Poets on Film: Sylvia (2003), or Sylvia Plath Deserved Better

A better partner, better mental health care, and a much better biopic

CW: Suicide

The DVD case for Sylvia, the 2003 Sylvia Plath biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, is sitting on my desk. Plath (Paltrow) appears on it twice, once with her head thrown back, smiling while Ted Hughes (Craig) nuzzles her cheek. Then Plath appears again in a kind of portrait headshot, staring right at you: smaller, mouth open, coiffed.

The endorsement blurb on the front of the case has the words sexy and erotic bolded. Those words come from critic Owen Gleiberman, who said, according to this blurb, Gwyneth Paltrow is sexy and willful, boiling over with literary and erotic hunger! I could scarcely believe that a human being would write such a description, so I went hunting for the original review. It’s out there. Gleiberman really did call a female character “willful” in the year of our lord 2003. Granted, the exclamation point was a fiction, ostensibly added by the studio.

We haven’t even watched the damn thing yet. But when it comes to a biopic of one of the most read and studied poets in the world, it bears scrutinizing Plath’s representation. If you look at the promotional designs for the film across the world, you get the sense that the film is a romance or a study of a relationship. And that’s precisely what it is.

Perhaps I was foolish to think that a film called Sylvia would be a portrait of the poet as a full and complete human being and not merely a chronicle of her tortured marriage. But when I first saw the film in 2003, I was just jazzed that big stars were portraying poets. Gwyneth Paltrow! Who could believe such a thing? I was just about 18 years old, and it felt marvelous to see Plath in a larger-than-life characterization of any kind. But now Sylvia blares its one obvious plotline so loudly that I’m not able to access any of the small admiration I once felt for the film.

Life was too small to contain her, reads the one film poster that seems the most unobjectionable to me. But I’m struck by how incorrect that statement is, too. Is it that life was too small to contain Sylvia Plath, or that our conceptions of her, then and now, were too small? Lest I judge a movie by its cover or merely by my memory of it, I re-watched the film for what was probably the third or fourth time in my life, but it had been a while. I assure you, what’s inside is no better than the schlocky, obvious exterior.

Friends, it was not good.

Sylvia the film treats every aspect of the poet’s life as a mere precursor to her tragic suicide, and I want something better for Sylvia the woman.

Other Sylvias

Sylvia Plath is intimidating to write about, so I’m sure that making a film about her is no different. But such difficulties don’t amount to much of a defense when it comes to the work of biography or biopic. The complexity and ineffability of human beings are sort of, you know… the point.

Plath is among my favorite poets, and I have read and studied her work deeply both in graduate school and on my own. But even I feel a sense of trepidation in approaching the work of this icon.

Sylvia the film treats every aspect of the poet’s life as a mere precursor to her tragic suicide, and I want something better for Sylvia the woman.

There are those who have an almost personal relationship with Plath even now, nearly 60 years after her death, and many wonderful voices have cropped up to rescue her from the doldrums of her tragic death. Loving Sylvia Plath highlights how funny Plath was, and @whatsylviaate is a daily food diary that humanizes Plath through her notes about food and cooking (the August 22 entry reads this way: “You have gotten drunk and elated on the young firm tart green of early apples, and never wanted other. But the first ripened apple breaks open its fruit on the palate, and the sweet, savory juice floods in vindication into the hungry mouth, lyric lovely on the tongue, 8/22/52”).

Heather Clark’s new and gloriously massive biography, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, is yet another deepening of Plath’s story. It’s going to take a tome of this size (more than 1,000 pages) to do justice to a complex and gifted writer who is so often only understood through the lenses of her marriage and her suicide.

No matter what your level of Plath literacy is, it’s easy enough to see the problems inherent to the film that director Christine Jeffs and writer John Brownlow created. Inexperienced in the film world (Sylvia was only Jeffs’ third film, and Brownlow had only been a full-time screenwriter for four years at the time of the film’s release) the pair’s ability to reduce Plath to a histrionic housewife shows their lack of experience in other areas (or all areas) as well.

Willful Sylvia

The film opens on a shot of Plath’s face. Her eyes are closed, and while she is likely sleeping, she reads, of course, as dead. Is that the work of biopics and biographies, then? To resurrect the dead, have them dance about a while, then lay them back to rest? Such a treatment is fitting for the poet who penned “Lady Lazarus,” and in fact, the first word of the film, “Dying…” is taken from that poem, which Paltrow reads part of. The first seconds of the film already ask us to see her life as just an overture to her death.

