Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Girl Interrupted: The book vs the movie

Had some fun this week reading the 1993 classic Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.  Ms. Kaysen wrote a really thought provoking series of non-fiction pieces about her life in a mental institution over about 18 months in the late 60's.  The essays are roughly chronological and in between chapters she shows artifacts from her patient file:  doctors notes, official admitting papers and discharge papers.  I liked that it was a very nuanced look about a teenagers life in a mental hospital: was she crazy or was she just a typical teenager?  Sometimes I felt genuine madness was afoot and sometimes she seemed to be the only sane one on the ward.  I liked that she played with my perceptions and that life in the hospital was neither all good or all bad.
This book came out early in the memoir writing craze and is probably one of the better ones to take a look at mental health.  

Winona Ryder played Susanna Kaysen in the 1999 movie of the same name.  Angelina Jolie won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Lisa, Susanna's crazy best friend in the asylum.  What is most interesting about the book to movie is how much the producers had to add to Kaysen's fairly simple story in order to make it an interesting movie. 

While Kaysen simply mentions the existence of underground tunnels in her memoir, in the movie they become part of illicit rituals in which the women on the ward participate in order to gain a little control over their lives.   A woman who leaves the ward and goes to live on her own commits suicide.  It is a sad mark in the book; in the movie it becomes a major plot point. And the most fantastic part is the homoerotic/lesbian overtones between Susanna and Lisa. This was so far from the book it was almost laughable, but it really works in the movie and in some ways makes a lot of sense.

The movie managed to portray the character's ambivalence about her situation fairly well. I loved seeing how the script writers wove together the author's voice and minor plot points to make an interesting narrative arc.  It had a great cast including Elizabeth Moss (Peggy from Mad Men) and Whoopi Goldberg.  I suddenly feel like I am stepping out of my comfort zone reviewing a movie here--but I did enjoy reading the book and seeing the movie together. It is easily a weekend project with time out for soup and a walk in the woods.


Anonymous said...

I read/viewed these two at some temporal distance, so I loved reading your treatment of both together. Thanks! Sounds like a fun project.... (HOW do you pack so much into your life, my friend? I admire you.) MKP

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Carolin Newmeyer said...

I admit I haven't read the book, but the movie already plays this idea between what is normal and what is not normal. There's also institution that has to be addressed... who's to say whom of us is "normal?" Still, teens who have the tendency to self-destruct must be given additional guidance.