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Why it's not such a great idea to adapt The Bell Jar for film?

an argument

Sylvia Plath's novel is a special thing in the “art universe”. Its upcoming film adaptation is stirring up debates everywhere, discussions, thoughtful conversations. This article is intended to be but one contribution to the unfolding discourse.

// this is still a raw version


We have good reasons to assume that while we're talking about why it's not a good idea (at all) to make a movie of The Bell Jar, or, from the opposite angle, why it'd be a great film, delivering the life-experiences of a brilliant girl to millions of girls and guys who want to feel something of how it must have felt to be Sylvia Plath, the viability of the project is all predetermined, it can be objectively, materialistically calculated, drawn from parameters, and the result could be as simple as a “yes” or a “no”.


Let's suppose that such calculation, such method, could really be constructed and applied, like a law of physics to something rolling down a slope, or falling free from the third floor, which is an even simpler case. Now the only thing left to do is to tell how that calculation would work, what it would look like, what kind of law could that be?

Given that we what to somehow measure the viability of adapting The Bell Jar for screen – we should first of all define “success”… the possible positive outcome of the project, what success means, what we mean by success.

:: the success of an adaptation

The success of a movie is perceived very simplistically. Fundamentally, it means good revenues. Success for a production company of an adaptation will mean performing well at the box office, good grossing. Success for talent involved in the production – the director, screen writers, actors (female and male), cinematographers, composers, designers, including costume, editors, and more – means good critics, awards… but everything starts with grossing well. Financial success is crucial to any other kinds of success. Unlike for European art movies, if a major American production flops, awards won't make it good.


From this very materialistic situation comes about a big time “distortion” in movie business. Namely, all the time they talk about the future movie, which will take entire years, they will – safe what's safe – identify the future success of the movie with the box office performance, and talk about the project from this approach. Will they like it? Or will it flop? Will it sell? Will it not? Will it double or triple the investment, or make at least as much as that? Or will it fail? Nevertheless, this movie simply can't flop. The writer is super-hype. The main actor, Dakota Fanning, is super-trendy, she is a big star. And there is suicide. Art and suicide – which for today's “teens” (from 15 to 28) – is a hot stuff, cause it means that “I” am in the center of the universe, to put is very simply. The “I against world” is a very… viral attitude today, as one can perceive. Think of the Scandinavian teens' Hygge epidemic, a syndrome which deserves an entire study.

In any case, the movie is sure to sell well. But this is not how artists will identify success of a movie adaptation of a novel that is not only uniquely beautiful – by which I mean more than that it feels good to watch it, it is a trip of a lifetime reading it – but so purely about an immensely beautiful person's world, and about becoming somebody and all the struggle it involves, as well as about losing it all, and then rebuilding from scratch. This novel is… simply… the highest priority on Earth. That is, if it is adapted for screen, it must not fail, and by failing we, who love this novel and Sylvia Plath, can't just mean what movie business means by not failing. The failure of an adaptation, from our point of view, is when it does not give the viewer nearly the same trip as reading the novel. So, this is the definition that we'll use to determine the success, and possible success, of a Bell Jar adaptation project: the film should give the viewer nearly the same trip as reading the novel – which is, by the way, a more strict expectation than that the result movie should be good and faithful to Plath. This definition of success is what we'll work with as we're constructing our “calculation method” that will output the result as a yes or no, as to whether the project is viable or not.


:: the “laws” of adaptation

Now, the task is actually not so difficult. Although I was, like everybody, taking Theodore Roszak's side as he was telling, in that interview,i the story of his colleague teacher at campus who instructed a student of hers to feed all the information from a poem into the computer – which made him write The Cult of Information – today it does not sound so creepy as it must have in the early 80s that a text, even a poem or a novel, can be viewed as information, too. In fact, it does not sound creepy at all.

Without pretending to be scientific, one can just make a raw inventory of… images (images, stories, scenes, depictions, details… etc., embedded images, stories.. etc.) in just one chapter, or even part of it. Having this inventory at hand, we can check if we find all the items in the film adaptation :) Seriously speaking, the point with this inventory is to make a raw estimate of the “image density” of the novel. It determines the “image bandwidth” – how many images per scene, for example.

So, here comes law (of adaptation) no. 1:
“the image bandwidth of the movie should be somewhere near to that of the novel, per any given scene”.

There could be numerous “laws” explored, or made up, we could examine the dialogues in the novel, even count the number of lines, and see if adaptation is viable or not in that regard. But let's just stick to our fine law #1, and make some use of it. Before that, though, just one last note on image density: it is about how much a novel is “epic” or “lyric”, novel-like or poem-like, to make the hint explicit. The Bell Jar is lyric to the utmost, without losing pace for a split second, or intensity, but to the contrary, and it has an immense level of “image density”, not to mention discursiveness which is also hard to adapt for film. This novel, as a trip, is a fast running flow of extremely powerful images – images, stories, impressions, perceptions of scenes, scenes within scenes, embedded images, etc. … Some novels can be adapted for screen with beautiful outcome – seeii that Master and Margarita adaptation from 2005 – The Bell Jar, as one can tell without studying any laws or nature whatsoever, is not that type of “material”.


:: a test bite

The novel is happening as Esther's experiencing what is happening to and around her, from scene to scene, including trips withing trips. Subjective camera, as they say. First person singular. The novel – like any work of art – is a trip. Virtually, we are Esther and we experience reality in her skin, in her body, through her eyes, and thinking with her mind, reacting as if we were one person with her. In short, we are in Esther's world, completely.

