Who's afraid of Sylvia Plath?

16th January 2004 at 00:00
A new biopic will illuminate the poet's life and work, says Jerome Monahan

If ever there was a film that should be a godsend for teachers grappling with the complexities of a poet's work then it is Sylvia - the "biopic" of Sylvia Plath released this month. Plath's poetry is challenging for students, and anything that gives them a shortcut to the specifics of her life and its social context is to be welcomed. "Should" is the key word here, because the film needs careful handling. Much of Sylvia Plath's story is hotly contested, but through the power of its images and an inevitably truncated narrative, Sylvia dispenses with a lot that is ambiguous in her life. The task will be assisted by a study guide from Film Education, geared to support use of the film as part of GCSE and ASA2 non-fiction text teaching.

Ted Hughes's decision to destroy Plath's journals covering the period following their separation, and the partisan interpretation of her life by critics and biographers since, means the film has a job on its hands to remain balanced. And a key element of the Film Education pack (supplemented by web resources) are activities encouraging students to assess how well it manages this biographical tightrope walk.

The film focuses on the meeting of Plath and Hughes in Cambridge in 1956, and covers the period of their marriage, its collapse, and her subsequent suicide in February 1963. It ends with Hughes staring out from one of the windows of the north London flat in which she died. Moments before, he is shown caressing the pages of the manuscript of Ariel - the poems he would guide to posthumous publication and which would establish Plath's reputation as one of the 20th century's most significant writers.

Gwyneth Paltrow is excellent as Plath, conveying her passion and her vulnerability. Whether or not the film provides an accurate impression of Plath is a question that should prove a rewarding source of classroom discussion. Her jealous rages are here, presaged by several montage sequences showing her growing despair at Hughes's absences. The awful awkwardness of the weekend in Devon when Sylvia first suspected her husband's attraction to Assia Wevill (the woman he would leave her for) is also beautifully realised.

However, by concentrating on these dramatic occasions, the film chooses to ignore the brittle and unstable moments when Plath was capable of unjustified rudeness towards people. The film offers us a curiously strong Plath, undermined, it seems, largely by the demands of home and children and an increasingly straying husband. The suicide itself is also categorically presented as entirely determined.

Gone is the anguished weekend with her friends the Beckers, during which they witnessed her desperation and pleaded with her to stay. In its place is a passionate scene with Hughes, in which, their lovemaking at an end, he confesses that Assia is pregnant and that any chance of reconciliation has gone. It is a substitution that reflects terribly and probably unfairly on Hughes. Also excised are the sad coincidences that contributed to Plath remaining undiscovered in the gas-filled kitchen for as long as she did, and possibly prevented her rescue.

Students may also end up with a false impression of Plath's productivity during her years of marriage. The domestic sphere is definitely presented as a source of distraction and frustration to her. The Devon days prior to Hughes's departure are shown to be largely unproductive, when in actual fact they saw considerable artistic output. It is also noticeable how relatively little screen time Plath's poems themselves actually enjoy. That said, we are given a ringside seat to the first recitation to part of "Daddy" during one of the impassioned private reading sessions Plath granted the critic Al Alvarez.

Teachers could discuss the other poems that are used in the film, motivating students to make their own selections of verses or lines that might have accompanied key scenes. They could discuss the central role given to the second verse of "The Arrival of the Bee Box", which accompanies Plath's final preparations for suicide: "The box is locked, it is dangerousI There are no windows, so I can't see what is in there. There is only a little grid, no exit."

Where the film succeeds is in showing the deep poetic roots on which Plath and Hughes built their work. In one scene, we witness their courtship, conducted with speeches from Shakespeare. Plath's choice of Lear is ironic, but most poignant is the bond established through the poetry, underlining the significance of Plath's later destruction of Hughes' treasured volume of Shakespeare during another jealous rage.

The film is filled with motifs (the sea, the moon and the colours) that figure in Plath's poetry. It is sure to become a key addition to English departments' video libraries.


The Film Education study guide, 12,000 copies of which will be sent free to secondary schools, covers numerous issues concerning biographies including exercises comparing and contrasting the truth to be derived from biography against autobiography. There is also a range of exercises based more on film studies, examining the delineation of Sylvia Plath's character in the opening scenes and when she declaimed Chaucer to a field of cows.

Borrowing Plath's idea of herself and Ted Hughes being inextricably joined, the pack also examines the trajectory of their relationship in an attempt to determine its high points and its inexorable decline.

Finally, it explores the mise en sc ne surrounding the interiors shown in the film - most of the film is shot indoors - and asks students to assess how the settings contribute to our sense of the story.

In addition to the study guide, Film Education is running a new web resource with study clips and downloadable study material.

Exam linksIt is a shame that there is no Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes as a set text at ASA2 right now, though the film may spur many into considering their poetry or Plath's novel The Bell Jar as likely texts for their own comparative coursework assignments.

The film would also provide a very useful vehicle, alongside other biographical accounts, for a discussion of literary biography - a highly fruitful subject when preparing for the synoptic unseen papers in A2-level English literature and for non-fiction work at GCSE and ASA2 English Language.


Film Education: www.filmeducation.org

Official Sylvia site www.sylviamovie.com

Sylvia Plath discussion forum www.sylviaplathforum.com

Comprehensive website: www.plathonline.com

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