From 'The Last Man' To 'Contagion': How a 19th Century Novel And a Hollywood Film Predicted COVID-19

By Joseph Coughlan,  Legends Report Writer

Warning: Contains spoilers for both The Last Man (1826) by Mary Shelley and Contagion (2011) by Steven Soderbergh.


Throughout late 2019 up until this point in 2021 we have all suffered in relation to COVID-19 at varying levels. Questions arise over the capabilities of our governments and leaders; the trust we have in each other to the point cracks in our society begin to become more opaque and how we could have ever prevented loved ones from succumbing to this disease. We may even wonder where this all originated and was it possible that it could have been prevented. Could WE have done anything more to prevent it? Could two works of fiction inspired by real pandemics separated by 185 years and a likewise amount of time to learn and progress have foreshadowed our shortcomings?

In the UK, as we put on our face masks to enter the supermarket, make sure we are far enough away from the next person in the queue to the bank or wonder when if we may ever see our friends and family in person again, this situation continues to circulate in our minds. We often make comparisons to other epidemics and pandemics in regards from anything from similarities between them to the apparent inevitability “that it will be gone soon”. In fact, the latter point in its blasé attitude could be a reason for why we didn’t act sooner. Laurie Garrett, science journalist and author of several published works predicting pandemics and analysis of past epidemics states:

When you get sick you think you can take a pill and it just goes away – that comfort is false.” 

While we suffer now, it is entirely possible we could have done something more.


Diseases Throughout History

If we look back to history regarding an issue of this magnitude, we’ll easily come across The Black Plague (the second pandemic plague of the bubonic plague) that ravaged the entire world from 1347 to 1353 claiming the lives of anywhere between 75-200 million people, accounting for 30-60% of the European population at the time. The world at that time was less equipped to deal with something of that kind to the point that early theories amongst those around that it was “the coming of God” and the response to the inevitable deaths of many was to begin to dig graves early. After the end of The Black Plague, the bubonic plague continued to appear in many different places across the world even hundreds of years later, claiming up to a million lives per time span and region. This would continue sporadically even into the 1800s, joining other diseases such as Typhus, Cholera and Yellow Fever, all of this leading up to the publication of a work known as The Last Man. 

The Last Man: A Novel of Loss And a Warning of The Future

The Last Man was a novel published in 1826 by Mary Shelley, most famously known for her 1818 work Frankenstein. The novel is set in a distant future where the plague has returned and sends humanity in a downward course for destruction and extinction. Throughout the novel, its lead character Lionel Verney loses many loved ones across his journey as his struggle for control over the situation begins to escape his own and the rest of civilisation's grip. Around the time of and just prior to the novels writing, Shelley had watched many of her loved ones pass away in quick succession, including her first three children in their infancy, husband Percy Blythe Shelley, her close friend Lord Byron and his associate John Polidori, the latter three playing huge parts in the conceptualisation of Frankenstein. Within the work, Mrs Shelley seemed to forewarn us all of our frailty that we disguise with thin glass:

Diseases haunt our frail humanity, 

Through noon, through night, on casual wing they glide, 

Silent, - a voice the power all-wise denied. 

Once man was a favourite of the Creator, as the royal psalmist sang, “God had made him a little lower than the angels, and had crowned him with glory and honour. God made him to have dominion over the works of his hands and put all things under his feet.” Once it was so; now is man lord of the creation? Look at him – ha! I see plague! She has invested his form, is incarnate in his flesh, has entwined herself with his being, and blinds his heaven-seeking eyes.

The response at the time to this work may provide a glimpse into the negligence of us as a society in the events that would proceed in the centuries to come. Initial reviews of the work attacked its content and tore apart its theme of “lastness” while also possibly angered towards her take on war and politics at the time and even branded Mrs Shelley as “sickening” according to one reviewer.

Despite the theme of lastness being fairly common during that time, found in works with the exact same title such as the 1824 poem by Thomas Campbell and even decades later such as in the 1849 painting by John Martin, the criticism affected the work so much that it would disappear entirely after 1833. In the same year as it was initially published in 1826, the second Cholera pandemic struck and along with the continuing presence across the world of the previously mentioned diseases was the surfacing larger outbreaks of smallpox, malaria and influenza. The latter of which would mutate into the subtype H1N1 and would cause the 1918 influenza pandemic, known commonly as the Spanish Flu, which would become the deadliest period for disease since the Black Plague, claiming between 17-100 million lives in just the 2 years of its existence. In comparison to World War I, which was occurring and ending during the start of this pandemic, claimed 20 million lives total. 

Mary Shelley’s novel was not republished until 1965. Perhaps if we weren’t so dismissive and took the message with more caution, the work may still have been in circulation in the nearly 60-year gap and we could have taken better approaches with what resources we had at the time. If anything, it also shows that even though we may only exist on Earth for one lifetime, our actions and causes could have effect on the generations ahead of us. 

A disease of this magnitude did not claim nearly as many lives for decades to come, could in part be due to the invention of penicillin in 1938 and vast improvements of practises, organisations and resources throughout the 20thcentury (barring the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is unfortunately still occurring and holds no known cure as of writing, and has claimed 35 million deaths as of 2018). After several near skirmishes with new viruses entering the 21st century, an idea was formed to create a new film based on these viral infections. 

Contagion: A Glimpse of The Near Future?

Contagion was released in September 2011 to mostly positive reviews and had a decent outing at the box office, doubling its $60 million budget at least. Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns worked together to come up with a viral infection movie that would capture the most realistic depiction of a pandemic to date.

