SEARCH­ING FOR SYLVIA

She has been ref­er­enced count­less times in pop­u­lar cul­ture as a sym­bol of fe­male angst. Can a new film fi­nally do jus­tice to Plath the writer, asks Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

Actress Kirsten Dunst had been drop­ping hints about her fea­ture di­rect­ing debut, but now the se­cret is well and truly out. She has cowrit­ten an adap­ta­tion of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in which Dakota Fan­ning will star. The prospect has been greeted with a mix­ture of an­tic­i­pa­tion and dread. Bring­ing Plath to the screen has al­ways been a messy busi­ness.

Dunst had been leav­ing a few clues when she spoke be­fore about her plans. She was adapt­ing a book set in the 1950s “that most women have read”, she told Indiewire last year. She is only too well aware that The Bell Jar is a com­plex, dif­fi­cult book to adapt, full of pit­falls and chal­lenges.

There is an aura around the fig­ure of Plath that shows no signs of di­min­ish­ing. Her fame is post­hu­mous. Only one work, a book of po­ems called The Colos­sus, was pub­lished in her life­time. The Bell Jar ap­peared un­der a pseu­do­nym a mat­ter of weeks be­fore her death by sui­cide on Fe­bru­ary 11, 1963. Since then, she has be­come a lit­er­ary and cul­tural phe­nom­e­non with a seem­ingly un­stop­pable lit­er­ary af­ter­life. In the wake of her posthu­mously pub­lished po­ems, prose, let­ters, jour­nals and chil­dren’s sto­ries there has been a flood of writ­ing about her: bi­ogra­phies, mem­oirs and fiction, of­ten with a highly par­tial, for-or-against po­si­tion when it comes to dis­cussing Plath and her re­la­tion­ship with Ted Hughes, the hus­band from whom she was es­tranged in the fi­nal months of her life.

Hughes, at least, does not fig­ure in The Bell Jar. It is a first-per­son nar­ra­tive, the story of Es­ther Green­wood, a driven col­lege stu­dent who goes to New York dur­ing her sum­mer break to take up a guest ed­i­tor­ship at a mag­a­zine for young women. Her am­bi­tions col­lapse in de­mor­al­is­ing fash­ion. Re­turn­ing to col­lege, she is caught up in alien­ation and de­pres­sion; a sui­cide at­tempt is fol­lowed by shock ther­apy treat­ment. Yet, by the end, there’s a sense that she has lived through and be­yond what she has ex­pe­ri­enced, an in­ti­ma­tion of re­newal.

Many of its de­tails cor­re­spond to events in Plath’s life, yet its au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sta­tus is mis­lead­ing and it is un­wise to see it as a har­bin­ger of Plath’s fate. It’s a sharp, funny, of­ten fu­ri­ous book, with a sar­donic voice that re­flects on con­form­ity, sex­ual de­sire and re­pres­sion, on the con­straints that limit women’s lives at ev­ery turn.

Plath won a lit­er­ary fellowship to write it but also called it “a pot­boiler”. It was pub­lished in Eng­land un­der the name of Vic­to­ria Lu­cas; only in 1966 was Plath’s name on the cover. It did not ap­pear in the US un­til 1971. Plath’s mother, dis­tressed by recog­nis­able portraits of peo­ple — in­clud­ing her — had hoped it would never be pub­lished there.

The Bell Jar was filmed in 1979 by di­rec­tor Larry Peerce. It’s a clumsy work that takes sev­eral liberties with the novel. It is prob­a­bly best known for the court case brought against it by Jane V. An­der­son, who claimed she had been the model for a char­ac­ter in the book and film. The film rather than the book was the fo­cus of her case be­cause of in­ci­dents that ap­peared in the for­mer but not the lat­ter — in the movie she was shown making sex­ual ad­vances to Es­ther and propos­ing a sui­cide pact. The court found she had been “un­in­ten­tion­ally de­famed” and she was awarded dam­ages.

