The Virgin Suicides – which is better: the movie or the book?
Today I’ll be looking at the 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and its film adaptation The Virgin Suicides written and directed by Sofia Coppola released in 1999.
The Virgin Suicides is about the deaths of the Lisbon girls which marked the disintegration of the Grosse Point, Michigan neighbourhood in which they lived during the 1970s. The five girls are Cecilia who is 13, Lux who is 14, Bonnie 15, Mary 16 and Therese 17. It is the four older girls, especially Lux, who capture the widespread attention and lust of the boys in the neighbourhood.
This novel has a very strange first person plural writing style which I have never come across before. The narrator is an unidentified member of a group of boys who are fascinated with the Lisbon girls, or really, the narrator is unidentified because he is more than just one of the mentioned neighbourhood boys, but a sum of the parts. All the boys, even now in adulthood, are entranced by the Lisbon girls and have spent their whole lives trying to piece together the mystery of their suicides.
The strange narration style, coupled with the odd sequencing of events and the fact that everything is told in hindsight, lends to an interesting, but often clunky, novel. I often felt confused as to where the details was coming from, and a lot of the facts about the Lisbon’s are muddled because of the multiple sources of information. I believe this was intentional, but it often led to me feeling disoriented.
The Virgin Suicides centres on a very unsatisfying mystery which stays with you. But I can’t fault the book, because this is its greatest achievement. We are completely in sync with the narrators’ feelings and drawn into their headspace. Even though the outcome isn’t a surprise – in fact the first sentence establishes the demise of all five Lisbon girls – the story is still full of tension and anticipation, but above all, intrigue.
I’m one of those people who gets queasy even thinking about blood, so this novel wasn’t the most comfortable read. The second paragraph; a long and detailed description of the youngest sister’s suicide attempt almost made me give up reading. But I persisted, and ended up not exactly enjoying the novel (it’s a difficult book to enjoy), but appreciating its unique contribution to my reading history.
The Virgin Suicides leapt from page to screen with ease. Each character is brought to life by amazing performances from Kristen Dunst, James Woods and Kathleen Turner, and the neighbourhood, a character in itself, saturates the screen with such realism and beauty. I really didn’t expect to like this film as much as I did. After reading the novel I just couldn’t imagine not feeling ill during the film, but thankfully director Sofia Coppola handled the touchy subject matter with sensitivity and an artistic eye.
It was so beautiful, no other way to describe it. Seeing this movie really reminded me of why I loved making films. The Virgin Suicides was only Coppola’s second feature film as a director, yet her style is so present in the film that it feels as though she has had years of experience. The world is unbelievably colourful and visual, taking cues from its 70s setting and the world of teenage girls. The 1970s vibe is all encompassing – the whole film looks like a Polaroid picture.
The narration by Giovanni Ribisi (or, Phoebe Buffay’s half-brother Frank) is gentle and reassuring, and naturally flows with the film. The narration brings out the structure of the novel and really reiterates that this is a story told in hindsight.
This film is very faithful to the book in terms of the dialogue, structure and its strange point of view. Even tiny, seemingly trivial details are adapted faithfully; Coppola must have realised that in a film such as this, it is the smallest details which make up the most important part of the story. As a reader of the novel, it gave me the sense that I was carefully looking for clues to solve the mystery, which put me in the shoes of our narrators.
Unfortunately, this book brought out the worst of my media/film studies mind and I couldn’t help bringing up ideas about voyeurism, privacy, the media and other such debate worthy topics. But I won’t even start – it is university break after all.
What I did:
I read this on Saturday and watched the movie yesterday. I was lucky to not really have much of the movie infiltrate my reading of the book – Kristen Dunst was the only actor that I knew was in the film, and I didn’t even know the ending… until I read the first sentence.
What you should do:
Watch the movie – - – it’s really beautiful, and handles the graphic elements of the book with minimal discomfort. As a whole, while The Virgin Suicides is very unique and intriguing, it is not a very pleasant read or watch in terms of its topic and the ending is unsatisfying – but you can’t say you weren’t warned.