In the years leading up to the writing of the film, the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak occurred which thankfully was dealt with before it got out of control, and during the writing, the 2009-2010 Swine flu pandemic took hundreds of thousands of lives before that too was stamped out. Thus, the writing work was based on the medical and scientific practises imposed during these incidents as well as the social response amongst the population to the situations leading to members of the scientific community calling the film accurate in its portrayal. Science writer Carl Winter wrote in relation to the actual practises used in viral research so they were portrayed accurately through a dramatic medium:

It shows how reconstructing the course of an outbreak can provide crucial clues, such as how many people an infected person can give a virus to, how many of them get sick, and how many of them die.” 

Considering that the film was seen by many in its theatrical run and was hugely popular during its home media release (even including topping the DVD and Blu-Ray charts in sales for its initial release week), we note that its popularity continued into 2012, and only 7 years later we find ourselves in a pandemic that isn’t too much different from what is portrayed in the film. We see ourselves returning to the same issue caused by the response to Mrs Shelley’s The Last Man nearly 200 years previous despite the reception being polarly opposite – we did not take the message seriously enough.

It was again in the public view throughout 2020, as many began to notice its glaring similarities to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and thus became one of the most viewed films on streaming platforms and on illegal streaming websites. Things like the mentioning of social distancing, isolation periods (mentioned as incubation periods in the film), limiting contact outside of family bubbles, to the realisation that the virus originated from a bat, as what is theorised to where COVID-19 originated. Even characters in the film seem to portray people or carry elements that we may think sound familiar to recent times; Dr. Ellis Cheever (played by Laurence Fishburne) is a representative of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) who struggles to keep the situation under control despite mounting pressure from peers and members of the public going into confusion and panic, yet he is put in controversy for ignoring health and safety rules that he put forth to benefit those closest to him – several members of parliament in England alone have been guilty of this; or Alan Krumwiede (played by Jude Law), a conspiracy theorist blogger who questions where the disease came from and uses propaganda and protests to turn the public against the medical corporations included in the film despite using unproven information - much like the various protests seen around the world in a similar manner or the number of flyers and stickers seen plastered in some populated areas.  

The Common Ground...

Ultimately, this look into two pieces of differing art forms on the same subject matter from separate time periods and the reaction and comparison to current events could be deemed inconclusive as to where we are exactly failing. However, I have noticed a similarity that could be where the existential issue lies: Care. For ourselves, for others, for the world. We hear the word often enough to the point that it’s quite possible we take it for granted.

The CDC website states:

Researchers in London estimate that if everyone routinely washed their hands, a million deaths a year could be prevented.

It should come across as shocking that a slight bit of negligence could cause this much, however, we may also be currently negligent to the creators of the fiction analysed above: Mary Shelley had lost many loved ones by the time of writing The Last Man, and she thinly concealed the fact that the characters in the book were based on those close to her. Lead character Lionel Verney loses his own spouse, his own children, his closest friends. Mrs Shelley likened her scenario to a plague, one that really did exist before and during, and left her heartfelt words for all to see, leaving behind a part of herself inside her warning for humanity in her art. And for a long while, nobody seemed to listen. 

Writer of Contagion, Scott Z. Burns spoke and worked alongside many real health experts, including representatives of the WHO (World Health Organisation) for an accurate depiction of a modern pandemic, with emphasis on the lives and efforts of doctors, medical advisors and scientists throughout the rush for a cure, which director Steven Soderbergh, the cast and other crew members carried a mutual understanding and care for throughout its production to leave behind a piece of art that could carry a message into the future for its audience and for current generations and beyond for a chance that we could improve. 

Despite his flaws, the character of Dr. Ellis Cheever has the right attitude to the handling of potential deadly disease:

I would prefer we overreacted than if millions of people lost their lives.” 


Where Do We Go From Here? 

Leaving behind these works for us not just as a form of entertainment, but as something to carry with us, to make us think, make us feel, so we can learn and grow from them. Mary Shelley puts it as such: 

Poetry and its creations, philosophy and its researches and classifications, alike awoke the sleeping ideas in my mind, and gave me new ones.”

Along with the humane and philosophical reasonings, there is also the practical side, with care proactively taken to this and the future of humanity in mind, all really comes down to practise and further funding on disease prevention. Nathan Wolfe, a virologist who worked as an initiative and technical advisor on Contagion himself mentions:  

 “There will be more and more of these viruses that are entering, and there will be devastating viruses that will occur in all of our lifetimes. The real question and how future generations will judge us is to what extent we were prepared for it. We need to get ahead of the curve, we need to be approaching these things, how are we going to go out there and predict the occurrence of these pandemics and how we prevent them.”

We will always be aware of our mistakes throughout history, how we respond to and learn from them is what matters. What we can do, and what you can do right now, is think not just about what decisions could impact you as just an individual, but what could impact others in their own situations?

We have all suffered at various levels from the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a shared pain we all have – so why do we allow ourselves to suffer individually? Speak to each other, listen to our stories, take our health and well-being more seriously, understand one another regardless of what side of the fence you are on, learn from our struggles to build and progress in ourselves and thus as a society. Maybe if we can do more in this regard, we may no longer look at a book or a film as a sign we should have done better – we could look at them and know that we actually did something with the lessons they left behind for us all. A lot of a little is a lot. If you'd like to connect with me or others in line with this, just complete the form below or contact us on our live chat. 

To live, according to this sense of the word, we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description…

Let us live for each other and for happiness; let us seek peace in our dear home, near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave ‘life’, that we may live.”

With special thanks to those who dedicate their lives to preventing widespread disease. 

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