A successful film adaptation works in synergy with the book, generating interest, and bringing acclaim to the author who could only welcome such a development. Such is the case with Girl, Interrupted.
Angelina Jolie portrays the wild Lisa with swagger, bringing the character to life. Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted, describes Lisa as “thin and yellow” and a “sociopath,” who did indeed make several successful attempts at escape as portrayed in the film. It is perhaps Jolie’s best dramatic performance, before she started making low-brow action movies. That said, one could do without the many close ups of her throughout the film. We get it, she has arched eyebrows and a wicked smile. How many times must we see that expression?
Despite her dynamic performance, the best scenes of the film are when we are given a respite from Jolie’s narcissistic poses and are taken into the therapy room. Here Susanna petulantly demands to be let out of McLean Hospital, while her therapists calmly remind her that she checked herself in.
The protagonist, Susanna, is portrayed in a soulful performance by Winona Ryder. She is “ambivalent” about her feelings towards her own mental illness. She is nonetheless on a road towards self-understanding. Odd, her therapist notes, that she should “profess carelessness about it.” Lisa, on the other hand, represents a surrender to mental illness–though in the memoir we learn that she was eventually released from the hospital and becomes the mother of a mixed race child.
The film’s Lisa is even more diabolical than she is described in the memoir, to dramatic effect. The film places Susanna and Lisa at Daisy’s house when she commits suicide, suggesting that Lisa provoked her to the act. In the book, it is merely mentioned that Daisy killed herself. The film’s climax has the other patients reading Susanna’s diary, leading to a screaming match in the tunnels beneath the hospital. No such confrontation occurs in the memoir. No diary is even mentioned.
The movie creates something more visual, which the medium obviously demands, whereas the book is more cerebral. The film does not have nearly the artistic depth of the memoir in exploring mental illness; but rather reduces it to platitudes: “I may be crazy, or maybe life is,” says Ryder.
The memoir is comprised of tight, concise chapters which are like vignettes. They focus respectively on the different personalities which Susanna encounters at McLean Hospital, most of whom appear in the film. The short book, which clocks in at under 50,000 words, could be read over a contemplative weekend with a few hours to spare.
The story is set in 1960s Massachusetts, which the film portrays vividly, with particular attention to the socio-political context. The cab driver suggests that if seeing things, “like tripping,” warrants being institutionalized, then they should lock John Lennon up. Susanna responds in a deadpan, “I’m not John Lennon.”
The memoir explores the theme of insanity as a social construct. By the late ‘60s, being abnormal was a point of pride. Or was it the oppression of women that caused strong-willed females to be labeled as insane? But this doesn’t seem quite right, if what Kaysen is telling us about her alarming symptoms is true. There must be some objective measure of what constitutes sound mental health.
In the book, Valerie is a white lady (which is to say that in reality she was white). Nevertheless, Whoopie Goldberg gives an earthy performance, and the casting decision was perhaps inevitable lest the film feature only white girls and white nurses. In the film the girl inmates make racist comments to Valerie; they sing a song about picking cotton which is meant to mock her. Susanna refers to her as a “negro welfare mother” in one heated scene; whereas in the memoir there is not a hint of such racial animosity. To the contrary, they sympathize with the leftist student movements of the late sixties. To invent this racial tension out of thin air seems like an odd choice by director James Mangold; one which he could have just as easily omitted.
In the film, it hardly seems that Susanna is crazy. Instead, we simply learn that she had attempted suicide, having taken fifty aspirin and subsequently having her stomach pumped.
In the book, Susanna describes her symptoms as severe enough to impair her perception of reality. She contemplates her hands and anxiously considers if they might have bones in them. She endeavors to find out by cutting herself.
The real Susanna was not merely an entitled, privileged girl who made a modest attempt at suicide, as in the film. Rather, she was a girl who was indeed mentally ill; perhaps bordering on psychotic, if one considers the hallucinations she describes.
She admits she did not have a “successful suicide”; it was merely a “partial suicide.” She describes an otherworldly feeling to her doctor and is committed hastily thereafter. “You’re going to the hospital,” her doctor tells her triumphantly in the film. In the book it’s, “Take her to McLean, and don’t let her out till you get there.” This is an instance of medical hubris, maybe even patriarchy, a theme of both the film and memoir, as though the male gender is responsible for Kaysen’s self-created psychodramas.
Was it medical hubris– if she was really sick? After all, Kaysen writes cryptically of a “parallel universe,” where “the laws of physics are suspended.” Presumably this is part of her madness. Still, in the memoir, Kaysen is aggrieved by how little time the doctor takes to recommend she is committed. She deliberates obsessively on how long he took to evaluate her. Kaysen refers in the memoir to her former “crazy self,” now several years removed from her experience at the mental hospital, suggesting she has overcome her mental illness. But she remains cagey about what exactly mental illness is and who might be considered crazy. Its slippery definition is a theme of Girl, Interrupted.
Winona Ryder embodies the intelligence and sensitivity which is evident in the lyrical voice of Kayson as a writer. In that sense, the protagonist of the memoir and the film are consistent; maybe they are even too sensitive for this world.
Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. NY: Vintage Books, 1993.
Girl, Interrupted. Directed by James Mangold, performances by Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, Columbia Pictures, 1999.
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