"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
"…we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
When someone dies too soon, they remain forever young in our memory. When someone dies too soon by choice, they remain a symbol of something we failed to see. What is compelling about The Virgin Suicides is the candid observation of how things change for the living after a series of suicides in a suburban community. The 1993 novel, by Pulitzer prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides, is narrated by a man speaking collectively for the boys from the neighborhood. The topic still on their minds after more than twenty years is the object of their juvenile fantasies – the Lisbon sisters: Mary, Therese, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia. Looking back as adults on the year the girls chose to end their lives, they launch an investigation into the past to gather pieces to a puzzle that can never be solved. Ending in the realization that they will never know why, and that their inability to save them is destined to haunt them forever.
“Cecilia was the first to go,” begins the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) guiding us through the tragic events in Sofia Coppola’s film. He speaks of fading recollections of a year in the ’70s, when multiple suicides disrupted their middle-class Michigan suburb. Powerless, the neighborhood watches as the Lisbon family falls apart after thirteen-year-old Cecilia (Hanna Hall) jumps from her window, succeeding in her second suicide attempt. After her loss, the four remaining sisters stick together, taking no pity from the boys at school who feel emboldened and, perhaps, obligated to console them. Mr. Lisbon (James Woods), the tepid high school math teacher, and his religious wife (Kathleen Turner) lead a strict household, limiting the girls’ social interactions, especially with members of the opposite sex. However, the rules intended to keep their daughters safe feel more like imprisonment to the teens. Eventually, their paranoid extremes to shelter them from the world – removing them from school and confining them to the house – end when the girls decide to follow Cecilia’s lead.
Having written and directed only a few short films prior to The Virgin Suicides, Coppola depicts the captivating mystery of the Lisbon girls with an ethereal ease that has since become her signature. While the book acts as an investigation into the past, containing interviews with various members of the community, Coppola incorporates only a few of these moments, omitting individual backstories to focus on the interactions between nosy and judgmental neighbors during the year in question. The boys, from their distant and unreliable perspective as libidinous and brazen spectators, only presume to know what life is like for the girls behind closed doors. While Eugenides tells the entire story from this outside point of view, Coppola surpasses their adolescent one-track minds by traveling inside the Lisbon’s house. Showing how the girls spend their days – knitting, listening to records, watching nature programs, playing Chinese checkers – humanizes them in a way the boys fail to notice. When their home becomes a prison cell, Coppola captures their boredom and isolation, panning across languid figures sprawled on bedroom floors, surrounded by pink teddy bears, floral bed linens, and scattered travel catalogues – the glossy photos of faraway places their only escape. Watching from their claustrophobic chamber as life passes by outside their window, their sisterly bond becomes a secret covenant.
The obvious difference between the novel and the film is the interpretation of the male gaze from a female perspective. While Coppola’s feminine aesthetic gives the girls depth beyond their objectified role on the page, they remain the distant and mystifying creatures the men recall. The delicacy of her style creates a dreamlike aura around the girls, effectively visualizing the hazy and romanticized memories of the collective narrator. What Eugenides and Coppola have in common is their ability to capture the wistful essence of being a teenager. From the boys’ obsession, to Lux’s rebellion and heartbreak over Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), to everyone's magical night at the homecoming dance, Coppola’s intimate snapshots of these exhilarating and momentary tastes of freedom only deepen the sorrow of things to come.
Having spent years romanticizing the girls and analyzing every element of their lives, the men – now approaching middle-age – find it impossible to forget them. Bittersweet memories of the girls reaching out through letters and signaling them with flashing lights from their bedroom window are a constant reminder of their failure to act. Yet, again, from their limited viewpoint, they underestimate the things they did for them that meant everything. A moment Coppola beautifully translates from page to screen is the musical conversation that takes place between the characters over the telephone. The boys call them up to convey their undying love with the aid of a few classic hits from the '70s. While the girls reply with songs transmitting their feelings of inescapable loneliness to the only ones who ever cared enough to listen.
The refreshing honesty of Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is that there is no satisfactory answer to why a person commits suicide. No way of knowing if there was something you could have done. Sadly, it’s these unknowns that haunt the living. In the film, Coppola looks behind the curtain into the most intimate spaces the Lisbon sisters shared, only to discover that they left no clues behind. All attempts at looking to the past for answers lead to disappointment. What remains are faded memories of people who never really knew them. In the end, the boys discover the bodies of the girls one-by-one, running from images they’ll spend a lifetime trying to forget. Allowing them one last fantasy before it’s too late, Coppola intercuts a heroic moment where they drive the girls away from their pain. Leaning out the windows. The wind in their hair. Laughter fills the air. Saving them at last from captivity.