A perennial favorite of adolescent women suffering fraught emotional lives, poetess Sylvia Plath’s sole novel, The Bell Jar, is a thinly veiled account of Plath’s real-life experiences as a young woman who fell from the heights of academic overachievement to the depths of electroshock therapy after emotional problems led to a series of suicide attempts. In the right hands, this book could be adapted into a bold and honest drama, providing a sensitive exploration into the mysteries of mental illness. In the wrong hands, as is the case here, The Bell Jar becomes fodder for cheap manipulation.
Director Larry Peerce and his on- and offscreen muse, actress Marilyn Hassett, reteamed for this project after their success with The Other Side of the Mountain (1975) and The Other Side of the Mountain Part 2 (1978), which were about a real-life skier who became a paraplegic. Nothing in those trite films suggested Peerce or Hassett were predisposed toward investigating the intricacies of the human mind—and, sure enough, their take on The Bell Jar is sincere but numbingly superficial.
Furthermore, the script, by Marjorie Kellogg, departs in significant ways from the source material, conjuring a gruesome climax that’s absent from the book; Kellogg also streamlines Plath’s narrative in a way that makes the lead character’s trip down the rabbit hole seem like a brief detour on the way to wellness. In short, the filmmakers blew a powerful opportunity to depict what it’s like to feel trapped in one’s own mind, instead focusing on the garish sensationalism of a beautiful young woman experimenting with sex before succumbing to personal demons.
As in the book, Esther Greenwood (Hassett) is a gifted student who wins a summer internship at a ladies’ magazine, where she’s challenged by a tough editor (Barbara Barrie) to explore new literary frontiers. Meanwhile, Esther and her summer roommate, Southern party girl Doreen (Mary Louise Weller), fall into steamy situations like a threesome with an overbearing disc jockey (Robert Klein). Esther’s emotional troubles manifest suddenly, since the filmmakers fail to convey the textures of Esther’s inner life, so it’s hard to grasp why she’s so unhappy about a summer filled with excitement and opportunities.
Eventually, Esther returns home to her needy mother (Julie Harris), and Esther’s anguish over falling off the fast track to success drives her to attempt self-destruction. This implied cause-and-effect relationship insults the source material and the subject matter, and the dubious interpretation is exacerbated by Hassett’s weak performance. Though Hassett clearly gave this project her all, she simply can’t summon the darkness needed to bring this character to life. Having said all that, The Bell Jar is quite compelling if one overlooks the gulf between what the movie should have been and what the movie actually is, simply because the underlying story is arresting and lurid. And, to the filmmakers’ credit, their contrived finale, which involves a disturbing reunion between Esther and her college pal Joan (Donna Mitchell), has a painful poetry the rest of the picture lacks.
The Bell Jar: FUNKY