Sylvia and Ted, a Potboiler

Dying is an art ...
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.

Those are the opening words of the movie 'Sylvia,' spoken over a tight close-up on an unblinking eye in a woman's face. She is prone. She might be dead. She might be anyone -- you can't identify her. But the words are from "Lady Lazarus," a monologue written by Sylvia Plath. So what is this movie going to be about -- the art of dying, or the art of writing about it? Want to make a bet?

It's an established fact about writers that the observable events of their lives make dull viewing; it's the observable events of their deaths that make drama. Witness the death by drowning of Virginia Woolf, which opens and ends 'The Hours, 'or the obliteration of Iris Murdoch by the ravages of Alzheimer's in 'Iris.' So what's a filmmaker to do with Sylvia Plath, who killed herself 40 years ago?

Sylvia Plath herself would have been curious about the way 'Sylvia' answers the question -- Plath was always trying to draw juicy plots from the materials of her life. She was an avid journal keeper, and once she had resolved to become a professional writer, around age 16, she began using her journal as a kind of literary workshop. Plath didn't just record the events of her life, she selected the most promising and wrote them up as scenes, often jotting notes to herself about how to use the scenes in fiction. She believed that she was destined to make a "statement" about her whole generation, simply by writing about "that blond girl" Sylvia Plath.

Was she ever right about that. One story Plath drew partially from these journals was, of course, 'The Bell Jar,' the best-selling novel she based on her experience of psychiatric treatment following a breakdown and suicide attempt in 1953. Her own near-death experience gets vivid realization in 'The Bell Jar,' but her literary inspiration was the blend of pathos and humor that J.D. Salinger achieved in 'The Catcher in the Rye' -- a statement of his generation.

Plath also planned to write a novel about her romance with Ted Hughes; the theme was to be "the redemptive power of love" in the life of a girl who leaves America to study at Cambridge. Plath wanted to make it a comic novel in the manner of Joyce Cary's 'The Horse's Mouth.' She started drafting it on their honeymoon, but her wish to idealize the marriage ran full tilt into her gift for satire, and stalled the novel.

She was apparently still wrestling with this project during the summer of 1962, when she discovered that Hughes was having an affair. That gave her another plot, about which she wrote to her mentor and patron Olive Higgins Prouty, author of the novel 'Stella Dallas,' which had inspired a lucrative, long-running radio soap opera. Plath told Prouty she intended to make her new book a real "potboiler" titled 'Doubletake,' about "a wife whose husband turns out to be a deserter and philanderer." She was working on it during the months before her death, and told their friend -- the critic Al Alvarez -- that it was the best thing she had ever written. The manuscript disappeared after her death.

Plath's aim as she developed those fiction projects was not confessional, it was commercial. So who knows? If Plath had lived past 30, she might well have turned to screenwriting herself. A best-selling novel, 'The Snake Pit,' had been adapted for a movie starring Olivia de Havilland in 1948. The Snake Pit came to Plath's mind after she had given up college teaching in 1959 and was facing the economic perils of freelancing. Plath observed, from her reading of women's magazines, that there was "an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff," and that she would be "a fool" if she didn't work up a story or article about it herself. That same year, while she and Hughes were living in Boston, Plath had also set her sights on writing for TV. The couple moved to London before any opportunities materialized, so Plath apparently never completed any of the scripts she envisioned.

Now somebody else has done it for her: extracted a movie from the materials of her life. The screenwriter John Brownlow says that he had switched his major at Oxford from mathematics to English on the strength of his encounter with Plath's poetry. But in writing 'Sylvia,' he was aiming to tell a story "that was not dependent on the audience being interested in Sylvia Plath." So 'Sylvia' is not actually about a writer. Mostly, it's about a talented girl who dries up and goes mad as a housewife struggling in the shadow of a powerful and successful man.

The film's producer, Alison Owen, selected 30-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow for the part of Sylvia. Paltrow acknowledges in the October issue of Vogue that while she had long been a fan of Ted Hughes's poetry, she had never studied Plath in school. When she was 20 years old, she was given a copy of 'The Bell Jar' by actresses who had worked with her on another literary movie, 'Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.' They thought that Plath was a great subject for a biopic, and that Paltrow should get the starring role. Paltrow didn't like 'The Bell Jar' -- she found Plath's account of mental illness "disturbing" to read when she herself was the age of Plath's heroine. Nor did she care much for Plath's journals when she browsed them in preparation for the part: The journals made her dislike Plath, she said.

But Owen thought Paltrow resembled Plath, and had the "intellectual strength" to carry off the role. Moreover, she explained, "Gwyneth always works well in period movies." Well, yes. Sylvia Plath would be celebrating her 71st birthday on October 27 this year. She belongs in the peer group of Joan Didion, Marilyn French, Adrienne Rich, the late Anne Sexton. And 'Sylvia' is indeed a period piece: It deals with a marriage in the 50s, the bad old days about which Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mytique (1963) and which Phyllis Chesler critiqued in 'Women and Madness' (1972). In Sylvia -- to recall the old jump-rope rhyme -- first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Sivvy with a baby carriage and a slow decline into suicidal depression. In the movie, Plath isn't even bipolar; she is given none of the vivid exuberance that marks Plath's letters home during her marriage, and that fuels her hyperactivity when she moves to London after kicking Ted out of their house in Devon.

