Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a seminal text in feminist literature. Published in 1892, it has been a hallmark of feminist literary theory and discourse in the century-plus since its creation. The first-person account of a woman going mad as a result of the confinement of patriarchal oppression remains one the most profound statements on society’s subjugation of women ever written. Its use of layered symbolism and the deep ambiguity in its narrative and thematic interpretation make it particularly difficult to adapt from its literary form, though several attempts have been made in various forms over the past 50 years.
The latest iteration is a particularly distressing one, an independent horror film that plays like an exercise but is drawn out to feature length, preventing the necessary suspension of disbelief that a story like this requires. It also fundamentally shifts the gaze of the original text, and while artistic license is always important when adapting from one form to another, the choices made by screenwriters Alexandra Loreth and Kevin Pontuti sabotage the point and purpose of Gilman’s story. All the stranger that the credits list “Story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” implying that this author who died in 1932 somehow wrote a treatment for this film. In execution, the film schizophrenically (indeed, bad pun intended) shifts between distractingly stunted allegiance to the story’s original dialogue and willful departure from the text’s deliberately hazy and open-ended narrative. This screenplay effectively abandons the ambiguity that has allowed Gilman’s story to linger in such haunting ponderousness.
Pontuti is the film’s director, and Loreth its lead actress. Both struggle with translating this material in an immersive, believable context. Aesthetically and aurally, The Yellow Wallpaper is sparsely mounted, lacking the density of detail to create an authentic environment. The production design is distractingly spare, the soundscape is hollow, and the digital cinematography, while undoubtedly beautiful at times, is so clean and crisp that it clashes with the rustic nature of the film’s period setting. Loreth’s central performance also seems at odds with that setting, exuding a modernity that contradicts the 19th-century surroundings and the more mannered performances of her co-stars (though, to be fair, most of them seem to just be playing dress-up). As the character dives deeper into psychosis, the actress does effectively embody an isolated eeriness, but the audience has waited so long that disbelief can no longer be suspended.
The issue of waiting is central to the film’s problems. At nearly 100 minutes, this feature-length adaptation protracts Gilman’s 40-page story in ways that fundamentally alter its power. Rather than maintain the story’s immersive first-person perspective, the film unfolds as a traditional narrative, populated with characters who are merely suggested in the original story in order to create a first act that treads water while awaiting the meat of the narrative. Odder still, by abandoning the first-person perspective, the audience is made to adopt the gaze of these external characters, usurping the agency of the film’s protagonist. That’s quite a fatal blow to a film whose literary basis was made famous through its advocacy for female empowerment.
At long last, after wading through its unnecessary and belabored set-up, the film finally immerses itself in the first-person hysteria, a more effective cinematic portrait of imprisonment leading to madness. But the film’s final flourishes, while cinematically effective, are so thematically concrete that they sabotage the ambiguity central to Gilman’s writing. What we’re left with is a film version of The Yellow Wallpaper that is inert, overlong, and willfully discordant with its source material. Gilman’s work will continue to be studied over time; mercifully, this adaptation will not.