The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides (1993)
The Virgin Suicides directed by Sofia Coppola (1999)
This won a book vs movie poll I posted, so if you have not already, make sure you subscribe to my channel so you can take part in future book vs movie polls! User dvdv8197 commented on the poll saying “I never really understood the virgin suicides (movie), so perhaps that video could give me more insight!” I will be doing my best to understand the story and hope I can do it justice! Of course I also want to hear everyone else’s views on this book and mvoie in the comments, whether you agree with my perception or if you have a different interpretation!
This is also the third Sofia Coppola movie I have an episode for! I also covered The Beguiled movie, as well as the Pricilla Presley movie so I will link to both in the description if you are interested!
This book and movie are both told from the perspective of men who are remembering the Lisbon family that lived on their street. They were obsessed with the five Lisbon sisters and in the book they reflect on the suicide of all five. I won’t get into details on any of the deaths, but they are the same in movie as in the book.
Spoilers for both the book and the movie!
Book and movie begin with the attempt of the youngest Lisbon daughter, Cecilia. She survives, and about a month later they host a party in an effort to get the girls more social and invite some of the neighborhood boys. At this party, Cecilia asks to be excused, and then ends her life.
In both, there is a special needs boy who comes over and it is while they are messing with him (the narrator says they were just starting to have fun at the party) that Cecilia says she wants to be excused. This seems meaningful, like seeing the way the boys were treating this boy as entertainment rather than seeing him as a fellow human being maybe was the final straw for Cecilia and her sadness. Reflecting the way people see others in inhuman ways.
This happens over summer, but once school is in session the four remaining girls are at school.
Lux and Trip
Lux is the biggest character of the sisters, and in the book and movie she seems to be flirty and likes being with boys. In the book she also smokes cigarettes but that isn’t shown in the movie.
She hangs out with different boys, but none of them really have any information to give to the boys who later become the men narrating this book. The only one of Lux’s “boyfriends” that says anything to them years later, is Trip Fontaine.
He is the popular boy in school who all the girls have crushes on and he never has to try hard to get a girl. In the book we learn that he lost his virginity to a 37-year-old woman when he was a young teen while on vacation with his dad. I think this is an interesting detail which we don’t see in the movie. An older woman taking the virginity of a teen boy is something that boys fantasize about, but the reality is that the woman was a p—phile and this experience I would say had a big impact on Trip going forward.
Trip becomes obsessed with Lux because she doesn’t seem interested in him. The Lisbon girls are also very mysterious and innocent and sheltered, which ads to their appeal with all of the boys.
But after going over to their house to watch tv and having a secret make-out, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon agree that Trip can take Lux to homecoming if he gets boys to take the other three girls as well and they go in a group and are back by curfew.
The girls all have a great time at the dance, and Lux, who is the most rebellious, is drinking and making out with Trip. The two of them then go onto the football field and have sex, causing the others to leave without them because they don’t want to be late.
Of this in the book we read, ” Throughout the act, headlights came on across the field, sweeping over them, lighting up the goalpost. Lux said, in the middle, “I always screw things up. I always do,” and began to sob. Trip Fontaine told us little more. We asked him if he put her in the cab, but he said no. “I walked home that night. I didn’t care how she got home. I just took off.” Then: “It’s weird. I mean, I liked her. I really liked her. I just got sick of her right then.””
When he is older and being interviewed, he says how he never got over her and how he was lucky to taste that kind of love at least once in his life. But clearly, he didn’t care about her and certainly didn’t love her. Once he had been intimate with her, her allure faded for him and as he says, he just wanted to get away from her.
We see this in the movie as well, Lux wakes up alone on the football field and in both she takes a taxi home.
After Lux comes home late, the girls are then forbidden from even leaving the house. They no longer go to school, much less anywhere else. Mr. Lisbon still teaches but he is the only one who comes or goes from the house. Though in time, he is let go and when that happens no one is seen anymore.
In the movie we don’t see Mr. Lisbon getting laid off. The movie also doesn’t show us what a mess the Lisbon house becomes. They can see by their trash that they are eating just whatever they have in the house, the mom seems to be an alcoholic who is also religious and makes Lux burn her rock records. We see the mother’s strict religious side in the movie, but it doesn’t allude to her drinking.
The boys in the neighborhood are still obsessed and wonder what is happening with the girls. They find notes and things that are left outside their houses, showing that the girls must go out at night when no one can see.
During this time, they also see Lux on the roof of her house having sex with various random guys she brings up there. In the book, Lux also pretends to have stomach issues so the ambulance will come and get her out of the house. She is worried she is pregnant, but the only way to take a test and find out was pretend she was sick with something else. Turns out she isn’t pregnant though. This isn’t in the movie.
