Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002
13 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)
2. The book
3. The movie
4. Plot and time frame
5. Point of view
6. Characters: description vs. cast
7. Cultural Aspects
8. Concluding remarks
9. Works cited
“’You spent nearly two years in a loony bin! Why in the world were you there? I can’t believe it!’ Translation: If you’re crazy, then I’m crazy, and I’m not, so the whole thing must have been a mistake (125).” How do we know whether someone is insane or sane? Susanna Kaysen’s account Girl, Interrupted is told to us through the eyes of a girl who is diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder- can we believe the things she is telling us, or are her memories distorted by her mental illness?
The unreliability of the first-person-narrator is not only a question when dealing with the book, but it is also an interesting aspect to consider when taking a closer look at the cinematic version of Girl, Interrupted. In order to analyze how Kaysen’s literary work was adapted, I will first shortly introduce the book and the movie. Then I will compare the two works with regard to narrative perspective, plot and time frame, characters, and cultural background.
Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted, first published in 1993, deals with her stay in a mental hospital in the late 1960s.
When sent to McLean Hospital after a suicide attempt by a psychiatrist she had never seen before, Susanna is torn out of her directionless life and finds herself in a mental institution. At the hospital, which is renowned for its famous patients, the doctors say she has a borderline personality disorder. Susanna feels as if she was put into a “parallel universe (5)” that is unconnected to the outer world. The shocking encounter with the other patients on the women’s ward causes her to think about the nature of insanity, about her suicide attempt, and about the life she has been leading before coming to McLean. After 18 months, she is considered sane enough to go back to the outer world and become the wife of a boy she dated during her time at high school.
From the first-person-perspective, episodes that give a vivid impression of how life in a mental institution during the 1960s must have been like are juxtaposed with pieces of Susanna’s original hospital file. In the episodes, Susanna depicts the daily routine and the hospital rules. The reader not only gets to know the other girls on the women’s ward, but is also confronted with Susanna’s philosophical thoughts concerning the nature of insanity, life, and death. Each episode treats another aspect that is connected to the hospital, craziness, and the problems of the patients on the ward. The episodes are only loosely related and rather than following a chronological pattern, they constitute a trail of thoughts, a kind of inner monologue. However, chronology is achieved by means of the hospital documents in the book. They give the reader information and medical facts about Susanna, and one gains insight into the bureaucratic system surrounding her hospital stay. The documents are structured with regard to their date, starting with the case record sheet that is the first page in Susanna’s file.
The book is thus focused on mental illness and the concerns, fears, and problems of a teenager on the way to adulthood. It is Susanna’s story, told by her thirty years after her stay at McLean, hence, it is a reflection of a now grown-up woman who is not quite sure whether she is still crazy or not. She says that she is not even sure if she had ever been crazy. “What does borderline personality mean anyhow? It appears to be a way station between neurosis and psychosis: a fractured but not dissembled psyche. Though to quote my post-Melvin psychiatrist: ‘It’s what they call people whose lifestyles bother them.’ He can say it because he’s a doctor. If I said it, nobody would believe me (151).” What she tries to express with this is that the psychiatrist who sent her to McLean was disturbed by the youth of the late 60s, and that for this reason, she ended up in the hospital. “Take it from his point of view. It was 1967. Even in lives like his, professional lives lived out in the suburbs behind shrubbery, there was a strange undertow, a tug from the other world- the drifting, drugged-out, no-last-name youth universe- that knocked people off balance. One could call this ‘threatening’ to use his language (40).” In addition to this, she says that different kinds of mental illness are fashionable at certain times, and that in a few years, her illness would not be in the books anymore. Long after her stay at McLean, Susanna wants to know what exactly her diagnosis means. “An analyst I’ve known for years said, ‘Freud and his circle thought most people were hysterics, then in the fifties it was psychoneurotics, and lately, everyone’s a borderline personality.’ When I went to the corner bookstore to look up my diagnosis in the Manual, it occurred to me that I might not find it in there anymore. They do get rid of things- homosexuality, for instance. Until recently, quite a few of my friends would have found themselves documented in that book along with me (152).” So the definition of insanity seems to be closely linked to the society at the time of the diagnosis.
While the thematic emphasis in the book is put on Susanna and her borderline personality disorder, the cinematic version of Girl, Interrupted by James Mangold is more concerned with the actual events on the ward and the relationship between the girls. Susanna (Winona Ryder) and Lisa (Angelina Jolie) develop a friendship, or rather, Susanna develops a dependence to Lisa. After the first shock, she is impressed by Lisa’s rebellious character and the freedom she expresses. “A suicide attempt lands her [Susanna] in Claymoore, a mental institution. She befriends the band of troubled women in her ward (Georgina the pathological liar, the sexually abused Daisy, the burn victim Polly), but falls under the hypnotic sway of Lisa, the wildest and most hardened of the bunch (imdb.com).” Besides the friendship of the girls, the movie also deals with the question whether Susanna will ever get out of the hospital. In this respect, Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg), the head nurse, influences Susanna the most. The two women develop a close relationship, and the talks with Valerie make Susanna realize that it is up to herself whether she will ever make it back to the outside world or become one of the long-term cases on the women’s ward.
The movie tells Susanna’s story chronologically, but Mangold works with many flashbacks and -forwards to tell past events. Furthermore, the plot has a closure as the establishing shot shows a scene that takes place after the showdown at the end of the movie. The closure of the movie establishes another time frame than the book does. In the book, the discourse time is 1993 and most of the story takes place back in 1967, so there are roughly 30 years in between. In the movie, discourse time and story time cannot be clearly distinguished, as we have a lot of flashbacks, and sometimes we do not know from which time the voice-over tells us the story. The establishing shot suggests that Susanna sits in the underground tunnels of the hospital and reflects upon her stay in the hospital. At the very end however, the voice-over says “most of us got out eventually”, which conveys the impression that this is told to the audience from some time in the future.
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