No, Paltrow performs postnuptial Sylvia as sinking into symptomatic lassitude and staying there. When her hostility is aroused, she seems delusional rather than angry; sitting at her writing desk after Hughes has deserted her, she rocks back and forth in her chair with a finger in her mouth. Moreover, the marriage is represented as entirely conventional -- Ted goes out into the world, where he's lionized; Sylvia stays home with the kids and broods. The actual Plath and Hughes had an egalitarian marriage that was quite unconventional in their time, but the movie doesn't show Ted babysitting or indeed doing any of the useful chores that occupied him during Plath's regular morning hours of writing.

It was those mornings of writing that gave the world the Sylvia Plath canonized in contemporary literature, of course, and it was the afternoons of writing that produced the Ted Hughes who was eventually appointed poet laureate of England. But how does a film explore the, yes, drama that occurs in the synapses of a writer when the exact, the utterly only and original phrase flows from the pen to the page?

Actually, it can be done, as was demonstrated this year in a clever French film, 'The Swimming Pool,' in which the inextinguishable Charlotte Rampling plays a successful crime novelist. The plot follows Rampling on her retreat into a villa loaned by her publisher, where she bashes out a new novel in record time. We get plenty of scenes of Rampling in spectacles, pausing reflectively at the computer screen, her dull routine broken, occasionally, by the thrill of lunching at the only cafe in the minuscule village, where the waiter is a handsome hunk. But the plot is a sleight of hand: The movie we are watching turns out to be the revenge novel Rampling is writing. At some point in the film, without a cue, we were transported into the rampant fantasy world of the novelist's creative process, where the real action always occurs.

Reader, what would you have done with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes to make their signature fantasies so vivid to a viewer? Hughes's work is full of energetic predation, Plath's of witty malice. Instead of a case history, could we have been given "The Thought-Fox" stalking "Lady Lazarus"? Probably not. The work of poets does not contain plots; it contains first-person subjectivity: The poem traverses an arc not of action but of feeling. How can a film convey the experience of reading a poem, except via the sappy insertion of a quotation into a conversation?

That usually does more harm than good in a movie, though a notable exception does occur in 'Regeneration,' the film developed by the BBC out of the prize-winning novel by Pat Barker, in which the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen meet at a hospital where each is being treated for wounds inflicted in the First World War. The film shows them discussing their work -- boldly it shows Sassoon proposing revisions to Owen (only a BBC film would risk such a moment). But nothing is quoted until the movie's extraordinary ending, in which their doctor silently reads a letter from Sassoon that describes Owen's death and encloses a copy of one of his last poems. The quotation works because the film understands that the poem is not about the poet; it is, perfectly, about the pity of war.

Well then, might an imaginative pathway into the story of a poet's life or death be drawn from the fantasy worlds -- the literature -- that shaped them? Poets themselves are made as much by reading as by other experiences. Plath and Hughes, for example, had studied the same books in college, books that influenced their ideas about love and sex. 'Women in Love' (D.H. Lawrence) featured prominently in their views of romance, along with 'The White Goddess' (Robert Graves), and 'Civilization and Its Discontents' (Sigmund Freud). At the end of their marriage, deserted by Hughes, Plath turned for solace and instruction to the autobiographical works of Doris Lessing: her 'Children of Violence' series and 'The Golden Notebook,' which Plath read hot off the press in late 1962.

Notably, the plot of 'Sylvia' pays little attention to such occupations as reading and writing, except at the outset. The opening scenes, in which Plath and Hughes meet and fall in love, give the film real energy and charm. These are the moments that will make its reputation: Sylvia frantically rifling a college lit magazine to find the bad review of her own work that she's heard about; Sylvia in a punt declaiming Chaucer to the cows on the banks of the Cam; Sylvia and Ted seated near the fire in a pub, while in the background a group of Ted's friends compete in rapidly reciting Shakespeare from memory -- suddenly one of them calls on Sylvia, who literally rises to the occasion, surprising herself as well as the blokes.

In these and other early scenes, John Brownlow's excellent literary education sneaks into 'Sylvia' and deftly manages to convey the deep, distinctive passion that the actual Plath and Hughes brought to their literary partnership. And though the filmmakers were denied permission to quote from the writing of Plath and Hughes, they made ingenious use of a legal loophole. Copyright law permits the quotation of snippets from published work under the definition of "fair use." When Sylvia is shown writing the poems of 'Ariel,' the soundtrack becomes a beautiful sonic tapestry of almost inaudible phrases from the poems, all of which will be recognizable to Plath's most ardent readers.

So the film is not just about dying, after all. Life is short, but art is long, and -- as the film shows -- Plath and Hughes were artists before they were anything else. They did that exceptionally well.

Diane Middlebrook, professor emerita of English at Stanford University, is the author of 'Anne Sexton: A Biography' and 'Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton' (both Houghton Mifflin), and' Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage,' published this month by Viking Press.

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