The Bell Jar (1979)

The Bell Jar (1979)

Synopsis:

 In the 1950s, an extremely bright young woman, Esther Greenwood (Marilyn Hassett, The Other Side of the Mountain), who grew up in a highly dysfunctional household, gradually loses control over herself while attending college.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream. Because wherever I sat, on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok, I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

I’m not sure now, but when I was growing up, celebrated American poet Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, was a must-read book for teenage girls. It’s sad to think that this is the first, and only (so far), film adaptation of the 1963 book. Even sadder, this movie version of the classic book is a mess, tainting the legacy of Plath’s legendary story.

Because it does such a terrible job articulating the book’s complex issues, The Bell Jar will most likely confuse viewers unfamiliar with Plath’s life and writings. Plath’s main argument was that there was, and still is to some extent, hell to be paid for any woman who doesn’t neatly fit into society’s idea of womanhood.

The Bell Jar makes you feel that the story’s heroine is simply mentally ill, but in truth, she is really reacting to a hostile environment — the movie could have done a better job explaining Plath’s manifesto. That’s precisely why I can’t recommend the movie. Marjorie Kellogg’s (Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon) script misses the mark and the direction by Larry Peerce (Goodbye, Columbus) is average at best.

Marilyn Hassett does as pretty good job in a difficult role. She’s no Meryl Streep, but she is convincing enough as the troubled Esther. Although Hassett’s then husband Peerce’s unimaginative direction leaves Hassett to her own devices, I thought she had pretty good instincts. Hassett tries, but nothing can save such an ill-conceived movie.

Hassett gets some help from the terrific supporting cast. Julie Harris (Elia Kazan’s East of Eden) is excellent as Ether’s controlling mother. Anne Jackson (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) plays a psychiatrist, and Barbara Barrie (Breaking Away) plays a chic magazine editor. I did think that Jameson Parker (TV’s Simon & Simon), who plays Hassett’s on and off boyfriend, had absolutely zero chemistry with Hassett.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Bell Jar fails to convey the book’s main themes in a clear and concise manner. The producers failed to seize an opportunity to film a truly fascinating story. However, this will have to do for now. I do hope another filmmaker — maybe Jane Campion (An Angel at My Table) — gives the book another try because it has the potential of becoming an extraordinary movie. Color, 107 minutes, Rated R.

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