“I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still”
On the Subject of Biopics
The other night I was by myself and a tad bored, so I did what typically comes naturally for me. I hopped on NetFlix and browsed their “New Releases” and “Recently Added” movies. Finding few things of interest there, I started looking for movies about one of my favorite topics: mental illness. Psychology has always been a fascinating subject for me and as someone who is addicted to creating fictional people with interesting problems living in interesting situations, I love learning about how the brain works. I didn’t find a lot on NetFlix after doing a keyword search and then I started to realize what I really wanted to watch, one that for some reason I’d never gotten around to renting over the years.
Sylvia, directed by Christine Jeffs, stars Gwyneth Paltrow as the poet Sylvia Plath, and Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes, her husband. I’ve always loved reading Sylvia Plath’s poetry since I first encountered it. Sadly to this day, she remains one of that unfortunate series of poets I love, but have only read in anthologies. Plath herself seems to be remembered by the laypeople more as the tragic artist figure than for her moving, confessional poetry. Like Anne Sexton, Hart Crane, John Kennedy Toole, John Berryman, Ernest Hemmingway, and Virginia Woolf, Plath’s death was a suicide. People seem to know that she stuck her head in an oven and few can name her poems, let alone their topics. I wanted to watch Sylvia because I wanted to know more about Plath’s life and I simply don’t have the time or the inclination to read a biography. For the most part, I also think Gwyneth Paltrow is a talented actress. As an added bonus for me, some of the movie was filmed at Cambridge University, a place I enjoyed visiting on a trip to England, and also where Plath attended college on a Fulbright Scholarship.
I watched the movie half the movie and was enjoying it. Paltrow’s performance was deep and believable. I found it an interesting casting decision for the filmmakers to include Blythe Danner, Paltrow’s actual mother, as Plath’s mother. If you watch movies by yourself and have a laptop, you probably do what I do and look up the film’s Wikipedia page during a lull. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s only surviving child, her son having committed suicide in 2009, was outraged at the making of the film. She even went so far as to write a rage poem which she published in Tatler. Frieda Hughes’s issue with the film might not have been so much with the film itself, but the making of it. Understandable. They were making a difficult time in her life into entertainment for the public’s sake. I stopped watching the movie after I read that, feeling a little guilty but also realizing it was time to leave soon anyway. I’m sure I’ll return to it later.
I think Frieda Hughes’s complaint is an accurate one for her to make, based on her experience. I can’t even imagine some of the emotional pain that Frieda has had to go through. Making a film of those experiences forces a person to relive that time in his/her life. I would imagine that Holocaust survivors shy away from films about Auschwitz. Some may even be upset that they are made. The frustrating thing about biopics is that they often overdramatize events at the altar of entertainment. People’s lives rarely have “arcs” like they do in fiction, so character arcs are created and teased out in order to make a story.
Well-made biopics also can be informative and encourage learning. After having watched John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti, I feel more informed on some aspects of the Revolutionary War and have the urge to sit down and read 1776 over the summer. Having watched the first half of Sylvia, I know more about aspects of Plath’s life, some I’d forgotten and some that were totally new to me. Biopics have a tendency of being formulaic at times, but those that are approached with respect for the person of interest are worthwhile. It may suck for people like Frieda Hughes, but I feel that if it informs others about a person’s life and most importantly makes the person in question more sympathetic, then all the better.
Check out this moving video of Plath reading her own poetry.
"Daddy" by Sylvia Plath