Book: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
Movie: Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Age/Genre: Adult Memoir
Preferred Reading Environment: Curled up in a warm blanket
Reading Accoutrements:If you smoke, cigarettes. Seriously, the movie makes it seem like mental health institutions in the 60s were havens of unlimited cigarettes and unfettered smoking (which is probably somewhat true)
Content Notes: Depression, Suicide, Racism
SPOILER WARNING: This compares many specific differences between the book and movie, so there are lots of spoilers. I don’t think reading the book would be much affected by these, as things don’t happen linearly, and specific events aren’t vital to the overall message. The movie watching experience could be affected by the spoilers, since knowing what’s coming could ruin some of the suspense.
Continuing into Mental Health Awareness Month, I decided it was finally time to watch Girl, Interrupted. I had read the book in college, but had never seen the movie, which EVERYONE tells me is great.
So I reread the book, and I liked it a lot, just as I remembered. It’s a short, easy read, and Kaysen raises a lot of questions about how “deviant women” are seen in society and how we decide who needs to be institutionalized. I loved how she portrayed the other patients she met, and how she respects their stories.
I sat down to watch the movie, and right away, I felt like it was going to be good. The opening was really engaging, and the audience was immediately introduced to mysteries about what was really going on and what was happening when.
Main plot-wise, the movie didn’t deviate too far from the book. Susanna, a recent high school grad, popped 50 aspirin, and is subsequently “recommended” for a mental institution for “a rest.” She is 18, so she has to check herself in, and is rushed in such a way that she really doesn’t understand everything that is going on. Her “rest” ends up being two years (one year in the movie) surrounded by the chaos of having people of varying mental states all in one place. Susanna relays the stories of many of her fellow patients, speaks of the friendships formed, and explains the ins and outs of the institution. We see charts, learn about how checks and monitoring worked, and sit in on a few of her therapy sessions.
One of the first things my husband and I noticed about the movie was the perfect casting. Winona Ryder was the perfect Susanna – androgynous, a little surly, and gave the perfect eye roll. Clea DuVall was a great pathological liar as Susanna’s roommate, Georgina. Brittany Murphy and Elizabeth Moss were both stunning – seriously, the casting was spot-on. The only performance I wasn’t completely awed by was Angelina Jolie as Lisa. There were definitely parts that came through really strongly, but I kinda feel like she got cast because she can make really good angry faces. So when she wasn’t doing that, there wasn’t a lot to offer. I thought Lisa was better developed in the book.
Whoopi Goldberg was amazing as the head nurse, Valerie. She played her just as I pictured her from the book – no tolerance for nonsense, but kind and caring for her charges – like a nurse should be. I did have one major problem with Valerie’s portrayal in the movie, though. In the book, Valerie was white. In the movie, they decided to make a plot point out of the girls being racist toward Valerie. Not only was this kind of shown in a “crazy people will be assholes sometimes, you can’t really do anything about it” way, but when Susanna apologizes for her racist statements, Valerie just hugs and forgives her. I feel that showing it that way was a particular choice on the filmmaker’s part. One, it showed, and enforced that white people’s feelings are prioritized at the expense of people of color. And Two, it seemed like it was supposed to be “inspirational,” like “Aw, Valerie’s such a good pure person for not getting that upset.” But I don’t want to idealize black people for tolerating people’s bullshit – I wish the filmmakers had given Valerie agency, rather than going for an “inspirational” moment that glossed over the harm white people do to people of color.
Anyway, there were a few other things that the movie changed. I really liked how in the beginning, scenes shifted in and out of each other. It was a cool illustration of how dissociated Susanna was from the world around her.
In the book, Susanna finds out about these tunnels under the institution, and asks the nurses to take her down there whenever they can, since she is awed by the history and enjoys being in them. In the movie, the patients sneak off to the tunnels, and also into one of the doctor’s offices. These were cool scenes, showing bonding between the characters, and streamlining a couple of plot points, but I kept getting distracted by the fact that no one caught them. It is established that they get checked on every 10 minutes. They don’t make any attempt to be quiet. There’s no way they wouldn’t get caught – suspension of disbelief, shattered.
Another major change in the film were the circumstances around Daisy’s death. In the book, the staff simply tell the patients that Daisy committed suicide. I thought that was a little weird they would share such traumatizing information, but since she was an annual patient, and part of the point of the book is that the mental health staff didn’t always make the best choices, it didn’t bother me too much. In the movie, Susanna and Lisa run away and stay with Daisy for a night. Lisa bullies Daisy, Daisy kills herself, and Susanna finds the body. I see why the movie writers made this decision – it was more dramatic, showed a lot of tension, and gave our main character a specific instance of trauma to motivate her to “get better”. I don’t think it was stronger than how things played in the book, mainly because the book is based on Kaysen’s lived experience, and isn’t necessarily driven by drama. This change made sense for the medium, but wasn’t necessarily better or worse.
Overall, though I thought the movie was really well-made and enjoyable, I preferred the book by a long shot. It was more honest, more critical of society, and didn’t play for shock-value like the movie did. It also had a clearer message and frame. The book explains that the title, Girl, Interrupted, is inspired by Vermeer’s painting called “Girl Interrupted at her Music.” Susanna sees the painting with a professor she has an affair with before she’s hospitalized, and then again, several years after she leaves the institution. She relates to the painting, feels that it’s a good metaphor for how her life was interrupted by being institutionalized and how society interrupts the lives of women who aren’t following societal norms. The fact this was left out of the movie completely bugged me. The movie did some things to show how Susanna was perceived by others around her, and how she didn’t feel she fit into this world, but I thought the book’s explanation of the title made a clear point that was both message and plot-driven.
I could go on forever. There were lots of great things in both the movie and the book. The book is definitely worth checking out. Like I said, it’s a fast read, and really engaging. The movie is really good too, and I recommend it, I just have more criticisms of it.
Movie: Worth Watching
What’s a book/movie combo that you felt both were strong, but you enjoyed one more than the other? Share in the comments!