IN I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Hannah Green dealt with the anxieties about death, sex and insanity that bother many adolescents. The novel, which explores the efforts of an adolescent girl to free herself from a destructive fantasy world, found a wide following, largely because it evoked such sympathy with the schizophrenic heroine's anxieties.
Unfortunately, Anthony Page's film adaptation of the novel fails to evoke a similar sympathy. His direction lacks the subtlety and intelligence needed to render the difficult subject of insanity on film. Apparently because he feared the visual shock of insanity's bizarreness combined with an overdose of empathy could disturb the audience too deeply, Page takes a superficial, rather sentimental approach to the innter anguish of schizophrenia. The appeal of Green's story is lost in the process, along with any deeper meaning the book might hold.
Page's direction undermines more than the story. As the heroine Debby, Kathleen Quinlan conveys the fear, isolation, anger and occasional joy of the schizophrenic convincingly, but Page's failure to do more than superficially explain why she feels these emotions makes it difficult to empathize with what could have been a superlative job of acting. Page's attempt to depict Debby's fantasy world, to which she retreats from an unpleasant reality, further emphasizes his direction's shallowness. Green described a world complete with a separate language and gods who alternately seduce and torment Debby; but such a world could only be shown on film by a master like Ingmar Bergman, who can create powerful, metaphorical dream-images that evoke our own hidden anxieties through the use of visual symbols. Page's portrayal of Debby's private gods as primitive tribesmen--who induce her to mutilate herself because she poisons other people--implies that she is possessed by these gods, rather than the expressions of selfhatred that Green shows them to be. The jolting images of insanity, in which the gods suddenly appear brandishing blood-stained knives and howling, only momentarily convey her fright; the shock pales beside the true horror of an ordinary nightmare, which draws on real fears.
The mental hospital in which Debby learns to deal with her schizophrenia is more believable. Like Green, Page manages to balance the harsh methods used to control the inmates--a sadistic orderly, and prolonged wrapping in cold sheets to quiet hysteria--with the compassion shown by Debby's psychiatrist (Bibi Andersson) and the kindness shown by nurses and Debby's intimate friends. Yet this rather sympathetic portrayal could lead one to think that the insane are cured by kind words and firm control. Once again, Page's superficial treatment destroys the story: Debby's psychoanalysis seems suspiciously easy as the psychiatrist magically gains her patient's trust and provides Debby with facile revelations.
IT IS PUZZLING that Page only hints at Debby's massive conflicts between sexuality and guilt, since his freak-show depiction of her ward--filled with raving, often violent psychotic women--seems designed to shock, rather than sadden, the audience. Grotesque scenes of Debby burning her arm with a cigarette or a patient writhing with sexual frustration substitute titillation for understanding. Debby's self-mutilation horrifies us, but, ignorant of the roots of her madness, we are spared the terror of recognizing our own insecurity in her self-hate.
The end of the film is supposed to leave us dewyeyed with joy when, finally free from her gods, Debby frolics barefoot on the grass. This superficial happy ending--a far cry from Green's more ambiguous closing--epitomizes the film's shallowness and belies the realism of the book's title. With its failure to provide any understanding of insanity. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden ends up doing little more than exploiting the bizarre behaviour of psychosis for the thrill, with a sensationalism the novel's deeper treatment avoided.
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