Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a Victorian American feminist who is now best known for writing 'Herland' (1915), her self-published novel about an all-female utopian society. 'Herland' (narrated by a male protagonist) could easily have become a male-bashing screed, but Gilman makes her feminist points with satire and wit, and this novel remains impressively readable. A sequel, 'With Her in Ourland', is less effective.
Gilman's best and most important work is her 1899 story 'The Yellow Wall-Paper'. by far the best and most convincing fictional depiction of a mental illness ever written to date. Gilman's female protagonist descends into dissociative schizophrenia as a result of her husband's insistence that she avoid all mental stimulation. Pent up in a room wallpapered with an intricate arabesque pattern, the unnamed woman begins to hallucinate. I was not surprised to learn that this story was based on Gilman's own experiences: it is an extremely convincing and harrowing narrative, and - with one exception - 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' is the most frightening horror story I've ever read. ('The Man with the Nose', by Rhoda Broughton, is scarier ... but it's very nearly a tie.)
I was eager to view this television dramatisation of 'The Yellow Wall-Paper', partly because the original story is a favourite of mine, but largely because I was curious to see how this material would be adapted for the screen. Gilman's story, in first-person narration, places us inside the mind of the woman descending into madness. This sort of internal drama is difficult to depict visually.
The opening teaser for 'The Yellow Wallpaper' (no hyphen in the tv version) features a shot of a woman in a Victorian maid's uniform, with her back to us, on a stark moonlit road. She appears to be running away from us at superhuman speed, her legs contorting wildly. What a wonderful visual image for mounting insanity! 'This will be ace!' I thought, in eager anticipation.
In the event, I was somewhat disappointed. This adaptation takes unnecessary liberties with its source material. In Gilman's story, the narrator's husband John is genuinely concerned for his wife's well-being, but he unintentionally harms her by adhering to Victorian perceptions of what a woman requires. His wife is emotionally overwrought, therefore he sincerely believes that (for her own good) she must be confined to her bed and denied any mental stimulation. In this tele-version, the husband is openly abusive to his wife. This change (not an improvement!) may have been a PC attempt to impress upon modern viewers that John's wife is a victim of patriarchal oppression. Anyway, it doesn't work.
The distraught wife - now named Charlotte, a clear reference to the author - becomes obsessed with the labyrinthine pattern in her bedroom's wallpaper. This dramatisation uses voice-over narration to convey that fact, but fails to dramatise it. There's one disturbing moment when the camera pans along the wallpaper, and suddenly a pair of female eyes open in the surface of the wall.
The household has a maidservant (Annie Gurney) who commutes homeward by bicycle each evening. This character contributes nothing to the action except to serve as a visual device to mark the passage of Charlotte's days. Director John Clive keeps showing this bicyclist from different angles, pointlessly. I was disappointed to realise that the 'running' woman whom I had seen in the teaser was actually this maidservant, pedalling at a rapid speed directly away from the camera astride a bicycle I'd failed to notice the first time round.
This television dramatisation is in every way inferior to Gilman's brilliant story, but the original material is so strong that its merits shine through here anyway, and this tv film remains quite powerful. I'll rate 'The Yellow Wallpaper' 8 out of 10. But, for a really good scare, you'll do better to read the original story ... one of the most frightening horror yarns ever conceived.
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