Other ac­tresses have lent their tal­ents to the work: Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal and Frances McDor­mand have made au­dio­book record­ings of The Bell Jar, find­ing con­trast­ing ways to con­vey its dis­tinc­tive nar­ra­tive voice. There have been pre­vi­ous at­tempts to film it, no­tably by actress Ju­lia Stiles ( Save the Last Dance, the Ja­son Bourne series), who ac­quired the rights and spent many years de­vel­op­ing it, with a script by Tris­tine Skyler. She fi­nally re­lin­quished the rights but has said that if some­one else were to make The Bell Jar, she would rel­ish the op­por­tu­nity to play a role. She talked sev­eral times, through the years, of the prob­lems the book’s form posed for a film­maker. “The difficulty in adapt­ing a novel like this is that so much is es­tab­lished by Es­ther’s in­te­rior nar­ra­tive. On the other hand, Es­ther’s vis­ual metaphors and hal­lu­ci­na­tory imag­i­na­tion are per­fectly cinematic,” she wrote.

Bring­ing the fig­ure of Sylvia Plath to the screen also has had its prob­lems. Meg Ryan had a Plath biopic project in de­vel­op­ment for many years. She bought the rights to Paul Alexan­der’s 1991 bi­og­ra­phy, Rough Magic, hop­ing to star in it or, when that no longer seemed fea­si­ble, to pro­duce a film ver­sion. Her con­cept of Plath, she said, was of a woman torn be­tween roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. “To be an artist and a mother — those are two very dif­fi­cult things to rec­on­cile.”

But a biopic did get made: Sylvia (2003), di­rected by Chris­tine Jeffs, star­ring Gwyneth Pal­trow as Plath, and Daniel Craig as Hughes. Bri­tish pro­ducer Ali­son Owen pitched it as “the great­est love story of the cen­tury”, but it turned out to be a sur­pris­ingly tepid film, cau­tious in the way it de­picted the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the pair, and re­duc­tively drawn to in­ti­ma­tions of Plath’s death.

It was pre­ceded by plenty of con­tro­versy. Frieda Hughes, painter, poet and daugh­ter of Plath and Hughes, was scathing about the project and ex­pressed her fury in a poem pub­lished in Tatler. The es­tate re­fused the film­mak­ers the rights to quote from Plath’s work. “They think I should give them my mother’s words / To fill the mouth of their monster / Their Sylvia Sui­cide Doll,” she wrote. Yet it dis­ap­peared swiftly from view. Dunst, in an in­ter­view in 2004 for Ny­lon, in­di­cated she was al­ready in­ter­ested in Plath and that she would have liked to have played her. Sylvia, she sug­gests, mis­un­der­stood the na­ture of Plath.

The real growth in­dus­try has been Plath as a cul­tural cameo: film, tele­vi­sion and pop­u­lar cul­ture have em­braced her, us­ing her name or ref­er­ences to her work to de­note cer­tain qual­i­ties or char­ac­ter­is­tics. It’s a con­ve­nient short­hand, in­voked to stand for an as­pect of the fe­male con­di­tion: usually in­sta­bil­ity, fe­male angst and rage.

She’s of­ten iden­ti­fied with fe­male ado­les­cence, and not in a pos­i­tive way. Woody Allen pretty much set the tone in An­nie Hall in 1977. “Sylvia Plath: in­ter­est­ing po­et­ess whose tragic sui­cide was in­ter­preted as ro­man­tic by the col­lege girl men­tal­ity,” says his char­ac­ter, bran­dish­ing, then throw­ing, aside a copy of Ariel as he lays down the law.

And so the name-drop­ping has con­tin­ued. In Heathers (1988), the Cliffs Notes study guide for

Sylvia Plath be­came a lit­er­ary and cul­tural phe­nom­e­non af­ter her death; Kirsten Dunst, be­low

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