The Virgin Suicides: A Masterpiece?

I admit, calling it “a masterpiece” might be an overstatement. But this book sure surprised me with its style, beauty and that ethereal feeling you get whenever you truly lose yourself in a book. And sadly, that doesn’t happen to me often. I guess a book needs to be truly special to make me feel that way.

I am, obviously, quite late to the party. “The Virgin Suicides” novel was popular a long time ago and I have no idea why I never bothered to read it. I guess the “suicide” in the title made it seem depressing. But my husband (who’s read a few passages) recommended it with the words: “this guy writes like you, the same style and all”.

Needless to say, it’s not true in strict sense of the words, but I understand why he said that. What I loved about the novel is not what Eugenides said, but how he said it. The book isn’t perfect technically, but in a way, it makes it even better. And Jeffrey Eugenides sure knows how to write.

The story about the Lisbon sisters, their suicides, the boys who were obsessed with them and changing of suburbia could have been told in numerous ways, but he chose the one that makes it seem not just original, but also the only possible way to tell it. And that speaks volumes about his writing.

What I find fascinating is the fact it’s written in freaking first person plural – and it doesn’t sound annoying, pretentious or confusing at all. It just fits. It fits perfectly. It fits perfectly because the book isn’t really about the Lisbon sisters, or why they killed themselves, but about the boys and their coming of age, and this suburban life that is slowly dying, never to be the same again. Some critics claim the boys serve as a Greek chorus, but I am not quite sure if I buy that. I’d rather say it’s one of the cases of a “hidden” main character, where protagonists are not the same as narrators. But at the end of the day, it is the book about the boys, and it sure makes you (well, me) understand teenage boys better.

And not to mention one of the most captivating characters in contemporary literature: Trip Fontaine. Ok, I might be biased here, because I am insanely jealous of Eugenides for creating this memorable character with so little words. The name itself is perfect; perfect name for such a character (how come I can’t think of something like that?) What is interesting to note is that Trip doesn’t appear in the book that much at all, but still feels like a prominent character. Many writers before Eugenides have written, and many will yet write, trying to give a mesmerizing portrayal of a teenage heartthrob, but people will still remember Trip Fontaine. Now, that’s writing.

The book is in no way perfect, but that’s a good thing. There are some technical “errors”, but they only make it seem less planned, like a real memory.

The movie

Naturally (?) after reading the book, I wanted to see the film. They say movies always disappoint, but I am usually prepared for it. Sofia Coppola’s movie didn’t disappoint, because I wasn’t expecting much. In a way, it is a sweet and poignant film. I didn’t find it to be slow or confusing, as some people claim.

Sofia Coppola took a great effort in keeping most of the little details that make book so striking: the bracelets, poking smoke rings, Lux’s underwear with “Trip” written on it, brown-and white saddle shoes, and so many others. That is something contemporary filmmakers rarely do and I respect her for that.

Still, she somehow managed to make a movie that has all the details, but completely missing the mood, feel and (dare to say) point of the novel. I have no idea how she’s done it, but that’s how it is. She gave us a visually beautiful film, but for some reason it never really felt like a good adaptation of the book.

I guess it’s because she chose to focus on the girls more than the boys. It’s not that I don’t understand this decision; I guess it’s difficult to tell the story from the boys’ POV. Still, focusing on the Lisbon sisters, and showing so many of their lives inside the house, with each other and their parents, killed much of the mystery about the sisters. We got to see them as nothing more but a regular teenagers with strict parents, and we are unable to understand boys’ obsession with them. I think it wasn’t the best move.

The casting was fairly good, despite the fact I – not sure how to put this gracefully – can’t stand Kirsten Dunst. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. But I usually find her unwatchable. Needless to say, I didn’t find her to be a convincing Lux (I think she would make a good Bonnie, though), but she wasn’t bad. I sure didn’t imagine Mr and Mrs Lisbon as James Woods and Kathleen Turner, but they were good.

The only casting choice I am not so sure about is Josh Hartnett as Trip Fontaine. The problem with Trip is that he’s never described, so you can picture him anyway you want, and I sure didn’t picture him as Josh Hartnett. I mean… The guy can’t really act, can he? * Right. But I must reluctantly admit he made a good Trip Fontaine; you could imagine girls (and mothers?) falling for someone like him. And his performance was decent, so I wouldn’t say it was a bad casting choice.

* In Hatnett’s defense, he did give at least one good performance in his career. I’ve watched “Mozart and the Whale” recently, and he was quite good as a guy with Asperger’s. So maybe he’s not completely talentless after all. And now that he’s getting older (and less hot?) he might try to become a real actor and not a joke he used to be (*cough* Pearl Harbour *cough* – yes, I pretend that one never happened, too).

All in all, the movie was visually beautiful, but it didn’t impress me. I just don’t find it to be a good adaptation of the novel: it fails to capture its essence, while at the same time it’s way too dependent on the novel to stand on its own.

10 thoughts on “The Virgin Suicides: A Masterpiece?

  1. Mariana

    I have never read or watched but now I’m curious about it. I had the same impression, that they would be depressing, so I never had any interest.

  2. Serpentus

    Great review. I’ve never heard of the book, but I’m now ineterested in reading it. By the way, what year did the book come out?

