With A new adaptation of Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar expected to be released this year, I’ve decided to share this 2008 letter from Julia Stiles to Carol Christ, the president of Smith College. This letter regards what fans of Plath’s writing can expect from the upcoming movie. 

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