From the start, even Winona Ryder had her doubts as to whether Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted be translated onto the screen. In fact, despite being optioned within a year of the book’s release in 1993, no one thought it could be adapted.
The script went through two writers, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, and eventually the film’s director, James Mangold, took over the task of adapting the novel. Two years after he began, Mangold felt that he had captured something that could be both cinematically successful and remain true to the original work.
Kaysen’s novel took her three years to write, after avoiding the subject all together for nearly twenty years. Within the first few pages, Susanna is whisked off to McLean Hospital, after a doctor she has only just met informs her that she needs a rest. However, it isn’t until several chapters later, and after meeting the other women at the hospital with her, that Kaysen starts to dive into what was going on inside her mind. As Kaysen writes:
"But I wasn’t simply going nuts, tumbling down a shaft into Wonderland. It was my misfortune- or salvation- to be at all times perfectly conscious of my misperceptions of reality. I never “believed” anything I saw or thought I saw. Not only that, I correctly understood each new weird activity."
At the time of its release and the years that followed, Kaysen’s work received a wide range of acceptance. Many people, like Ryder, could easily relate to the story, and for some Kaysen became a cult-like figure. About her own reaction to reading the novel, Ryder once said:
"Susanna Kaysen’s book just really captured a mood - that time in your life that is so confusing and so lonely and so oddly funny and weird. She captured it with such honesty yet without being self-indulgent, which is something I hadn't seen captured since Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye."
However, not everyone was enthralled with Girl, Interrupted. It was written at a time when memoirs were just starting to flood the literary market. Kate Harrison’s The Kiss, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Michael Ryan's Secret Life and a number of other memoirs all meet varying degrees of success in the 90’s, both as novels and as films. In many ways, the memoir is a literary equivalent to the recent voyeuristic obsession in American culture with the popular reality television programming. The authors open up their lives, for better or worse, to the eyes and imagination of the reader. Recent memoirs have been about everyday people, rather than historical figures as memoirs have largely been based around in the past, which allow the reader to have a different level of interaction with the characters.
Although her experience of being at McLean is the focus of the book, with mental illness as the centerpiece, the underlying themes that impressed Mangold the most and what he decided to explore in the film. While the earlier versions of the screenplay worked on adapting events in Kaysen’s novel, Mangold set to tackle something less tangible- the relationships and bonds that the women in the hospital formed and the emotions that the girl’s were working through. In a press conference before the film’s opening, Mangold said:
"It was just kind of these series of vignettes in a mental institution which were neither saying it was a terrible place or a great place but were just kind of events,… I felt like someone had to attack the material with vigor, also more loyalty to the feelings, themes and points of the book."
Mangold’s commentary on the film’s DVD provides a lot of insight into what he was trying to do with his adaptation. With no classical structure to follow, Mangold stared by looking for a concrete place to take the film. He talks at great lengths about wanting to avoid that traditional pit falls of “chick flicks,” while at the same time wanting to create something that transcends the genre of the mental illness films.
Many of the films he credits as inspiring his work with Girl, Interrupted are also literary adaptations. Mangold “hitched his thematic star to” The Wizard of Oz, which he felt provided him with something other than mental illness to draw upon. Not only did the film influence the structure and look certain shots (he compares Susanna entering the ward for the first time to images of Dorothy stepping into Oz for the first time), but it also influenced how the dynamics between different characters were constructed. He also saw The Wizard of Oz as a fable that could provide him with a solution to his adaptation.
Unlike other mental illness films, Mangold argues that there is no revelation of a secret in the third act that sums up Susanna’s problems. In Ordinary People, Conrad (played by Timothy Hutton) reveals that he feels great guilt over not trying to save his brother. In Good Will Hunting, Will (played by Matt Damon) reveals that his father beat him as a child. Staying true to Kaysen’s memoir, Mangold doesn’t create a secret for the sake of dramatization, but instead draws upon The Wizard of Oz again, and alludes to the similarities between Susanna’s illness and Dorothy’s ability to go home whenever she wanted with the secret imbedded in the journey itself. Mangold takes the connection even farther by using a clip of The Wizard of Oz in the film, and by closely tying the film to Susanna’s roommate, Georgina.
When Mangold first sent Girl, Interrupted to the editors, it was nearly three hours long. In the end, its final running time was a little over two hours. The DVD edition of the film provides the viewer with a look at some of the deleted scenes. Interestingly, it is these scenes the give a much stronger notion of the film being a memoir in and of itself, and truly capturing the essence of Susanna. Mangold allowed in these scenes for the viewer to see the effects of Susanna’s mental illness through her own eyes, without having to be told explicitly what she is feeling or thinking.
Some of these deleted scenes were additional flashbacks, originally intended to go after she turns the professor away. It is in these scenes that Mangold visually communicates the problems that Susanna was having at the time. Kaysen writes:
"I was having a problem with patterns - Oriental rugs, tiled floors, printed curtains - things like that. Supermarkets were especially bad because of the long, hypnotic, checkerboard aisles. When I looked at these things, I saw other things within them. That sounds as though I was hallucinating, and I wasn't. I knew I was looking at a floor or a curtain, but all patterns seemed to contain potential representations which, in a dizzying array, would flicker, briefly, to life. That could be a forest, a flock of birds, my second grade class picture. Well, it wasn't. It was a rug or whatever it was. But my glimpses of the other things it might be were exhausting. Reality was getting too dense."
Mangold shows the shadows of leaves on her wall mutating into the other things that Susanna saw, her hand mutating, the door knob of the bathroom turning when no one is there, and he shows Susanna looking at a bottle of aspirin. He later tries to do something similar with the final chapter, where Kaysen eloquently writes a description of seeing the Vermeer painting Girl Interrupted at Her Music. While in Boston with Lisa, there were several scenes that later were cut from the sequence, including Susanna at an art museum. Mangold seems nearly obsessed with not letting the movie drag, and often uses that has his excuse for cutting these scenes.