Filmmakers take poetic license with Plath

For decades, Sylvia Plath has wowed readers with her landmark novel "The Bell Jar" and with the startling immediacy of her "Ariel" poems, published posthumously by her husband, Ted Hughes, after her suicide at age 30 in London. (He destroyed her second novel, "Double Take.")

For part of their six-year marriage, which produced two children, theirs was a creative partnership rare among poets, in which a grand passion was fueled by an intense love of poetry. It's the "grand passion" part of it that turns on audiences beyond the literati - or so hopes Hollywood.

"Sylvia," a new film starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role, may do little to quell debate over their tumultuous relationship and the factors leading to Plath's death. (Since parts of Hughes's journals remain sealed until 2023, speculation will continue at least till then.)

The late British poet laureate did break his 35-year silence on their relationship when he published, in 1998, "Birthday Letters," a series of intimate poems about Plath. For producer Alison Owen ("Elizabeth"), its publication was a signal that it would now be appropriate to make a film about their life together.

The task of coming up with a film version of their well-known literary Sturm und Drang befell documentary producer turned-screenwriter John Brownlow. "Alison and I know each other really well," says Mr. Brownlow. "I think she told me to write it because I saw these two characters a bit like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' And because I saw it as quite a big movie rather than a small, artistic little movie. For those reasons we clicked."

Not clicking was Frieda Hughes, the poets' daughter, who wrote a 48-line poem in Tatler magazine denouncing the filmmakers for attempting to make capital out of her mother's suicide. She and Hughes' sister Olwyn, who are copyright holders of Plath's writing, severely limited the filmmakers' access to Plath's poetry - to the 10 percent allowed by the Fair Use Notice of British copyright law.

Brownlow says these restrictions had very little effect on the final script, "[although] clearly, it would have been easier to deal with the subject of Sylvia's creativity if one had been allowed to quote at greater length from the poetry."

Director Christine Jeffs demurs. "It's really hard to say," says the New Zealand filmmaker, "whether, if you had access to as much poetry as you wanted, whether you would incorporate any more in the movie. If someone hadn't read about Plath or didn't know her work, they could still enjoy the movie."

To flesh out the premise, "we didn't option any of the biographies," says Brownlow, "because they were either in Ted's court or in Sylvia's court. So the film is based on our own primary research and our own interpretation of the events - to use a horrible word - as a codependent kind of relationship, one in which neither of them was to blame."

There is little disagreement among sources over the basic chronology. Plath and Hughes met in Cambridge, England; married; taught in the US; and returned to England, settling in Devon. Each of them wrote and published while parenting two children and struggling financially. Four months before Plath's death, Hughes left her.

But one of Brownlow's problems in dramatization was that a huge amount of what happened between Ted and Sylvia was not witnessed by third parties.

"Where [sources] differ really radically is where their sympathies lay within the marriage," says Brownlow. "Whether they [saw] Ted as a very put-upon husband who suffered a great deal because of his neurotic wife, or that Sylvia was rather dominated by Ted and suffered because of his wandering eye."

As he wrote, Brownlow's prime concern was to make sense of their story for himself. "The big issue is: Over what did she commit suicide?" says Brownlow. "Why did he run away? Why did she suddenly have a flowering of her poetic gift toward the end of her life? When you look at the bald chronology, parts of it jump into relief as being very important, being pivotal moments. You have to go from pivotal moment to pivotal moment."

And some pivotal moments happen behind closed doors.

Asked whether he had factual evidence for a final reunion between Sylvia and Ted a few days before her suicide, portrayed in the film as a passionate lovemaking scene, Brownlow spells out his rationale.

He says that the Friday or Saturday night before she committed suicide, Sylvia was staying with friends. "Plath announced that she had a very important meeting.... She took an enormous amount of care about her appearance. She went off and she came back, by all accounts, with her mind clear, and some decision having been made. There's no suggestion from anyone we spoke to that she was involved with any other man but Ted Hughes during the time that she was in London. And all the people we spoke to said that ... they couldn't imagine anywhere else that she had gone. Ted Hughes himself in all his accounts of that period pretended to have forgotten whatever happened that evening."

So the scene is a conjecture? "Once you're inside a room, who knows what happened between them," he admits. "You can only do your best as a writer."

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