"They think I should give them my mother's words
To fill the mouth of their monster
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll."
For a while it seemed that every other television show or movie made in the nineties and early two thousands had to have a Sylvia Plath girl. There was Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You, Rory from Gilmore Girls, Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, Lisa Simpson, and you probably remember at least three more. This was the archetype of the cool smart girl who was portrayed as an outsider, while also being a little drawn to the dark side. Whenever some guy told her something, she responded with a witty comeback not even a second later. When the popular girls made fun of her, she’d shrug her shoulders then make them bite their tongues. She could quote Simone De Beauvoir in the eighth grade. She rocked, and we wanted to be that girl. But, let’s be honest. This is another Hollywood character type that works for TV and film but doesn’t exist in real life.
I’m not saying there’s no incredibly intelligent teenager reading feminist works out there, because there’s probably plenty. What I’m saying is that the image of a fifteen-year-old with the streets smarts and maturity of a thirty-year-old is probably due to a young adult screenwriter or filmmaker’s revenge on high school. But as audience members, we totally eat it up. Why? Because teenage girls who liked books better than the dudes in their school wished that was us. We didn’t want to be Regina George. We wanted to be Kat or Rory. We wanted to be the girl who knew every Indie band while also having the perfect grades to go to a full-scholarship to college. You’re probably only now realizing how this was an adolescent fantasy not unlike being prom queen: to be the smart-ass that knows high school is just temporary.
So while we’re on the subject of our teens, remember back when Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides turned Kirsten Dunst into our number one girl crush? Well, guess what? In case you haven’t heard, she’s helming the new adaptation of The Bell Jar. All your adolescent dreams come true, right? Call me Debbie Downer, or better yet Janis Ian, but I’m a little worried about this.
The woman who’s played Torrance, Mary Jane Watson, Marie Antoinette, and many other memorable characters is going to be directing and writing this project. Dakota Fanning has been cast as the protagonist, Esther. This seems perfect, right? Don’t worry, you’re not alone, just about every magazine has been praising this film-in-progress.
But here’s the thing: while it’s only human for us to see the actors on-screen as the characters they play, we tend to forget that making a movie is way more than that.
Until now Dunst has written and directed two short films. Sylvia Plath’s novel adaptation would be her first feature film. I could be completely wrong, and this project might actually turn out to be a brilliant piece of cinematic work. In fact, I really hope to be metaphorically slapped in the face with a film that shows my mistake.
But I’m reminded of several artists who have attempted to make adaptations of their favorite books or the biopics of their favorite auteurs. While Salma Hayek and Julie Taymor’s 2002 film of Frida Kahlo is loved by many, I find it problematic. And how couldn’t it be? Frida is an icon, loved by millions. Her life was a mess. It’s hard to fit her short tumultuous life in under 120 minutes. And how can you catch someone’s essence when you’re a fan?
In 2003, Sylvia Plath’s biopic, titled Sylvia, came out. There was equal excitement and reluctance about it’s release and whether Gwyneth Paltrow would be believable as the poet and writer. Aside from the reviews not being great and Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, even writing a poem about how she felt the production was using her family’s tragedy as a commercialized item. In the end, the movie proved to be an embarrassing attempt at memorializing one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century.
While you might think I’m overreacting since The Bell Jar will be an adaptation on a book, not a whole life, this is an iconic piece of literature, to the point where it’s become short-hand for audiences to know the teen girl holding the novel is a precocious feminist with a vulnerable side. This is a massive feat that, if done right, could place Kirsten Dunst as a potential award-winning filmmaker. That’s what makes me nervous, because this is a doubling down on this being an Oscar contender. The bar has been set so high, both by our love of the book as well as of Dunst herself. We desperately want to be in love with this, that we might find our personal hype might not be lived up to.
If you think about it, every film adaptation on a story we’ve loved since we were kids or teens, brought to the present by a filmmaker we adore has left us feeling underwhelmed. An example of this can be Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I happen to really like but most just shrugged their shoulders after leaving the theater. There’s also Dark Shadows, but we’re still trying to forget that happened.
Kirsten Dunst’s adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is set to come out this 2017. Until then, the jury is still out. One thing we should all do is not be thinking that this is the perfect pairing due to the director’s body of work. While The Virgin Suicides gave her It Girl status, that was a role. We should see this production as a that of a great actress diving into the writer-director chair of an incredibly risky film portrayal of a twentieth century classic novel.
In the mood to reading about a painfully mundane sort of love? Did you know that you might gotten one of the most famous poems wrong?