The Yellow Wallpaper (2021)

Translating The Yellow Wallpaper to Modern-Day Horror

J. Kiernan O’Brien treads familiar territory—but a notably different landscape—in her adaptation. 

By Natalie Duerr


Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story that creeps across your mind now and then, making sure you don’t forget about it. The story follows a young woman, Jane, whose husband, John (a physician), has prescribed her the “rest cure”—a popular treatment for women with “hysteria” in the late 19th century that involves doing as little as possible. As she spends more and more time isolated from society, Jane begins to believe that a woman (or sometimes multiple women) lives within the yellow wallpaper of her room.

J. Kiernan O’Brien’s short film The Yellow Wallpaper isn’t a 1:1 copy of Gilman’s story. She treads familiar territory, but it is a notably different landscape. In O’Brien’s version, the main character is a trans woman named Jo (O’Brien) traveling with her boyfriend Jack (Christian Clements) as she recovers from gender-affirming surgery. But, just like Jane, Jo falls victim to the yellow wallpaper.

While Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a fictitious story, an autobiographical undercurrent makes its horror even more profound. Gilman herself was prescribed the “rest cure” and explained in her autobiography that she “came perilously close to losing [her] mind” because of the treatment. While O’Brien took certain liberties in her adaptation, it only feels truthful to Gilman’s decision to depict her lived experiences in the narrative.

Set in the modern day, O’Brien translates the power dynamic between Jane and John to something more relatable for contemporary viewers. While not as glaringly backwards as John’s manipulation and control of Jane, Jack’s constant doting and “be careful” advisories begin to form a similar cage for Jo. Through this relationship, O’Brien explores the spectrum between support and authority and the imprisonment that an overabundance of passion and care can create. 

Unlike the short story, O’Brien has the opportunity to visualize the indelible wallpaper in all its glory. It is flamboyant yet reserved, with stains and lifts that form an unsolvable pattern. The way O’Brien frames it, the wallpaper transcends from set dressing to a character of its own. Through intense moments of Jo staring directly into the camera and then cutting back to the wallpaper, O’Brien establishes the trance the paper has put Jo in. Just like the original story, these moments of intensity and madness etch themselves into your brain. O’Brien dares you to stare at the wallpaper and see if you can unlock its secrets too.

Specifically, O’Brien centers illustrations that shift with each passing day for Jo. The drawings taunt her, mimicking her blue eyes one day and depicting a human figure contorting unnaturally the next. At one point, the wall even rips to expose a sharp edge that cuts Jo as she traces the sketch. The wallpaper illuminates fears, feelings of dysphoria, and hyper-femininity. But like Jane, it is up to the viewer to decide if the wallpaper ultimately provides a path to freedom or a downward spiral for Jo.

O’Brien’s The Yellow Wallpaper is an examination of relationships and challenging our inner fears. O’Brien balances her perspective with details of Gillman’s short story, making it a fascinating watch for both those familiar with or unaware of the original.