  3. Mira


    The book is more nostalgic than depressing, though there are sad moments. The suicides are never explained, so you get the idea the reason why these girls killed themselves is not as important.

    Essentially, this is a story about growing up (in the American suburbia during 70s), told in an original way. And Eugenides’ style is so captivating, you simply can’t put the book down.

    And, of course, Trip Fontaine. Trip Fontaine. Why can’t I make such a character?

    (* For the record, he’s a typical high school heartthrob; but the way Eugenides described him, his backstory and everything about him as a character – including his name – is so great and I’m very jealous of Jeff Eugenides for creating such a character. )

    The movie was… Fine. Sure, I can’t stand Kirsten Dunst, but it’s not like she ruined it. But the film managed to completely miss the atmosphere of the novel, even with all the little details and dialogue included. I have no idea how Sofia Coppola managed to screw that up. It reminds me a bit on LotR: those are fine movies, but they often missed to capture the novel’s atmosphere and point.

    Still worth a watch. (At least you’ll learn who Josh Hartnett is ;) ).

  4. Mira


    In 1993. It’s really good. One of the best I’ve read in a while.

    I recommend it. I really liked his style. Granted, it’s a heavy story, but the way it’s told it’s amazing.

  5. Fiona

    I haven’t read the book, but now I’m intrigued.

    I loved the movie. it was so beautiful and sad. I am sorry to hear you hated it. But it was such a touching story, and I can’t imagine anybody else in the main roles. Kirsten Dunst was quite good.

    Oh. And Josh Hartnett. He was perfect. I haven’t read the book so tell me> what was so wrong about him? I think he’s made a wonderful Trip Fontaine. They needed a guy who can make everybody fall in love with him. And so he did.

    I am biased here, because I really like the guy. Can an actor be any hotter? He’s so handsome it hurts.

    Like I said, a perfect Trip Fontaine.

  6. Mira

    Welcome, Fiona!

    Do read the book. It’s quite good, and it explains so many things you couldn’t get just by watching the film.

    I didn’t “hate” the movie; I just find book to be superior. But it was a good film, no doubt.

    What I loved about it is the fact she tried her best to include all those little details (Trip’s necklace, for example)… But somehow, she completely missed the atmosphere, look and feel of the novel (or its point, for that matter). Too bad.

    In a way, reminds me of LotR movies. They are not as true to the book when it comes to details, but they are equally beautiful. But they, too, manage to completely miss the atmosphere of the novel. The music is the only thing that captures the true spirit of LotR novel.

    Same here. It’s a nice movie, full of beautiful details, but it doesn’t capture the novel’s spirit.

    Josh Hartnett was good in this movie; I don’t really have a problem with him per se. This was, arguably, his best early role (early = pre-2001 & Pearl Harbour mess).

    But the thing is, I never imagined Trip Fontaine as Josh Hartnett. I don’t know how to explain it. You see, I really like this character, not as a guy, but as a literary creation. Everything about him is perfect (if you judge by literary standards: the way Eugenides described him without describing him physically, all those little details about him, his behaviour, the way he talks and acts… And of course, his incredible, catchy name!)

    So you have to understand Trip from my mind was someone quite special… Not that Josh couldn’t pull that off (after all, Trip was never described physically), but he played Trip in a rather straightforward manner, like a typical teenage hearthtrob. In book, there’s this aura of mystery and uniqueness surrounding Trip. It couldn’t be seen in the movie.

    But now that I think of it, it’s probably not Josh’s fault… Much of the more important mystery – the one surrounding the Lisbon sisters – was erased in the movie. They all seemed like typical teenagers, and their mystery aura should have been even stronger than Trip’s. So I guess it’s not about Josh Hartnett as Trip Fontaine but Sofia Coppola’s directing. :(

    Can an actor be any hotter? He’s so handsome it hurts.

    To be honest, I find him better looking today than back in the days. He was a generic “cute boy” teen girls love, and it was somewhat annoying. Today he might not be as “cute”, but it’s for the better. He doesn’t look as “generic” anymore. And if something an actor needs, it’s an unique screen presence and personality. He’s beginning to develop that, and I am glad. (Or maybe I just really liked him in Mozart and the Whale… I can’t dislike him after that one. Not even Pearl Harbour can make me hate him).

    Like this, for example:

  7. Mira

    It’s quite good, particularly when it comes to style (and I usually don’t pay much attention to style). It was a clever, unique choice to make narration from the first person PLURAL, and it works perfectly (because it’s the only way that makes sense).

    The book is not perfect, or maybe not even one of the best I’ve read, but certainly one of the best I’ve read in a long time, and I really liked some of Eugenides’ writing decisions/choices.

    Oh, and Trip Fontaine.

  8. laron

    sofia coppola films are like great sex with out a climax…its just so beautiful and your just waiting for that great high point..and it never comes (pun?maybe)…yet i have the every movie she ever made sitting on my nightstand lol

  9. Mira Post author

    Hello and welcome, laron. Sorry for not approving your comment straight away; only today I saw you posted it.

    I agree with your description of Sofia’s movies. It’s a good way to describe it: beautiful and enjoyable, but not fully satisfying.

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