Movie Review: Escape From the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story

In 1887, American journalist Nellie Bly, who was twenty-three at the time, decided to fake insanity to be admitted into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (right off the coast of New York City). She was inside ten days before she was rescued, and then she wrote of her experiences in the book Ten Days in A Madhouse, exposing the horrible treatment of the women inside. Her efforts led to the reformation and later closing of all mental institutions in America.

I read the book a couple years ago and I absolutely loved it. It was such an important book at the time, as many people (both men and women, though Nellie’s experiences in a women’s asylum was featured in the book) were being placed in madhouses even if they weren’t mad. And, many times, the treatment inside caused them to lose their minds.

When I learned that Lifetime was releasing a movie starring Christina Ricci as Nellie Bly, I knew I had to watch the movie. It was released on January 19, 2019.

But, since this is Hollywood and I’m beginning to wonder if they can get anything right, this movie was pretty bad.

Trailer for the movie


So, the plot is pretty basic and you kind of could figure it out from the trailer. Notice that it says “inspired by a true story.” Yeah, well, that definitely came across. In the movie, Nellie has no memory of who she is in the beginning, whereas in real life Nellie never lost her memory due to oxygen deprivation. While some things are done right in the movie (for example, bathwater is freezing cold as well as the food being disgusting gruel), most of it actually did a disservice to the real story.

In this movie, the hospital is shown as being clean, and the women are as well. However, in real life, rats ran around the rooms, towels were not cleaned so many of the patients developed boils or rashes on their skin, and the nurses often would yell at the women and beat them. In the movie, the matron is portrayed as being the villain, but even what she does isn’t as harsh and cruel as what many of the nurses did in real life.

The characters are mostly fiction as well. Matron Grady and Doctor Josiah are fiction, thus so is the weird obsession Josiah develops for Nellie and the backstory of Matron Grady. Also, in the movie Nellie has a lover who comes to rescue her, who is also pure fiction. Nellie is supposed to be twenty-three when she went to Blackwell, but Christina Ricci is thirty-eight, making her fifteen years older than her character. While Ricci does look young, she could not pass as that young.

The only thing which is redeemed in this movie is the acting. Christina Ricci gives an amazing performance, as does Judith Light as the matron and Josh Bowman as the doctor. Even the other patients who had extremely small rolls do an amazing job, especially Anja Savcic, who plays Lottie.

But the movie itself was horrible. It made the problem seem like the resentment Matron Grady had towards humanity, and not a universal problem of uncleanliness and cruelty which might happen in any madhouse. Everything was too clean to be realistic, and it did a disservice to Nellie’s story and the true conditions of mental institutions at the time.

I didn’t realize how negative I viewed this movie until I actually sat down to write this review. I’m sorry for the mostly negative posts, but more good things to come, I’m sure.

Have you watched this movie? Or any of the multiple adaptations of Nellie Bly’s life? Have you read the book this movie was inspired by? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more madness and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

22 thoughts on “Movie Review: Escape From the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story

  1. Good review of this terribly fictionalized movie. The 2015 movie version of Bly is much more accurate and compelling, but the production values are poorer. Too many computerized set pieces in that film that make some shots look very fake and cartoonish. It just didn’t have a big budget. Still, infinitely better than this Lifetime junk that misuses Bly’s good name in the title to promote a movie with no hint of truth about her experiences. Bad entertainment and even worse history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We looked for this at the library, but only found the 2015 movie, which we just watched. It was great, by which I mean, atrocious! I have not read her book, but based on your review, I’d say the 2015 movie was a very accurate representation. Thanks for the review…I won’t waste my time on this version. I highly recommend the 2015 film.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s of great significance to reveal the life of those who are marginalized! What a pity that the movie adaptation did a disservice to the book is. This is so typical. Many ChineseTV series and movies which tell stories of the second world war in China don’t live up to audience’s expectation. They usually put a gloss and they just feels unrealistic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree completely! It is so important to remember history as it is, and not how we would like it to be. I’ve watched a few Chinese movies about World War II, and I agree. So many horrible things happened to the citizens of China when the Japanese took over. Just look at the Nanjing massacre. It was horrible! And most movies gloss over it. Sometimes reality is more terrifying than fiction!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds so fascinating. I am very interested in (the history of) mental hospitals, mental illness, etc., but I have not heard of Nellie Bly, even though I also read a lot of more modern “anti-psychiatry” lit such as “On being sane in insane places” and the work of Thomas Szasz. I will need to put it into my TBR. Shame about this film. I only know Ricci through “Sleepy Hollow” and “The Addams Family”, but I am sure her acting can be superb.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I love Christina Ricci as well! Her performance was one of the few good things in this film. And I’m really interested in the Nellie Bly story as well. Maybe someday they’ll make a great movie about her story.

      Liked by 1 person

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