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Mental Illness Depicted in Film and Novels

Analyze This and The Bell Jar

Analyze This and The Bell Jar are very nearly opposites in their approaches to depicting mental illness. The film takes a comic, satirical perspective in which the trials of the mentally ill are played for laughs, but with fundamental truths and real suffering underlying the comic moments. The audience for the film confronts mental illness and its impact in a way that is less threatening because of the humor and extreme exaggeration throughout the film. That exaggeration, however, makes it easy for the audience to brush aside the messages buried in the film.

The Bell Jar, approaches the subject of mental illness in a near-tragic fashion. Plath makes no attempt to sugar-coat the reality of what it feels like to experience this illness. She takes the reader on an inner journey of feeling yourself lose control and discovering the fragility of your grasp on reality. Although the ending of the story is ultimately hopeful, that hope is shaky, and there is no real assurance that a permanent cure has been achieved. Both of these works emphasise the social stigma of being labeled as “mentally ill” and both bring out how alone a sufferer feels. Both Vitti in Analyze This and Esther in The Bell Jar feel a need to disguise their afflictions from those around them. They feel alone and isolated from the rest of the world. The metaphor of existing under a bell jar exemplifies the inability to reach out and touch others or be touched by them.

Improving Media Representations of Mental Illness

In a very real sense, both these works are true and accurate representations of mental illness despite their nearly opposite approaches. Both clearly depict the isolation, the stigmatisation, and the erratic course of recovery that typify mental illness and recovery. The comic presentation of Analyze This has the advantage of being a more palatable, popular presentation because it is played for laughs. Yet the illness itself is not the source of humor. The writers, actors, and directors of the film never made fun of being mentally ill. That is a fine line to walk and the cast and crew of the film navigated that successfully.

The novel was equally accurate and faithful to the course of mental illness, but in a much more straightforward and realistic way. This makes it a more difficult work to read because it is a much more painful experience. Nonetheless, the pure truth presented in the novel is one that needs to be available. Not everyone will want to plunge into the depths with Esther, but those who do will find it a rewarding and enlightening journey.

Neither of these works presents a completely accurate presentation of recovery from mental illness today. The Bell Jar offers a perspective that is six decades old, while even Analyze This is a dozen years old. With that said, both note that recovery from a mental illness does not happen in a straight upward line. Patients have setbacks and sometimes regress. Sometimes those setbacks are major and sometimes they require multiple hospitalisations. The truthfulness of these two representations of mental illness provide positive examples for other works, whether comic or tragic, written or film. The critical element for writers is to take the illness seriously, and to treat it respectfully, even if other elements of the story are ultimately comical.

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