Having it Both Ways

This is a familiar, er, story.

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.

Yes, such movies never are. They never are ‘actually about a writer.’ So what is the point of them? I never can understand it. To give people some kind of bogus feeling of cultural something-or-other? To give them the illusion that they’ve read the writer in question’s books, or at least might as well have now that they know something visual about her life? They don’t, of course, know a damn thing about what went on in her head, or about the way she transferred what went on in her head onto the page and what happened to that ‘what’ in the process and how good the translation is, or about what she read over the course of her life. No. Because that’s not what people go to the movies to see, obviously. They go to see fights and gun battles, or failing that at least some drama and emotional turmoil or a good lingering illness. They don’t go to see some bint reading in a chair and writing at a desk for hours and hours.

So what you do is, you eliminate everything to do with actual intellectual activity, and just show the entertaining stuff. Tom Eliot’s marital troubles, Lytton Strachey’s boyfriends, Byron’s sexual adventures of all sorts, Iris Murdoch fading away. And Sylvia Plath and her endlessly reviewed melodrama. Not because the audience gives the smallest tiniest damn about Eminent Victorians or Don Juan or The Waste Land, but because that way you get to have both an entertaining soap opera and a whiff of Kulcha. The whiff is totally unconvincing, indeed ridiculous, but never mind, it seems to do the trick, it puts bums on seats. But there’s something irritating about it all the same. If you want to see a soap opera see a soap opera, and if you want to read Virginia Woolf do that, but you look silly doing one while pretending to do the other.

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