Recently, a bunch of online articles have been spreading the news about Kirsten Dunst’s supposed—and, if true, first— directorial project: a film adaptation of The Bell Jar. Plath’s only novel, it was inspired by her own experiences as a young woman. Set in the 1950’s, The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood, a budding writer, who moves from Boston to New York City after scoring an internship with a women’s magazine. Whilst in New York, Esther experiences a series of incidents and misadventures before finally going back to Boston. However, once back home, her psychological condition begins to change dramatically until, overcome with depression, she toys with the idea of taking her own life.
Reportedly starring Dakota Fanning as the troubled Esther, Dunst’s The Bell Jar will not be the first time cinematographic attention has been paid to Plath and her work. In 2003, Christine Jeffs released the biopic Sylvia, in which Plath was portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow alongside Daniel Craig as her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes. The novel itself was previously adapted in 1979 by Larry Peerce, though it failed to tap in to Esther’s inner dimension, her traumas and her eventual journey to recovery. As Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review, “the movie barely even goes skin-deep. The audience isn’t given the slightest clue about Esther’s quirks, her fears, her peculiarly distorted notion of herself. She seems to be afraid of sex, and she also seems to be the object of amorous attention from most of the women she knows but, beyond that, the movie doesn’t explain a thing.” Here, Maslin underlines perfectly the great challenge Dunst will have to face if she does embark upon such a project. She will have to make Esther’s mental disorders and subsequent collapse apparent to the audience in both a sympathetic and subtle way, just as Plath portrayed them on the page.
The Bell Jar will undoubtedly strike a chord with many contemporary twenty-something women who, like Esther, may have moved to a big city after finishing their degree, full of hopes and dreams, only to find that success is not always so easy to achieve. Esther struggles— though perhaps in a more extreme way— with the same problems many young women face today, whether living in New York City or elsewhere, such as London. Esther finds it hard to choose which kind of woman she must be: whether a wife and mother, a poet, an academic and, in her precarious state of mind, these three potential paths clash together, creating a confusion that leaves Esther feeling paralysed. Plath uses a marvellous metaphor to describe this feeling, imaging Esther’s life— and by extension, her own— as a beautiful fig tree of which every branch is a different path, every fruit a different achievement. Esther sits in front of this tree longing for each and every fig and, whilst unable to choose which to pick, all of the figs rot and the tree is left as bare as she feels her life will be.
As an actress, Dunst has played a number of troubled and rebellious characters, such as Lux Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides and, of course, the ill-fated queen in Marie Antoinette. Perhaps, as a director, she will be able to use these experiences in creating the story of Esther, another strongly rebellious female figure. With this premise— and with Dakota Fanning playing the protagonist—Dunst adapting Plath could be a match made in heaven.
Edited by Sophie Walker