First published in 1964, "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" became a belated but durable best-seller in paperback.Written by Joanne Greenberg, under the pseudonym Hannah Green, it's an absorbing and convincing account of a teen-age girl's arduous recovery from schizophrenia during several years of institutionalization and psychoanalysis.
Teen-age readers evidently find the book especially stirring. It's not difficult to imagine sensitive adolescents identifying with the prococious, sharp-tongued heroine and equating their own emotional turmoil or confusion with her clinical case of mental illness, which is headed only after heroic, inspirational exertions on the part of patient and doctor.
The book inspired a hit song that has long since faded into Moldy Oldiehood. Over the years a number of movie versions were announced and abandoned, including one with Liza Minnelli.
The movie version that has finally reached the screen, opening yesterday at the Dupont Circle, McLean Cinema and Outer Circle 2, is crudely conceived and executed, but there's so much theatrically potent emotion built into the story that it won't be surprising if many people testify to feeling impressed and touched. Unfortunately, the movie places a premium on shock effects and mawkish reassurances at the price of the authenticity and hard-earned inspirational resolution that distinguished the novel.
From a dramatic standpoint, the most important part of the material is the series of encounters between the suffering girl, called Deborah Blau in the novel and blithely Aryanized to Deborah Blake in the movie, and her psychoanalyst, Dr. Fred Kathleen Quinlan, the pretty, soulful-eyed young actress who yearned for Sapi Elliott in "Lifeguard," has been cast as Deborah, and Bibi Anderson plays Dr. Fried, effecting Aryanization in everything but her name.
Screenwriters might agonize over how many of these sessions are needed in a two-hour film and precisely what each session should reveal and accomplish, but their primacy cannot be denied without weakening the material. This basic situation, which should document the ongoing struggle and understanding between patient and physician, is subordinated to elements that were wisely subordinated in the novel.
Th drama of Deborah's treatment and recovery ends up absorbing the filmakers less than land sidetrips into her fantasy world and among her fellow patients, a volotile gallery of character actresses allowed far more license than the actors who backed up Jack Nocholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Director Anthony Page's visualizations of Deborah's private world, with its tyrannical pagan gods, are laughable banal. It's as if the projectionist had suddenly run previews from some obscure, low-budget skinflick set among a prehistoric tribe.
The success of "Cuckoo's Nest" may have influenced the decision to play up the supporting patients, and the actresses jump at their opportunities with understandable glee. Nevertheless, the material has been overbalanced on the side of extraneous and frequently exhibitonistic sequences. Susan Tyrrell, Martine Bartlett, Signe Hasso, Sylvia Sidney and the others certainly liven up the scenes in the wards, but they shouldn't have been permitted to steal the movie from the principals.
While exaggerating fantasies and the institutional setting at the expense of the central dramatic relationship, the filmmakers also eliminate much of the documentation that clarified Deborah Blau's distress. The novel presented quite a specific case history, triggered by a terrifying, painful operation for a genital tumor when Deborah was only 5 years old and increased by the tensions within her second-generation Jewish family and anti-Semitic experiences when she was growing up in the late '30s.
All that remains in the movie case history is the traumatic childhood operation. While Deborah Blake has worried parents who deliver her to the hospital in the opening sequence, she has no specific social, ethnic or family history. Her case is also deprived of a sense of period. The movie appears to open in the late '50s, but the choice of chronological setting seems arbitrary.
Viewers are left with little choice but to sympathize with the suffering of the heroine in the abstract. The psychoanalytic process that preoccupied the novelist no longer concerns the adaptors. When the movie Deborah recovers, it seems an inexplicable and even ludicrous miracle, a convenient happy ending for slipshod filmmakers. The turtuous but cherent progress made by the literary Deborah has given way, to a baffling series of outbursts and meanderings that somehow lead to a sunny fadeout.
Page is a respected theatrical director whose previous movie credits, "Inadmissible Evidence" and "Alpha Beta," were spectacularly discreditable "Rose Garden" finds him with a technique that is at least adequate, but he still seems incapable of concentrating on the thematic substance of his material. Perhaps he lacks confidence when it comes to staging straightforward dramatic encounters for the camera. He is certainly easily and often disastrously distracted.
Karen Quinlan enjoys significant natural advantages over many other young actresses in the camera magnetism of her large, limpid eyes and the radiant prettiness of her face. She's undeniably a clever, eager, sincere young performer, and I don't doubt that she may be headed for an important career, but for some reason she still fails to move me.
Her work in "Rose Garden" left me as intrigued but skeptical as her work in "Lifeguard." Her face was romantic rapture and pathos written all over it, but I don't believe that at the age of 22 she is drawing upon sufficient experience or feeling to evoke a powerful sense of rapture or pathos as an ACTRESS.
The role of Dr. Fried should have been catnip for some middle-aged star, comparable to the male psychiatrist played by Rod Steiger in "The Mark," Bibi Anderson cannot be faulted for being quite unlike the humorous, doughty, German-Jewish Dr. Fried of the novel. She performs unerringly, but the role has become humorless. The movie Fried fails to glow with either personality or insight.
The permanently schizophrenic heroine of the affecting new Canadian film "Outrageous" writes bits and pieces of stories on scraps of paper which are pasted into a cluttered scrapbook. A well-meaning friend who works as a magazine editor attempts to help her whip some of this chaotic material into shape. When she gently suggests completing sentence fragments, the heroins protests that they're not fragments, they're meant to let the reader "participate" in the writing of the story. She suggests the editor toss in whatever she likes to complete the fragments.
As a novel "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" had all the strengthen of a fully elaborated, assimilated, rationalized story. Somehow that story has come apart on the screen. Now it's closer to disorganized, inconclusive bits and pieces.