04 May 2008

Letter from Julia Stiles regarding The Bell Jar

The following is a letter from Julia Stiles to Carol Christ, the President of Smith College, regarding the adaptation of The Bell Jar on which she is currently working. Ms. Stiles asked me to post it here as it also addresses Plath's readers.

May 1, 2008

Dear President Carol Christ,

It was a privilege attending last weekend's 75th anniversary Symposium on Sylvia Plath at Smith College, and I wanted to thank you for the invaluable resources made available by your colleagues. Joining me at the conference was a screenwriter I have been working with for the past three years to adapt The Bell Jar into a film. Karen Kukil and Aubrey Menard, who hosted the event, were extremely generous with their time, showing us scores of photos, early drafts of The Bell Jar, Plath's typewriter, and a number of other artifacts in Smith's impressive archives.

While at dinner Saturday evening in The Alumnae House, a fourth year student asked me if we were planning to make a "happy, lighter Bell Jar." I laughed at the thought. The student had read online a misconception I would like to clarify.

I can assure you that everyone involved in this endeavor understands the huge responsibility of adapting such an important novel. If anything, what we as filmmakers intend is to celebrate the power of Plath's writing, and awaken a larger audience to her talent. Over five years ago, when I decided to try getting the rights to the book, I envisioned a film that could realize the vivid imagery Plath describes, as Esther Greenwood experiences her summer stuck inside The Bell Jar. My intention was never to make a traditional biopic, but instead a film as subjective and at times surreal as the novel itself. Plath is adept at writing visually, so that the reader's perspective is as distorted as Esther's. The difficulty in adapting a novel like this is that so much is established by Esther's interior narrative. On the other hand, Esther's visual metaphors and hallucinatory imagination are perfectly cinematic.

Another challenge in making this adaptation is that for many people, Plath's biography overshadows her work. Those unfamiliar with her writing tend to stereotype her as dark and angry, overlooking that she had many other sides to her, all of which are evident in her prose. Moreover, Plath has been posthumously elevated to a kind of cult status, so that some of her fans can be proprietary of that darkness and anger. The narrator of The Bell Jar is undeniably sarcastic and has a scathing wit, even if she is in the midst of a desperate nightmare. Richard Larschan described it best at the Symposium, by calling it Plath's "self-irony." He aptly pointed out that while Esther Greenwood is nineteen in the novel, Plath wrote The Bell Jar years after the incident, at the age of thirty. Naturally, her narrative is more seasoned, mature, and self-aware. For example, in a moment of frustration alone at her mother's house, Esther says to herself, "I'm going to write a novel, that'll fix them!" It is hard to believe Plath meant this earnestly. Later, when Esther nicknames the doctors at McLeans, "Dr. Spleen" and "Dr. Syphilis," we get a glimpse of this overlooked side of Plath.

There is no denying that The Bell Jar is a story of depression, attempted suicide, and isolation. It is also, however, an example of the multifaceted life force that was Sylvia Plath. I gather from her many biographies that she was a dedicated and focused woman, whose sensitivity made her a great writer, but also caused her immense pain. Indeed, Plath's life ended very tragically, but the protagonist in The Bell Jar does manage to return to her last semester at Smith. Her return is triumphant, albeit precarious.

To ignore Plath's sarcasm, however, as well as her vibrant imagery, would certainly be an injustice to such an enduring novel. We hope to capture the complexity of Esther Greenwood?s story, from the depths of her suffering to the intensity of her perception.

I look forward to returning to Smith, and I thank you again for the informative weekend.


Julia Stiles


Anonymous said...

What, tragedy cannot be wrapped into strength, humour and sarcasm? Stiles's focusing too much on the "happy" side, while she should be taking the depression/suiside seriously and working the "funny" stuff around it.
Gosh, I didn't really enjoy the book, but I unterstood its intensity and severity. At the end I saw no triumph, for it seemed more like Esther lost her soul to her depression and remained but a former shell of herself.
If they massacre the story during the movie production, I will never go see a Julia Stiles movie ever again.
Why can producers never be faithful to the book?

Alex said...

Really? I think that Julia Stiles just wrote an entire letter affirming her dedication to capturing the movie in an accurate light. She is a wonderful actress and her personality on screen and off screen fits this role.
If you never se one of her movies again, that's your loss.
I'm so excited for this movie!

Robert Shaw said...

I agree with Alex.

And with Julia Stiles: "...for many people, Plath's biography overshadows her work. Those unfamiliar with her writing tend to stereotype her as dark and angry, overlooking that she had many other sides to her, all of which are evident in her prose. Moreover, Plath has been posthumously elevated to a kind of cult status, so that some of her fans can be proprietary of that darkness and anger."

Anonymous is clearly one of the fans Julia Stiles was writing about. Sylvia Plath needs to be liberated from that kind of oppressive and restrictive sense of ownership if her full significance and range of expression as a writer is ever to be understood. Over time that will happen, of course. Julia Stiles clearly wants to be part of that liberating process (as do I in our upcoming New York production of Three Women). I applaud her for it and for saying so clearly and unambiguously. Best wishes to all fans of Sylvia Plath. Robert Shaw

Nancy said...

Please excuse my ignorance on the subject; I am new to this site, sorry to say; but has anything come of the movie production?

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.