"Button, Button" is the second segment of the twentieth episode from the first season (1985–86) of the television series The Twilight Zone. The episode is based on the short story of the same name by Richard Matheson; the same short story forms the basis of the 2009 film The Box. The original idea might be taken from passage 1.6.2 of The Genius of Christianity (1802) by François-René de Chateaubriand, in which the authors asks the reader what he would do if he could get rich by killing a mandarin in China solely by force of will, which had already inspired the novella The Mandarin (O Mandarim) by Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós.
Arthur and Norma Lewis are a couple slowly descending into abject poverty. One day, they receive a mysterious locked box with a button on it and a note that says Mr. Steward will come visit. Then, just as the note says, a smartly dressed stranger who introduces himself as Mr. Steward comes to their door while Arthur is out. He gives Norma the key to the box and explains that, if they press the button, two things will happen: they will receive $200,000 and someone "whom [they] don't know" will die.
After the stranger leaves, the Lewises wonder whether Steward's proposal is genuine, and they agonize over whether to press the button. Norma rationalizes that they could make good use of the money and that the one who dies might be an old Chinese peasant or a person with cancer. Arthur takes the side that pressing the button may cause the death of an innocent baby. They open the box and discover no mechanism inside; it is simply an empty box with a button on it. Arthur throws the box in the trash but Norma retrieves it. The next day, Arthur leaves for work and sees Norma sitting at the kitchen table, her gaze transfixed on the button. When he returns from work that night Norma is still sitting and concentrating only on the button. Time passed and Norma remains fixated on the box. Finally she decides to push the button, much to her husband's disgust.
The next day Mr. Steward returns, takes back the box, and gives the shocked Lewises a briefcase with the $200,000. Norma asks what will happen next. Steward ominously replies that the button will be "reprogrammed" and offered to someone else with the same terms and conditions, adding as he focuses on Norma: "I can assure you it will be offered to someone whom you don't know."
"Button, Button" was first published in Playboy, June 1970, a short story written by Richard Matheson. The story was republished as part of a collection of Matheson's short stories.
In the original short story, the plot is resolved differently. Norma presses the button, and receives the money—after her husband dies in a train incident where Arthur is pushed onto the tracks (the money was the no-fault insurance settlement, which is $50,000 instead of the $200,000 in the Twilight Zone episode). A despondent Norma asks the stranger why her husband was the one who was killed. The stranger replies, "Did you really think you knew your husband?"
Matheson strongly disapproved of the Twilight Zone version, especially the new ending, and used his pseudonym Logan Swanson for the teleplay.
The Box, a feature film based on this story, starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, was released in 2009. The Twilight Zone episode is played out within the first hour, followed by further events within the context of the film's additional plot. Basil Hoffman, the actor who plays Steward in the Twilight Zone episode, also appears in the film, but as character Don Poates.
A radio play version of the story, written by Henry Slesar, was also produced. As the CBS Radio Mystery Theater Presents 15th episode, entitled "The Chinaman Button", it was first broadcast January 20, 1974. It was repeated at least twice: on March 15, 1974, and again October 7, 1978.
In this version of the story, a man who is desperate for money is offered the chance to make a fortune. All he has to do is commit an anonymous murder where he will not even have to see the victim. Actors for this radio play were Mason Adams, Paul Hecht, Evie Juster, Ralph Bell, and Will Hare.Matheson, Richard (2005). Stanley Wiater, ed. Richard Matheson: Collected Stories, Vol. 3. Gauntlet Press.