We then see Plath during her time at Cambridge in the 1950s. Because we know Plath for mere moments before she meets Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig, who, for me, is as easy to dislike as Hughes himself, so that’s a win for this flick at least) the totality of her personhood is wrapped up in her relationship with him.

This isn’t Jeffs’ fault alone: countless portraits of Plath have been made like this one. The woman who is wholly undone by her love for a bastard is a tale as old as time. There’s certainly truth to it, but what a tired old chestnut it is.

When Plath meets Hughes, she strokes his ego thoroughly, calling his work “colossal,” which puts us in mind of The Colossus, a figure from Hughes and Plath’s ouija board games that would serve as the title of the only collection of her poetry published in her lifetime. The pair dance and flirt, and Plath awkwardly bites Hughes on the face, which is drawn from life and frequently mythologized.

In “The Night That Sylvia Plath Met Ted Hughes,” Belinda McKeon writes:

…they both wrote of the night in language stormed by verbs of crashing, of banging, of smashing and shouting and noise; it may be why Hughes needed to account for it in astrological terms; it may be why Plath needed to believe that she had bit so hard into Hughes’s cheek as he kissed her neck that she left, not just a mark (Hughes describes it in the poem as a “ring-moat of tooth marks”), but an open wound, dripping blood. How hard would you need to bite someone’s face, and with what incisoral talent, and with what kind of leverage, to leave them with “blood running down his face,” as Plath, high as a kite, wrote in her journal the next morning? And yet that legend has endured. Which shows that Plath was not the only one who has needed to believe it.

Despite their dramatic meeting at the release party for St. Botolph’s, it’s hard to believe Paltrow’s portrayal of Plath as semi-(fully?) obsessed schoolgirl, chanting “Mrs. Sylvia Hughes” as she bounces a ball in her room afterward. That episode is part of the film’s overarching obsession with infantilizing Plath in the name of humanizing her genius.

The rest of the film elapses without much fanfare because the territory it treads is so well-worn: they’re happy for a while and then they’re not. Sylvia bolsters Ted’s career, entering him in contests and generally chuffing him up as often as she can. Her writing is frequently stalled or nonexistent while he goes on merrily writing away.

But the couple is happy, so happy in fact that you’re waiting for the moment when it all goes wrong, but that’s too simplistic a narrative for real life.

Though we do hear Plath say that she has attempted suicide before, the film is content to draw a straight line between Hughes’ infidelity and her death rather than engage the nuance of depression, the condition of women in the middle of the 20th century, or any number of other critical mitigating factors.

Anyone who has loved someone who ended their life knows that there is no one act or moment that “causes” someone to die by suicide. In the 18 years since the film was made, I hope that we’ve come at least that far in our understanding of people living with suicidal thoughts or behavior.

There are moments that I do recognize in this film, moments that sadly have retained their shine: Plath bakes when she can’t write (relatable) and Ted chides her, even as he leaves her with the lioness’s share of the housework and child-rearing (relatable) then offers her gross, patriarchal, literally penile writing advice (“stick your head into it”) before getting down to some good old fashioned infidelity.

The domestic scenes are relentless and grinding, and I saw myself and women I know in Paltrow’s portrayal of a woman writer propping up a male writer who ultimately abuses and castigates her. This, Jeffs and Brownlow got right, but not necessarily because they are skilled in their trade—they got it right because so little has changed when it comes to gendered creative labor.

Much of Plath’s writing life is ignored in favor of this domestic life on screen. However, more poetry might have made it into the film if not for the objections of Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter, who wrote a fuming 48-line poem in response to the film’s production. It was published in Tatler and later collected in The Book of Mirrors. The end of the poem reads this way:

Watching someone on TV
Means all they have to do
Is press ‘pause’
If they want to boil a kettle,
While my mother holds her breath on screen
To finish dying after tea.
The filmmakers have collected
The body parts,
They want me to see.
They require dressings to cover the joins
And disguise the prosthetics
In their remake of my mother;
They want to use her poetry
As stitching and sutures
To give it credibility.
They think I should love it—
Having her back again, they think
I should give them my mother’s words
To fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll,
Who will walk and talk
And die at will,
And die, and die
And forever be dying.

