In June, 1953, between her junior and senior years at Smith College, Sylvia Plath served as a guest managing editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York. Later that summer she suffered a nervous breakdown and spent several months in a mental hospital, returning to Smith at the beginning of the spring semester. In 1963, she published The
Bell Jar, a lightly fictionalized memoir of her early troubles and, a month after its publication, committed suicide—by shoving her head in an oven.
The novel’s remarkable achievement is its blending of two aspects that might at first seem contradictory: an ability to portray each remembered or imagined moment of that summer with crystal clarity and a sense of ironic compassion lavished on the strange and familiar person each one of us was years ago. It’s an ability to live in both the past and the present, to be both inside the head and outside the barred cell of Esther Greenwood, Plath’s alter ego. It makes The Bell Jar a poignant and funny book. With one breath we gasp at Esther’s many suicide attempts; with the next we explode with laughter at this Astudent’s doggedness in researching the 57 varieties of self-destruction. At one moment we are thinking, “This is the awful truth”; at the next—or the same —moment, we sigh and say, “Ah, youth.”
A new movie purports to be based on Plath’s marvelous and potentially cinematic, little novel. From all internal evidence, it is not. Someone—perhaps screenwriter Marjorie Kellogg (Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon) or director Larry Peerce (Goodbye, Columbus)— mistook The Bell Jar for one of the turbulent adolescent romances Sylvia Plath may well have edited at Mademoiselle. The story’s locale has been changed from Esther’s mind and heart to the groin of a horny cheerleader. As played by Marilyn Hassett (in one of the major bad performances of our generation), Esther is a mass of alternating girlish giggles and great elephant sobs. Virtually every character has been turned into a philistine predator, panting for Esther either to sell out or put out. And whereas Esther’s collapse, as described in the book, was largely attributable to being refused entrance to a Harvard writers’ seminar, in the movie she breaks down after too many unwilling excursions into the twin cities of Macholand and Mondo Lesbo. Read the book. Flee the movie.
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