the movie Steel Magnolias, Chronic Kidney Disease from Type I Diabetes is what kills Julia Roberts. Even though you can have a kidney transplant, you still are in kidney failure, and what ultimately killed the writer’s sister (whom the character was based upon).

12 years ago

I always read the death of the wife in Memento as a suicide – she was depressed about his condition and let him kill her, effectively. He knew it (…for 5 minutes), and deliberately lead himself to believe otherwise. Of all diabetes-based movies, it’s the one that’s annoyed me the least, frankly. ConAir is unforgivable (…if otherwise amazing), and what on earth kills Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias besides a hard-cord case of Plotitis?

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