I feel a thrill of recognition here—“My Mother” puts me in mind of Plath’s impeccable “The Applicant.” The anger in both poems is palpable and rooted in expectation and gender performance. She has a point: Frieda refused to grant the filmmakers additional rights to use Plath’s work in the film itself, and in response to negative media coverage of the story, the BBC, who produced the film, commented that the film didn’t focus on the suicide and wasn’t, therefore, exploitative.

While it’s true that Plath’s death is not actually filmed, to say that the film doesn’t focus on it is an obfuscation of the worst sort. Every moment of Sylvia feels like a bated breath that will only be exhaled once her death comes to pass. This brilliant poet deserved better.

My Sylvia

When my brief marriage (the product of a long and unhappy relationship) ended in 2016, a male professor of mine said that my poetry would improve as a result. He called this phenomenon “the divorce bump.” Though it still feels a bit crass even now for him to have suggested such a thing, there was a certain truth to it, but not, perhaps, for the reasons he or anyone else might suppose.

Though it focuses myopically on her marriage for the vast majority of its 110 minutes, Sylvia does document, if obliquely, the furious burst of creativity that Plath experienced in late 1962 after she and Hughes separated, during which time she composed dozens of the poems that would become Ariel.

The “bump” of creativity that Plath experienced, if it was anything like mine, may have had more to do with being unyoked from the limiting force of men and their creative pursuits rather than the fire of grief or heartbreak. Portraying women as mere furnaces who run on the fuel of pain is reductive and does not do justice to the nuance of their artistic output.

The film doesn’t indulge the more complex idea, again opting for the simpler one. This on-screen Plath is not free from the oppression of men: she’s just mad and in the throes of catharsis. “Is it any good?” she asks Al Alvarez (played creepily and well as always by Jared Harris) after giving a brimstone-edged reading of a portion of her famous “Daddy.” How I tire of hearing brilliant women ask that question of men. The poem is indeed good, Alvarez assures her, but not without also letting her know how beautiful she is.

Someone hand me the remote.

Portraying women as mere furnaces who run on the fuel of pain is reductive and does not do justice to the nuance of their artistic output.

Whether or not Alvarez and Plath were lovers in real life is a question that still feels unsettled in Plath scholarship, but ultimately it’s not interesting to me (though it seems to interest the filmmakers here a great deal). What’s more interesting is the way in which Plath struggled to transcend the roles offered to her in her time: wife, mother, second-banana poet. I only wish that more of this wrestling were visible and that the time she spent producing Ariel had been more fully chronicled.

But again, this is not a movie about Sylvia Plath. This is a movie about a marriage.

Our Sylvia

If you know Plath, you know how things panned out after she ended her life. Hughes destroyed her final journal, published Ariel with numerous changes he saw fit to make, then published The Birthday Letters, his only real accounting for their life together in his work, months before his own death.

Since 1963, Plath has grown enormously in stature while Hughes has diminished (though I expect that this statement rings truer for those in the US than it does for those in the UK). The darker aspects of the Plath-Hughes marriage have become common knowledge, and Plath has been held up, rightfully, as an icon of feminist poetry whose work lives on despite Plath’s short and difficult life.

No matter her status, Plath has rarely been portrayed on screen, and perhaps for good reason. Her story is complex, which is not to say that television and film can’t get at that complexity. But it is simpler to deliver simplicity. That’s the choice that these filmmakers made.

In the end, Sylvia is not the place to learn about Plath. Try Red Comet, or read Plath’s unabridged journals. When it comes to her final book, if you wish to see Plath’s own authorial and curatorial intentions intact, pick up a copy of Ariel: The Restored Edition, which reinstates the poems that Hughes removed, honors her ordering, and includes facsimiles of her original drafts.

In his final years, Plath’s stature seemed to irk Hughes, who spoke derisively of the “the Plath Fantasia” and the ways in which it had eclipsed the “truth” of her life. The 1989 letter in which Hughes used these terms was aimed at the incorrect understanding that he and Plath had signed divorce papers at the time of her death, but I sense in his letter another sentiment lurking—an anger that she had achieved her own mythos.

In the larger scheme of things, any attempt to set down the “truth” about another human being must necessarily fail in a larger sense. Surely the dichotomy between the fantasia and the reality is a false one, as most are. But there are far more dangerous fantasies, says this observer: that people who die of depression are destined to do so, or that the lives of those who take their lives are only ever about their deaths.

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.