- Mental hospitals have a long and sordid history in popular culture.
- The film version of "The Snake Pit" erased the female author's original voice.
- Hollywood conventions and male scriptwriters replaced Ward’s ambiguities and originality with simple tropes.
Mental hospitals have a long and sordid history in popular culture. Ever since Edgar Allan Poe published The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether in 1845, the public has been treated to tales of woe and terror from within asylum walls. Though less remembered today, a 1948 movie once set the modern standard for asylum horror. It was called "The Snake Pit," and today it offers a warning lesson about ignoring women’s voices.
The film script was based on a novel of the same name by Mary Jane Ward. The book almost never saw the light of day. Ward’s literary agent had rejected it. It might have sat silently alongside her three other unpublished manuscripts had she not sent it on to Random House herself. The editor liked it and had it printed as a small batch “prestige” title. So compelling was Ward’s story, that the publishers showed it in galley form to Hollywood director Anatole Litvak, who decided to make a film of it.
The film went on to be a sensation. It was a top-five grosser of the year and garnered a second Academy Award for star Olivia de Havilland. The book did well, too. It sold more than a million copies and got translated into numerous languages.
But the movie failed the book—it erased Ward’s original voice. To understand what went wrong, we should briefly look at the novel. It tells the tale of a woman on the edge of sanity. “Virginia Stuart Cunningham” is a lightly fictionalized version of Ward herself, a writer who gets committed to an asylum. Ward had suffered a nervous breakdown and had spent eight months at Rockland State Hospital in New York. Her alter ego, Virginia, lands in “Juniper Hill,” a place that, like Rockland, has issues with overcrowding and impersonal treatments.
Virginia’s asylum experience in the novel is frightful and disorienting. She must wait in excruciating lines just to use the toilet, she’s fed strange-tasting medicines, and she is subjected to shock treatments and wet packs. She encounters unhinged patients, uncaring attendants, domineering nurses, and mysterious mind doctors. But the novel is no exposé. The narrator is clearly unreliable, her perspective often wobbling between first and third person within the same paragraph. We are left wondering what is real and what is not. The book closes ambiguously, the ultimate cause and nature of Virginia’s illness still unclear. We are left to decide for ourselves the nature of her illness and the efficacy of her treatments.
The nuances of the book are totally lost in the film. Hollywood conventions and male scriptwriters replaced Ward’s ambiguities and originality with simple tropes. Virginia becomes a helpless waif, imprisoned behind the high walls of a prison-like institution until she gets rescued by a Freudian hero named Dr. Kik.
The Snake Pit was touted by the studio as the “first authentic film study of a mental case and a mental hospital." Unlike the mansions, dungeons, and laboratories of prior films, here we had an asylum that was a real institution—large, organized, and factory-like. Dr. Kik battles the institution by speeding Virgina through a cycle of electroconvulsive therapy, a “shortcut” to accessing the childhood traumas at the root of her illness. He manages to save the day.
The film was a watershed for the pop culture asylum. It offered up enduring scenes of chaotic wards, barred windows, shadows, and confinement. It carried the redeeming message that with (male) Freudian intervention, trapped women in even the most dysfunctional asylums could be healed.
The problem with this is that this was not Ward’s vision at all. Her book is about the experience of losing one’s mind and then trying to find it amidst the chaos of an indifferent mental health system. In the book, Dr. Kik is only a knight-like figure because Virginia is confused. In the end, his Freudian theory of her illness is directly contradicted by another doctor, who says, “We don’t know the cause.” He speculates a mysterious physical pathology yet to be unearthed. He even wonders if the shock therapy was useless. In other words, the reader is left in the dark and must work things out for themselves, just like Virginia.
The movie does not tell Ward’s story in her original voice. In the cinematic translation, she gets marginalized and bulldozed, much as women everywhere found themselves belittled, ignored, and silenced in Cold War America. This is the message we need to learn from this Hollywood "classic."
Fishbein, L. (2013). “The Snake Pit (1948): The Sexist Nature of Sanity,” in Peter C. Rollins, Editor, Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context, Revised Edition. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.
Ward, M.J. (1946). The Snake Pit. New York: Random House.