The boys end up calling the Lisbon house and this starts a thing where they call each other but rather then say anything, they take turns playing a song for the other to hear. The boys tend to play songs about their love and adoration for the girls while the girls play songs that capture their isolation. In the book he says how the girls stuck with “impersonal topics” for the songs they chose to play. But I don’t think that it was that they were impersonal, they just weren’t the love songs the boys were hoping for. Which is a big theme of this book which I will be talking about later.
This part with the record playing was a great scene in the movie.
The girls leaving
Eventually, the boys see that the girls seem to be packing and getting things together and have more intent as they move about their room. They then send a note to the boys telling them to watch for a signal at midnight. In the movie they don’t see them packing, but they do get the note.
In both, the girls send the signal and the boys go over. They assume they want their help getting out of the house and escaping. Lux answers the door and is being flirty, asking about sitting the front seat, who will sit beside her, can she steer, things like that. She also walks up to one of the boys and while looking into his eyes begins undoing his belt and pants. She then stops though and says she will wait in the car while the boys wait for her sisters.
The boys then hear something in the basement and when they go downstairs, they see one of the sisters who is dead.
All of the sisters ended their lives that night, though in the book Mary survived, only to do it and this time succeed about a month later.
After the deaths
In the book we hear about how Mr. Lisbon hires someone to clean out the house to make it ready to be put for sale, because remember in the book the house had become a smelly mess.
Both book and movie also show how there is a coming out party for the local girls and due to a smell in the air from some kind of lake pollution or something, they make the theme asphyxiation. Adults and teens alike get drunk and make out and throw up. In the book we read of these debutante girls, “Pounds of hair were secured atop their heads. Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived—bound, in other words, for life.”
One of the bigger symbols in the book which the movie keeps is the cutting of the elm trees. In both, the city determines if a tree is sick and will cut it down in order to prevent the disease from spreading to other trees. However, they are just slowly but surely cutting down each tree. There is a tree in front of the Lisbon house, but when the men come to cut it down the sisters run out and stand around the tree to stop them from cutting it. The men go to the parents, but both parents stand up for their daughters. I really like that the parents don’t just tell the girls to let the men do their work, and this is a somewhat rare scene of the whole family sticking up for each other.
In the book, we read how as the years went on, the trees all ended up being cut down. We read, “We got to see how truly unimaginative our suburb was, everything laid out on a grid whose bland uniformity the trees had hidden, and the old ruses of differentiated architectural styles lost their power to make us feel unique.”
At the time of the deaths, people in the neighborhood pointed to the Lisbon girls for causing the city to become worse, but later had a different view. “Though at first people blamed them, gradually a sea change took place, so that the girls were seen not as scapegoats but as seers. More and more, people forgot about the individual reasons why the girls may have killed themselves, the stress disorders and insufficient neurotransmitters, and instead put the deaths down to the girls’ foresight in predicting decadence… In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”
The Lisbon girls and their death represent youth cut down early, as well as just growing up and leaving childhood behind I would say. Like the elms, the absence of the naivitee of youth makes the unsavory realities obvious.
The boys obsession
A big theme in both book and movie is how the boys perceive the girls. We see this in both, but the book gives more examples of how the boys saw them as sexual objects. Their strict parents made the girls seem like forbidden fruit and were also seen as innocent and pure. Though when we see the girls on an individual level, we see they weren’t as “pure and innocent” as the boys thought of course. They also see the girls as needing to be rescued, and boys love the thought of saving the damsel in distress.
The boys see them as a conquest and when they get a chance to go into their homes, it is an opportunity to brag about what they saw to their friends back in the treehouse. The sisters are also usually seen as all being the same and boys not being able to differentiate them.
Trip also just sees Lux as a conquest. Now that she is dead, he can claim that she was different for him and that he never got over her. But really, he saw her as just an object to be used. Once they had been together, she lost the image he had of her as forbidden and pure.
The girls weren’t seen as unique individuals by their parents either, which is why the parents were so controlling. They, especially the mother, had an idea of what she wanted her daughters to be and wouldn’t accept otherwise.
In the book and movie Mr. Lisbon is a teacher chaperone at the homecoming dance and he sees his daughters having fun and Lux being crowned the queen and he is smiling. I don’t remember this detail in the book. We also see him talking to the plants in the hall and when someone says something to him about how his girls haven’t been in school he says absent mindedly, “have you checked outside?” It seems he was choosing to dissociate in a way, he couldn’t or wouldn’t go against his wife’s wishes on how to raise the girls, and so he started to be kind of strange and oblivious. As well as probably still depressed about Cecilia. We get some of this in the book, but the dad in general seemed nicer in the movie. And he isn’t laid off in the movie as he is in the book.
Granted, they were less controlling before Cecilia died. I think her death is probably the biggest mystery. But the other girls were not allowed to be themselves and the parents had always been strict. Then when they are not allowed to leave the house and the house becomes trashed, while still grieving Cecilia, while then becoming disenchanted with the world at such early ages.