Instead of looking at out list of “items” which we would like to find in the movie, we should focus on the trip that we're having when reading it. And bear in mind that there is a difference between walking through two rooms and stop in the third one to talk with someone at a party and walking through two room and noticing a bunch of things, which might make us think about events, past or future, or other stories or scenes, anything, and arriving in a room, where we catch sight of someone whom we'll approach while thinking about her or him, or anything. These are two different trips, and, by the way, I suggest it is a mistake to differentiate, in the case of a Thomas Mann short story, for example, between narrative, reflective and descriptive parts of the text within a given scene.


But let's take a plunge into the beautiful novel, imagine this tiny section of a scene… on the silver screen:


Then all at once the baby seemed to pop out into Will's hands, the color of a blue pluto and floured with white stuff and streaked with blood, and Will kept saying, "I'm going to drop it, I'm going to drop it, I'm going to drop it," in a terrified voice. "No, you're not," the doctor said, and took the baby out of Will's hands and started massaging it, and the blue color went away and the baby started to cry in a torn, croaky voice and I could see it was a boy.

The first thing that baby did was pee in the doctor's face. I told Buddy later I didn't see how that was possible, but he said it was quite possible, though unusual, to see something like that happen.

As soon as the baby was born the people in the room divided up into two groups, the nurses tying a metal dog tag on the baby's wrist and swabbing its eyes with cotton on the end of a stick and wrapping it up and putting it in a canvas-sided cot, while the doctor and Will started sewing up the woman's cut with a needle and a long thread.

I think somebody said, "It's a boy, Mrs. Tomolillo," but the woman didn't answer or raise her head.


It might be right away obvious that something of “the text” will be lost. Sacrificed, so to say, for the sake of a smooth and detail-rich cinematic experience – as experts will put it :) And they'll also say that putting a novel, especially such a great one, such a magical one like The Bell Jar, into “film language” is a complex artistic process, the director, the DP, and the actors (female and male) have to give birth to it, again, and their “job” is not only venturous, but hard, too, cause they have to make elections all the time, this part (moment, motif, image, thought) will make it into the movie, but that one won't. It is hard, you can believe, the creative team of artists working on the movie love Plath and her amazing novel more than anybody else on this planet – etc, etc.

The conclusion of he test bite is: one can make exciting scenes out of the novel, using nice parts of it, but it will not give the viewer anything close to the trip that reading the novel will.


:: good value for your money

In the end, when it's all done, the coarse male voice will finally hit the screens US-wise – and UK-wise, too – in the commercial breaks, and he will announce that one of the world's most debated, cherished, admired, loved and perhaps hated novel is now approaching our airstrip, ready to land in the cinema near you, so get your cash ready, get your mind ready, cause it will be awesome!! And before Marlboro Man returns for another line, people will see short flashes of scenes stuffed with passion, sexuality, excitement, and the promise that if you see it you won't regret. And that's it, there we go. Whoever loves the novel – that is, whoever has read it at least once – will not think about not seeing it. That for sure. And the New York Times, and the Village Voice, and the Huffpost, US and UK, as well as The Guardian will let the public know that it is… although not quite… but… so, all in all, it is… worth (!!!) seeing it!! Worth buying a ticket! It's just that that it's not the novel, it's something else – but it is a good thing. The novel is still better than this digital version… and you should not compare then anyway, but move your ass, get our cash ready, and buy a ticket. For “it is great value for the money”.


:: afterthoughts

What harm could a movie adaptation possible do? People will see her story in cinemas! I mean, one take of it. From one angle. Using only parts of the whole. But the end product will still represent the original, officially, cause Plath will be credited as “writer”, or more precisely, as “writer (the novel)”.

Some people will think that it is a shame that from now on, whenever The Bell Jar is mentioned, people will think of “The Bell Jar”, “The Bell Jar, the movie” first. That is, the notion behind a title will be replaced. But that might not be all. There could be hundreds of points of interpretation where it can go wrong, go in a wrong direction. And it's not just about nuances, it's about such fundamental either/or-s of the overall perception of the story – with Plath's story underlying it, and Plath's person underlying it – like… who was she? Was she a girl who after all killed herself, as the writer of the novel, or who was young, full of energy, explosive like she could blow away an entire village in her fury when it came to that, bright to the utmost, but not flawless, at the same time extremely talented and fresh, but then again, she had serious mental problems, depression, borderline, but she could live with that, she could have made it, but in the end it just didn't happen like that, but it was not her fault, and she was “victorious” for all that…

Which version will settle? That she failed because she was ill from day one, depressed? Or that she succeeded, and she was on her way up, but – under extreme loads of stress – she all of a sudden fell back, and fell even below that? Which version? For there are two, as David Trinidad pointed it out in his amazing study – Hidden in Plain Sight: On Sylvia Plath's Missing Journals – which of the two versions, Plath's or Hughes's, the former being that “a woman emerges triumphant from a dark night of the soul”, as Ee Gee in the end, whereas the latter goes like “the woman's intended rebirth lapses into a tragic downward spiral”, as David Trinidad summarized Hughes's take on Plath.

Knowing that one closeup in a movie, sustained just for 10 seconds or even less, can entirely change the overall perception of what you have been watching for 2 hours, we have reasons to be doubtful… Not to mention that in the movie business the final cut is often made by the marketing department. At the same time, we still do have reasons to hope for the better, and even the best, cause the director is a woman who knows the novel, loves the novel, and wants to make the best thing out of it. She very probably wants to give out a beautiful present for millions of girls, and guys. One cannot doubt that. And we will see, anyway…


Címkék: The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, David Trinidad, movie adaptation, debate