IT'S OBVIOUS THAT MARILYN HASSETT, WHO WAS RATHER TOUCHING AS JILL KINMONT IN BOTH PARTS OF "THE OGHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN," IS IN WAY OVER HER HEAD AS ESTHER GREENWOOD, HEROINE OF "THE BELL JAR." FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, SHE'S NOT THE ONLY ONE.

DIRECTOR LARRY PEERCE AND SCREENWRITER MARJORIE KELLOGG SEEM UNSURE ABOUT WHAT AILS ESTHER, A SUICIDAL COED PRESUMED TO BE THE LATE SYLVIA PLATH'S SELF-PORTRAIT. THE EXPLANATIONS THAT SEEM TO OCCUR TO THEM ARE ALTERNATELY RADICULOUS AND PHILISTINE.

FAR FROM ACHIEVING A CONVINCING ILLUSION OF NEUROTIC TURMOIL, POOR HASETT CALLS ATTENTION TO THE INADEQUACY OF HER RESOURCES. SHE GOES BONKERS IN THE AMATERURISH, OVER-EXPLICIT TRADITION OF NATALIE WOOD IN "SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS": YOU'RE FORCED TO LISTEN OT THE GEARS GRINDING.

PERHAPS THE FUNDAMENTAL MISTAKE WAS TO IMAGINE THAT PLATH'S NOVEL WAS SUITABLE FOR FILMING. THE EGOCENTRIC VOICE AND RAMSHACKLE, EPISODIC STRUCTURE THAT MAKE "THE BELL JAR" A DISLIKABLE AND DISJOINTED NARRATIVE POSED FORMIDABLE OBSTACLES TO SUCCESSFUL MOVIE ADAPTATION. IN FACT, THE BOOK TOOK ALMOST AS LONG AS "CARAVANS" TO REACH THE SCREEN, AND THE RESULTS ARE FAR MORE EMBARRASSING.

THE FILMMAKERS SEEM TO BE REACHING BACK TO "SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS" AND "PEYTON PLACE" TO ACCOUNT FOR THE HEROINE'S DISCONTENT. THE ESTHER OF THE MOVIE SUGGESTS A MAWKISH VICTIM OF SEXUAL REPRESSION-ALWAYS FLEEDING FROM SEXUAL ADVANCES AFTER PLAYING ALONG WITH THEM FOR WEIRDLY PROLONGED PERIOD. THE FILM OPENS WITH A PERPLEXING SEQUENCE IN WHICH HASSETT WATCHES WHILE A TWERPY SUITOR, JAMESON PARKER, TRIES TO SEDUCE HER BY TAKING HIS CLOTHES OFF. SHE MUNCHES A FRENCH ROLL WHILE HE STRIPS, THEN AGREES TO STRIP DOWN HERSELF, BUT APPARENTLY PANICS WHEN HE INSISTS ON GOING ALL THE WAY.

PEERCE'S TONE IS SO WOBBLY THAT YOU CAN'T TELL WHETHER THIS EPISODE IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY, PAINFUL OR WHAT. IN THE NOVEL ESTHER DIDN'T PAINIC AT ALL. SHE WAS OFFENDED WHEN THE BOY CONFESSED HAVING AN EARLIER SEXUAL EXPERIENCE, WHICH STRUCK HER AS A DEVASTATING EXAMPLE OF MASCULINE DECEIT. YOU MAY HAVE FELT SHE JUMPED TO CONCLUSIONS, BEING JUMPED TO.

THE ESTHER OF THE NOVEL CRAVES A LITERARY CAREER AND FEARS FALLING INTO CONVENTIONAL TRAPS. THE IRONY IS THAT THOSE TRAPS ARE THE LEAST OF HER WORRIES. SHE IS THREATENED MUCH MORE INTENSELY BY A RAVENOUS, SELF-DESTRUCTIVE ARTISTIC EGO. UNLIKE "I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN," PLATH'S ACCOUNT OF A SUICIDAL DESCENT IS NOT THE REVELATORY ACCOUNT OF ONE WHO CAME BACK. SHORTLY AFTER THE BOOK WAS PUBLISHED, UNDER A PSEUDONYM, PLATH SUCCEEDED IN TAKING HER OWN LIFE. LIKE HER FINAL POEMS, HER NOVEL SUGGESTS AN IRRESISTIBLE YEARNING FOR OBLIVION.

THE FILMMAKERS NEVER DRAW A BEAD ON THE WRITER'S EGO THAT SEEMS TO BE DEVOURING ESTHER. THEY FIND IT EASIER TO PRETEND SHE'S FUGITIVE FROM SEX, OR THAT NO ONE APPRECIATES HER SENSITIVITY.

LACKING AN INSIGHT INTO LITERARY DISCONTENT, THE FILMMAKERS TREAT ESTHER SIMPLY AS A MISUNDERSTOOD AND SKITISH SCHOOLGIRL, A WALLFLOWER AT ALL THE ORGIES. GIVEN THE EVIDENCE ADVANCED IN THE FILM, ONE MIGHT JUSTIFIABLY CONCLUDE THAT THE PROBLEM WITH ESTHER WAS A COLLEGE EDUCATION THAT EXPOSES GIRLS TO SNOBBISH IEDAS AND BAD INFLUENCES. BY THE TIME SHE TRIES TO KILL HERSELF YOU'RE INCLINED TO THINK, "WELL, WHY NOT?" IN FACT, THE MOVIE APPEARS TO END WITH HER SUICIDE.

IT COMES AS A REAL SHOCK TO DISCOVER THAT SHE FAILS, AND THAT THE PICTURE STILL HAS TWO MORE TEDIOUS REELS TO GO BEFORE ENDING INCONCLUSIVELY. THEY SHOULD HAVE LEFT WELL ENGOUH ALONE.