Lux having sex with different men was her trying to find that love and meaning in life. She would ask the men what it meant to them, but to the guys it meant nothing. So that too turned out to be something she hoped would provide meaning that ended up just being empty.
The section I read about the girls at the debutant ball after the deaths is an important section because it shows what life there was for most girls. Which was not a fulfilling one. At least not the life that was expected of them. Of course, any woman can decide to break the mold and be who and what she wants, but to a teen raised by strict parents, it would feel like you had a bleak future ahead of yourself and you had no choice but to go through the motions.
The book and movie also show how these girls were turned into a media spectacle. Again, not seeing them as individuals but just an interesting news story to talk about to get peoples attention. In the book they say the news will tell “facts” about the girls that are unfounded and also have a picture of Bonnie and call her Mary-showing they don’t know or really care about what they are reporting on. We then read, “…we saw how wildly our sphere of influence was misrepresented by those in no position to know what was going on. Even our parents seemed to agree more and more with the television version of things, listening to the reporters’ inanities as though they could tell us the truth about our own lives.”
There is so much here, but for one the line when he says how people who have no position to know anything, act like they know the details of what is going on. Then how we all cling to the news acting like they do know it all. When really, every news station just cares about ratings and money and rarely actually care about the subjects of the story.
The men later in life
This is a coming of age story of the boys who were obsessed with the Lisbon girls rather than the girls themselves. Into adulthood they still gather together and talk about the sisters, holding onto items that they hope will glean some information into who the girls were. They go around tracking people down to interview them, to try and see the bigger picture. “In the end we had pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them…” We read at the end of the book, “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
Even as adults, they are calling out to the girls, still trying to save them despite them being long gone. It could also represent the men calling out to their past selves, wishing they could go back to being young again and maybe wish they could be like the Lisbon sisters who will forever be teenagers. The men never do get it though with the sisters. They see the way the girls are turned into a media spectacle, but it doens’t seem like they really come to realize the part they, and others like them, played in the Lisbon girls sad outlook on the world and what their lives were destined for had they lived.
In the book after Lux and Trip are crowned queen and king, she asks him what’s next. Like what are their responsibilities now that they have been crowned. Trip tells her nothing, they just get crowned tonight. And then that’s it. This seems symbolic as well, they have this highlight that then leads nowhere and has no real purpose or long lasting impact. Symbolizing how pointless life can later become, especially for women at this time. These big moments they may experience, ultimitaly have no real lasting value.
I wanted to mention Josh Hartnett’s wig in this movie which looks terrible. Why not give him normal hair?? The other boys have regular hair!
Their homecoming dresses are described as sacks in the book as well as in the movie narration, but in the movie their dresses were very pretty and didn’t look baggy at all!
Also, at least one of the girls, Lux, was not a virgin in the physical sense, so people may say the title doesn’t fit. Only some people in the town know of that though, and I’m sure the vast media painted the image of the five girls as all being virgin’s-wanting to maintain the image of the sisters rather than caring what they truly were like. But they were virgin’s in the sense that they never got to experience life and adulthood.
I also wanted to share that the author got the inital spark of an idea for this book when he was talking to a babysitter for his nephew and the babysitter conifeded in him that she and her sisters had either attempted or contemplated ending their life. When he asked why, she wouldn’t say much, only, “we were under a lot of pressure.” In the book it ends with saying how the sisters were very much focused on themselves, as all teenagers are. I think the fact that they were so young made them feel like their options were more limited than what they really were. Kids, and some adults who don’t learn otherwise, see events as being personal, pervasive, and permant and this mindset is what causes people to feel worse about things than necessary. Teenagers I htink often think of things in this light, but that isn’t the case! Problems in life are rarely any of those three things, and we can decide too whether something is permanent, pervasive, or personal. In general, we are always more in control of ourselves and our lives than we may initially think.
Book vs movie
Coppola is known for these coming of age stories and seems to excel at the youthful sections before the person reaches the end of their character arc. For example, in Priscilla she did a great job at showing Priscilla as the impressionable teen who went along with what Elvis says. Yet when Priscilla gets a mind of her own, the movies slows and then abruptly ends rather than delving into this new complex side of Priscilla.
As far as the Lisbon sisters go, this is kind of the opposite of a coming-of-age story. It’s a story about girls who refuse to “come of age” and would rather die in their youth rather than live a life they see as unfulfilling. The movie is very atmospheric and I thought the performances were good. The story does seem rushed at times, though it is faithful to the book.
The book had many more details, and as said, it is about the Lisbon girls but is really a coming-of-age story about the boys. I loved the writing style, and we do see to a fuller extent the way the girls are viewed by those in their life.
Coppola captured the atmosphere so well and while I would recommend the movie, I would still say the book wins.