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
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