Book vs. Movie: Girl, Interrupted

Posted August 12, 2019 by Amber in Bookish Things / 2 Comments

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I imagine that translating Girl, Interrupted from a series of personal essays to a full length feature film was a bit complicated.  The tone of the film would have to get Susanna Kaysen’s voice right, play proper respect to the topic, and the aesthetics of the era.  I’ve always liked Winona Ryder, and I saw the film ages before reading the book.  But I’ve also never read and watched them in close succession.  So let’s see how it does!

So immediately I’m seeing detail inconsistencies.  In the beginning of the movie, Winona Ryder gives a short monologue about her condition, saying that she is a “Girl, interrupted”.  While I appreciate the metaphor, I really do, the inspiration actually came from a painting: “Girl Interrupted at her Music” by Johannes Vermeer.  The wrist-banging (a whole essay in itself) and the missing bones in her hand are all wrapped into the initial suicide attempt.  The suicide attempt is also a little altered (“you swallow a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka”) where in fact she swallowed 50 aspirin and went to the store to buy milk because her mother asked her to.  The hospital name, too, has been changed, but I imaged McLean probably didn’t want the publicity, good or bad.

I expect little details to be changed, though, and much like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I tend to appreciate that they are in there in the first place.  Most people hate this, however, so it’s something to consider.

One thing I have always loved about this film is the casting.  The first time we meet Valerie (Whoopie Goldberg) she’s a presence.

I really like all the casting.  Angelina Jolie gets the most credit for her award-winning performance, but Whoopie Goldberg is awesome.  Part of the translation to film includes not only mental health awareness, but conversations about race come into it in subtle ways I thought were really well done.  Overall, casting is a win.

Because it’s relevant to this conversation, I sort of love the moment where Georgina asked Susanna if she’s read The Patchwork Girl of Oz.  When Susanna says she’s seen The Wizard of Oz, Georgina polite corrects her and says this is a different book in the series, but of course she’s read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and immediately starts citing all inconsistencies.  Bookworms are the best.

One of the things I don’t really enjoy about the adaptation is how many flashbacks there are.  Again, I understand this choice from a cinematic POV, because they’re trying to flesh out Susanna’s character and make it about more than just her experience in the hospital… it’s about her.  I’m not sure about the truth of these scenes, and I’ve never really felt like they added much to the story from my perspective, but there you have it.

There’s been some playing around with diagnoses compared to the book.  Lisa is still a sociopath, Polly suffers PTSD,  Daisy is Daisy, and Susanna borderline… but in this film adaptation, Georgina is a pathological liar.  Cynthia is an entirely different character, the Martian’s girlfriend is missing, and Lisa C. has been replaced by Jamie, who we never meet.  Janice isn’t in the book at all.  I think the goal here was to have a wide variety of diagnosis in the ward, although I’m not sure the intent.

The film tends to take a little bit of a political stance about mental health treatment, with emphasis on labeling and the way labels follow people around, define them.  There’s a particularly powerful scene where the girls break into their files to read the doctor’s notes and you can feel their diagnoses sinking into them, and it’s rough.  There’s a little bit of this in the book where Susanna is grappling to understand the thing that defines her, but I thought it was more powerful in the group environment.

There’s not a lot of time spent in therapy… but that’s the way the book was as well.  Girl, Interrupted was never a book about mental health activism as much as it is a story.  There’s a lot of time spent with the group, socially and therapeutically.  In the film, you get to know each of the different girls.  I liked that aspect.  I liked seeing more of Georgina and Polly… and even of Janice and Daisy.

Despite the wealth of storytelling in Girl, Interrupted, there are scenes made up just for the movie.  Most notable of these are when Susanna runs away with Lisa.  One of the nicer, sweeter one is when the girls are bowling down in the tunnels after hours.  The aforementioned break-into-the-office scene is also completely unique to the movie, but I think that particular one was a good choice… both in as far as character building, but also to help an ignorant audience understand different mental health disorders.

We must, after all, remember that Girl, Interrupted was published in 1993 and the movie came out in 1999.  Twenty years later, we have much better mental health awareness as a society.  And for a movie two decades old?  I think the awareness is pretty darn good.

The first shifting point for Susanna in the film is as she watches Daisy get into the car as she’s leaving the hospital… for good.  The filmmaker’s intent is that as Daisy walks away, Susanna sees what could be her.  Obviously, as the story moves on, we learn the rest of Daisy’s story, and Susanna’s resolve become adamant.

I’m not crazy about this change from the book.  It implies that in seeing other people change, you can drive yourself to change, too.  As though mental health is a choice and if you really want to, you can be cured.  I know I’m simplifying it, but as a lot of mental health is about chemical imbalances that have nothing to do with state of mind… this message is dangerous and unfair.  It’s the one major complaint I have – the idea Susanna can just set her mind to it and become “all better”.  Motivation helps, but even in the book, Kaysen says she’s never been “all better”.

While Claymore (the hospital) is important, the heart of the film is Susanna and Lisa’s friendship.  The coming together, how Lisa made Susanna feel empowered, and finally Susanna realizing she was “better than them” and that Lisa is toxic.  Susanna’s growing superiority at the end, is a bit frustrating, and the change of the focus from Susanna’s growth to Susanna and Lisa’s friendship gives a different feel to the whole story.

I like the movie well enough, but I also like the book.  It’s a conundrum.

General movie notes – Girl, Interrupted gets a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes and seems to have mostly faded out of the public consciousness.  I’m not sure I would like the movie as much if I knew the book beforehand.  I find Girl, Interrupted as a book powerful, and as a movie… I dunno.  It’s not as powerful.  But I still like it as a film.  So if you’re interested in mental institutions in the 1960s, this is a good pick.  Also, there are so many familiar faces.  I’ve spoken a little about Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie and Whoopie Goldberg… but there’s also Elizabeth Moss and Jared Leto.  Really great performances across the board.

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Have you seen this movie?  I remember being shown this film for the first time as a freshman in high school, and I liked it the first time I saw it.  While it represents mental health treatment in the ’60s, I’m glad to see modern perspectives have improved.  What mental health-centric films would you recommend?

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2 responses to “Book vs. Movie: Girl, Interrupted

  1. I watched the movie a few years ago, and I really-really liked it at the time. I haven’t been planning to read the book, to be honest, but your review/comparison made me intrigued. I like how you highlighted parts of the movie as really good additions to the original material! I fully agree about the acting – I think it was splendid, and it weirdly comes through from the gifs alone. Really great post! 🙂

    • Amber

      If you’re ever interested, the book is *really* good. It’s just different, because it’s a series of essays more than a continuous story. I think I was able to draw more parallels between the two after reading it the second time. I liked it the first time I read it, but I felt like the two were almost entirely unrelated save the names and location. 🙂