Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

If a book has been made into a well-known movie, it becomes next to impossible to find a nice picture of the actual cover of the book. It’s very annoying. Mine looked like this:

Girl, Interrupted is the memoir of Susanna Kaysen, who, when she was 18 in 1966, was committed to a mental institution. Questioning her sanity with unlikely clarity, Susanna familiarizes herself and us with the cast of patients living in her ward.

The story is told as a series of vignettes; each short chapter focuses on some element of life in the hospital, or a patient with an interesting story. Susanna tells us about Polly, who set herself on fire; Janet, an anorexic; Georgina, a schizophrenic and pathological liar; Valerie, the head nurse; and Lisa, the sociopath whose domineering charisma dominates life in the ward. Moving in something slightly resembling chronological order, Susanna paints for us a picture of life in the days before being committed, the over-two-years she spent in the hospital, and just a little bit of what she did in the 25 years between being released and writing her memoir. Her narrative is sprinkled with insights into what crazy and sane are, and why people react the way they do when they hear that she’s been in a mental hospital. She even describes some of her more insane episodes (such as the time she became convinced that there were no bones in her hand) with a dry noncommittance that borders on creepy.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, because I broke one of my cardinal rules- seeing the movie first. (Note: there are some exceptions to this rule. I don’t actually intend to read Bambi.) I think I can be forgiven, as I had no idea at the time that the movie was based on a book. Needless to say, the two are… very different. I really enjoyed the movie when I saw it, and I also really enjoyed the book, but the two actually have very little in common. I’ll try to illustrate this with as few spoilers as possible.

For one thing, where the book is told sort of as a collection of short stories, the movie transforms them into a film with a coherent storyline- a progression from A to B to The End, if you will.

While the movie includes a few tiny things that Susanna mentioned (wristbanging, for example), and nodded towards events that they chose to exclude entirely (the bone incident), they did weave elements of the original story into what was almost a new story entirely. If anything, the movie fleshes out characters that are held somewhat at a distance in the book. The movie focuses very strongly on Susanna’s destructive relationship with Lisa, while the book made Lisa seem more like a force of nature- she was there and she was powerful, but she wasn’t the villain. She wasn’t blamed.

Then there were some elements of the movie that were completely fictionalized. Honestly, this annoyed me a little. I just try to distance the movie from the book and it’s all fine. As I’ve said, they’re both very good.

Here’s the trailer for the movie:

Also, it turns out you can watch the full movie on Youtube. Here’s the link.

A final note: The memoir gets its title from the painting Girl Interrupted at Her Music by Johannes Vermeer. In the book, Susanna ties a great amount of significance to seeing this painting at an art museum shortly before going to the hospital. Years later, she returns to the museum to see it again.

Published in: on October 18, 2011 at 10:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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