Sunday, September 2, 2012

Books on Film: The Bell Jar

Lots of readers make the argument that books, which are so rich and full, cannot possibly fit into a movie that offers only a few hours of entertainment at best. There is perhaps one book that makes this argument more eloquently than any other: The Bell Jar. The trouble is, someone did try to turn it into a movie...and all the book fans just hated it.

The Book

The only book Sylvia Plath ever wrote, The Bell Jar was published very close to the time of her suicide in 1963. From what we know about Plath's short life, most critics speculate that she was writing about many of the personal experiences she had during the summer of 1953.

That's the setting of the book. It's hot in New York City, and Esther Greenwood is a young writer full of dreams. The story opens as Esther is thinking about the execution of the Rosenbergs, convicted communists. She's in the big city for the first time, seemingly with the world at her feet...and she's terrified. She's one of several girls who have won the joy of working at a women's magazine (loosely based on Mademoiselle, for which Plath did intern). 

There's Doreen, who always has a quick quip. And there's Betsy, nicknamed "Pollyanna Cowgirl," a bubbly sorority girl. And there are others, but Esther hasn't really made any close friendships during her internship as an editor. She's uncomfortable at the final banquet and her mind is scattered -- filled with thoughts of home and thoughts of the Rosenbergs. 

She's hoping for something wonderful to happen during the internship...but the only thing that happens is the execution. She returns home to Massachusetts instead, feeling defeated. Esther is a writer, so she decides to start writing a book. 

But what will she write about? Esther has spent her life being a student, not actually living, so she ends up staring at blank pages for hours and hours. What will she do instead of writing? She's a woman, it's the 1950s, and Esther has absolutely no idea. She has no interest in being married, which is what women are expected to do, and traditional "womanly" careers (like being a stenographer) don't really appeal to her. 

She is sinking ever-deeper into mind-numbing depression, and her mother begins to notice. She forces Esther to begin seeing Dr. Gordon, whom Esther immediately dislikes. He prescribes electroconvulsive therapy, also known as electric shock. It makes her think, of course, of the Rosenbergs being electrified to death.

Things get worse. Esther begins to obsess about suicide, and even makes some fledgling attempts toward this end. Finally her attempts get more serious, and she swallows a bottle of sleeping pills after leaving a good-bye note. She's discovered under her own house, survives, and is sent to a mental hospital. This is where she meets Dr. Nolan. At the hospital, Esther receives therapy and more shock treatments.

At the end of the book, Esther is preparing herself to walk into the interview room of the hospital where it will be decided if she may return back home.

This book is about suicide, but it's about a whole lot more. Esther is too smart for her own good, too filled with dreams and too eager to prove herself. She puts so much pressure on herself, the weight of it begins to crush her. I can identify with that, and I think many authors can also identify with it. Esther is also a product of her times, and trapped by her gender. What she wants feels impossible in 1953: sex without children, men without marriage, career without boundaries.

It's not possible to talk about The Bell Jar without talking about Sylvia Plath. It was her only book and by all accounts it was semi-autobiographical. We know, now, that Plath finally succumbed to the madness she found in the bell jar -- that stifling, trapped feeling where thoughts and emotions swirl around and around in your head without end. 

It's a well-loved book, but lots of readers agree that it's just not filmable. Filmmakers, naturally, are inclined to disagree. 

The Film

 Many readers have a great love for The Bell Jar, but very few have love for the 1979 film. It is, to date, the only feature-length film adaptation of the book...but there is reason to hope that may change.

And you should, because by all accounts the film is fairly terrible if you try to compare it against the book. As a novel, The Bell Jar is largely considered to be an epic narrative of teen angst. Marilyn Hassett, who played Esther Greenwood in the '79 flick, was 32. This immediately throws off the film.

 She's not the biggest name, and I am not a fan of 70s-era movies, so I've never seen any of her other work. She may, in fact, be a brilliant actress. She is not so convincing as Esther. In the film, Esther isn't depressed -- she's more manic than anything, and there's even some suggestion that she might be schizophrenic. No one seems to have a real clear grasp on Esther's mental trouble, least of all the lead actress. She goes from high to low like it's nothing, and might be giddy one second and furious in the next. In the book, Esther is very quietly suffering and doing her very best to remain self-contained (that's why she's in a bell jar, after all).

What Got Adapted?

The film adds quite a bit of dialogue and several scenes that don't occur in the book. Throughout the film, a voice-over quotes some of Sylvia Plath's most famous poetry, an addition that many readers have found offensive and, at best, distracting. The character of Joan, whom Esther meets in the hospital, tries to convince Esther to strike up a suicide pact. This doesn't happen in the book.

Casual reviewers and critics have all panned the film, but some credit has to go to the cast and the crew for attempting to adapt the book in the first place. Plum Pictures has been laboring for years to do the same. They announced a Bell Jar project in 2008 with Julia Stiles starring as Esther and Rose McGowan as her outgoing friend Doreen. We're still waiting.

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  1. For a film to be able to expand our emotional bandwidth – and not bore us away – it doesn’t necessarily need to be sumptuously shot, and it doesn’t need to be cerebral.