The trouble with Sylvia

Film-makers approach 'The Bell Jar' and its author Sylvia Plath at their peril. Can the Hollywood star Julia Stiles turn angst and depression into a movie?
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The Independent Culture

Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal on 12 December 1958: "Why don't I write a novel?" Two-and-a-half years later, she added a note in red ink. "I have! August 22, 1961: The Bell Jar".

The novel was published in January 1963. A month later, Plath was dead. When she placed her head in the oven and waited to die, she had no idea she had written one of the most influential novels of the 20th century, a book that would be adopted as a sacred text of a patron saint and icon. Now, courtesy of the Hollywood star Julia Stiles, that sacred text is to be made into a film.

"I've found a producer and a writer," says the star of the Bourne series and the Omen remake, who, after a "legal tussle", bought the rights to the film several years ago. "I'm trying to keep the book separate from Plath's biography," Stiles says. "That's one thing I really want to be careful of with the film version... I actually feel that it's a very triumphant story. I wouldn't want to lose her tenacity and spark. I think that will be as important to portray as her depression."

The Bell Jar is an intensely autobiographical novel. Its portrayal of Esther Greenwood, a young student and aspiring poet, draws heavily on Plath's experience of a summer working on a fashion magazine in New York and a winter, after a breakdown and a suicide attempt, in a series of mental hospitals.

She was discouraged by the initial response. Her editor at Knopf in New York rejected the novel, saying she "had not succeeded in establishing a view-point". A Harper & Row editor thought the first part was "fresh and arresting" but that "the story ceased to be a novel and becomes a case history. The experience remains a private one."

The reviews, on that first British publication, were far from reverential. Anthony Burgess, in The Observer, admired the depiction of a young woman's descent into madness, but Simon Raven in The Spectator advised readers to "stick to home produce" in the field of "unpleasant, competent and funny female novelists". Others praised the author for good writing, scolded her for weak plotting, and swiftly moved on. It was only with publication in America, in 1971, that the now orthodox view of The Bell Jar as truly special began to take root. "A fine novel, as bitter and remorseless as her last poems," was the verdict of the New York Times Book Review. "By turns funny, harrowing, crude, ardent and artless," said Time magazine.

Its immediacy and intensity won The Bell Jar instant appeal for generations of adolescents, an appeal that has not dimmed. "I'm 15, already feeling pressured to be perfect," says a young reviewer on Amazon. "I sat in my room and read the book in two days. I felt unbearably sad... she reminded me of myself."

If not all adolescents can identify with Esther Greenwood's experience of mental illness, ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) and repeated attempts at suicide, they can certainly identify with a young girl's yearning for security and love. Esther, like Plath, is a straight-A student who wants on the one hand "a husband and a happy home and children" and on the other to be "a famous poet". She knows she is unlikely to achieve both. She bristles at her mother's suggestion that she learn shorthand; she "hated the idea of serving men in any way". Affronted by her boyfriend's sexual double standards, she sets out, with disastrous results, to lose her virginity to a stranger. "The last thing I wanted," she says, "was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself."

How could such a book not appeal to young women grappling with their sexuality, their ambitions, their warring desires for security and freedom? Plath's gaze is ferocious and irresistible. "I liked looking at other people in crucial situations," says Esther in The Bell Jar. "If there was a road accident or a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory... I'd stop and look so hard I never forgot it."

For the novelist Michele Roberts, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, reading The Bell Jar is "a rite of passage". "For a young woman the world is still a chaotic place," she explains, "and you can feel very confused and mixed up. A lot of young women are tempted to self-harm and to get depressed. I think The Bell Jar helps, because it helps you see that other people are going through this too."

The poet Maura Dooley, convenor of the MA in creative and life writing at Goldsmith's College, agrees: "It speaks particularly to young women, many of whom have been reassured and excited to find some of their own anxieties and perceptions transformed imaginatively - and it is a transformation. This is not," she says firmly, "life writing."

No, it is not. The chief characteristic of the writing in The Bell Jar is a masterly control that keeps the passion and anger and madness tightly reined in. Plath writes with a stark physicality that hints at the violence lurking beneath. The tone is cool, clear and razor-sharp, and her depiction of mental illness - as trapped under a glass bell jar in her own "sour air" - is utterly without self-pity. As a picture of adolescent alienation, it's very hard to match.

So, take a novel entirely about the inner life, whose power rests in its poetry and tone, and turn it into a film? It's brave. There have, in fact, been many requests for the film rights over the years, and one disastrous adaptation, by Larry Peerce, in 1979.

Ros Edwards, agent for the Plath estate in the UK, says she knows nothing about a forthcoming film. So does Frieda Hughes, co-executor of the estate and daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. But Julia Stiles is clear. "We're going to turn in the first draft next month and then hopefully we'll find a director and begin raising money. There's such a vibrant, hallucinogenic quality to the book," she says, "and there are so many visual images in it that it could be really great on screen."

Well, yes, it could. She could find a director whose taut mastery of the visual image will match that of Plath's prose; who can imbue the film with the bewildered intensity of an adolescent girl without being patronising. She could find one who captures the intensity and passion of the writing without melodrama, who finds a clear visual language for that razor-sharp eye.

She could, but it's not likely. When Christine Jeffs's film Sylvia came out two years ago, it was greeted with derision. The criticisms were tinged with the hysteria that seems to accompany all things Plathian - and it really wasn't that bad. Gwyneth Paltrow was superb as a young Sylvia flitting between sexy siren, Fifties housewife and obsessed creative artist. Daniel Craig lacked the magnetism of Ted Hughes, but captured something of his enigmatic strength.

Jeffs's film may have been stepping on hallowed territory, but its ambitions were relatively modest; it simply told the tale of a young poet who married another poet and then died. It didn't aim to match the poetry of either. In art, you can do anything if you do it well enough. You can even adapt a cult work and attempt to turn it into something really special. You can do it, but I don't think I'd recommend it.

Additional reporting by Gill Pringle in Los Angeles