At first glance, Girl, Interrupted (1999) appears to be something of a female-centric retelling of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest(1975). Both take place in psychiatric hospitals; both portray main characters whose mental states are not always clear (are Susanna and McMurphy truly mentally ill, or is it an act?). Several plot points overlap–for instance, characters in both films are driven to suicide at similar points in the plot, each film contains a short escape into the outside world that ends in a return to the hospital, and both involve an illegal nighttime escapade that results in punishment (Susanna and Lisa singing outside Polly’s door, McMurphy’s party). However, the two films differ radically in their treatment of madness and the institution of the asylum.By contrast, to one flew over the cuckoo's nest the staff member most prominently featured in Girl, Interrupted–Valerie–is portrayed as having Susanna’s best interests at heart, whether this is shown through tenderness or through the “tough love” that (according to the film) Susanna needs. Girl, Interrupted portrays a very different picture of mental illness and mental hospitals. The outer trappings of the two hospitals are identical. Both are white and sterile. Both have a glass-enclosed nurse’s station through which mysterious (and mandatory) medication is handed to a line of patients. Both are isolated from the rest of the world but allow little privacy, including communal bathrooms. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestpatients are locked out of their rooms during the day, and in Girl, Interrupted the staff performs periodic, frequent “checks” to every bedroom. Both movies deal with suicide as well, but Daisy (Girl, Interrupted) and Billy (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) commit suicide for very different reasons. While Billy is driven to despair by his environment–Nurse Ratched in particular, when she uses her power to manipulate him back into conformity and asexuality–Daisy commits suicide after Lisa, the hospital’s foremost rebel, sworn enemy of the system, and in many ways a classic revenge seeker, taunts her mercilessly about her past and her father, saying that Daisy cannot escape her problems even outside the hospital. As they travel deeper into the microcosm of their respective psychiatric wards, McMurphy moves toward insanity while Susanna moves toward a functional life in the outside world.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest blames social systems and brutal outside forces for the mental illness of many of its characters. When they are temporarily set free from the ward’s confines, whether mentally or physically, they are no different from–and certainly not inferior to–the people outside.
© Reece Minghui, all rights reserved