Saturday, January 4, 2014

Books on Film: Girl, Interrupted

Susanna Kaysen published Girl, Interrupted in 1993. The book is based on her own life, experiences she had during the 1960s as a young woman. The best-selling book gained even more fame later in the decade when Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, among an ensemble cast, made a movie about it.

The Book

Girl, Interrupted is well-written, but it's a bit hard to follow because it doesn't follow a linear story. The book details Susanna's stay in a mental hospital after receiving a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. She lived for nearly two years at McLean, and later obtained her file from the hospital. 

The book is a collection of stories about her life in the hospital and before her admittance. The theme of freedom is a running thread throughout. She was 18 in 1967, a tumultuous time for many people in the United States. She was admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt, and a stay that was meant to be a couple of weeks extended to 18 months.

Cynthia, Polly, Georgina, Daisy and Lisa are also at the hospital, and figure prominently in the book. Some staff members, including Dr. Wick and Valerie, are also central characters in the story. Lisa Rowe is one of the more fascinating patients in the hospital, self-proclaimed as a diagnosed sociopath. She leaves the hospital often but is returned after only a few days, rarely eats or sleeps and gets a rise out of terrorizing the staff. Polly Clark is disfigured and scarred following a childhood incident in which she set herself on fire.

Georgina Tuskin has schizophrenia, and she's Susanna's roommate. They're good friends throughout the story, though Georgina calls herself a pathological liar. Daisy Randone stays in the hospital from Thanksgiving to Christmas every year, and spends most of her time inside her private room. Daisy peels the meat off of chickens and keeps the carcasses until she has 14. This is how she knows it's time to leave the hospital. Only Lisa can enter Daisy's room. Later, she commits suicide on her birthday.

The book extends beyond Susanna's stay in the hospital, detailing her difficulty in finding a job as a former mental patient. She keeps in contact with Georgina, who gets married but remains somewhat strange. Susanna runs into Lisa by chance one day. She's now a respectable suburban mother, but beneath this polish Susanna can see remnants of the old Lisa.

The Film

As Susanna, Winona Ryder was meant to be the star of Girl, Interrupted, but Angelina Jolie is the one who stood out as Lisa. Susanna is staying at Claymoore Hospital in the movie. Clea DuVall plays Georgina, Brittany Murphy is Daisy and Whoopi Goldberg plays nurse Valerie.

In the movie, Susanna is instantly drawn to lively Lisa and the two start perpetrating antics at once. They trade pills instead of taking them, sneak into the doctor's office and play guitar in the hall in the middle of the night. After they're caught from this incident, Lisa disappears and Susanna becomes depressed.

Lisa returns one night and breaks Susanna out of the hospital. They go to Daisy's house, because she's been recently released from the hospital at this point, and Lisa needles her. In the morning, Daisy is discovered dead.
Susanna decides to use the institution after this, expressing her thoughts and feelings until she is released.

What Got Adapted?

The movie presents a pretty clear-cut plot, which the book does not. The new organization of the narrative erases much of Susanna's musings about the nature of sanity and freedom, so some of the themes of the story are lost in translation. 

Some elements of the movie's narrative are entirely invented. The night that Susanna and Lisa run away, and the night before Susanna leaves the hospital, are fabricated. Lisa's character is expanded on film, possibly to give watchers more of Jolie, and Georgina's role is lessened for the movie. Daisy's story is expanded and altered, and Valerie's character is changed almost completely.

The ice cream scene is also added (clearly, as this would never happen), and the bowling alley scene never happened in the book. The movie is so different, in fact, that the author herself has denounced it and fans of the book have criticized it roundly. Read the book and watch the film to judge for yourself whether the adaptation is any good.

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  1. I saw this movie back in the 1990s and enjoyed it, but I have not read the book. After reading this review the book and the movie sound like they are quite different from each other. I will have to check out the book. Thanks for sharing!