You Can't Go Home (To Foxworth Hall) Again
Has Lifetime proven that Flowers In The Attic is unfilmable?
I was about as excited as anyone about Lifetime's TV movie adaptation of V.C. Andrews's seminal (heh) novel, Flowers In The Attic. I breathlessly reported the announcement. I offered alternate picks for the role of Cathy. I brought you the trailer. Even if I had my doubts about the casting of the two lead kids (she's too young; he's too maybe not interested in girls), I couldn't wait to see them break one of society's last taboos and Do Sex to each other. With my expectations that high, it was probably inevitable that the final product wouldn't meet them — and it sure didn't — but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if any film or TV adaptation of Flowers In The Attic ever could.
When I was a kid/big nerd, all I did was read. (For a while, we lived in a town about a forty-minute drive away from the one where my parents worked and I went to school, and I got a lot of reading done in the car; if I finished a book but had lacked the foresight to pack a backup, I'd just turn it over and start reading it again from the beginning.) I was in Grade 2 when my mom bought me a boxed set of Judy Blume books, two of which were appropriate for that age — Tales Of A Fourth-Grade Nothing and Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great — and the rest of which were maybe a bit old: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won't forced my parents to explain periods and wet dreams to me (while Blubber gave me a glimpse at the kind of psychological girl warfare that was, at that point, still a few years off for me). The teen/tween Blume titles were a gateway drug for the even more grown-up ones that had actual sex scenes in them, like Forever, that were dog-eared and circulated at school; to this day, I don't think I even know what the story of Forever actually is because I never read anything around the dirty stuff.
From there, the next literary milestone a young girl hits is Flowers In The Attic — because once you've figured out that reading sex scenes gives you Funny Feelings, you quickly realize that they get ratcheted up when they're combined with horror elements. FITA features child abuse (including abuse of an adult child), forced captivity, emotional extortion, attempted murder, actual murder, and — duh — incest. When you're eleven and reading a copy you've borrowed from your friend's older sister and have been desperately hiding from your mom, you can't believe anyone made this stuff up; it probably won't occur to you for several more years (until you've gone through your Stephen King phase and moved on to true crime) that real people in the real world are capable of even worse crimes.
At least, that's how it was when I was an eleven-year-old, in 1986 (I'm old), growing up pretty sheltered from life's harsh realities in Canada's answer to, let's say, Minneapolis. Now I wonder if Flowers In The Attic is even a big, scandalous deal for today's tweens. Worse things happen in the first ten minutes of nearly any SVU, and you can see that shit on USA in the middle of the afternoon...
...which is kind of all I thought as I was watching Lifetime's movie version. It's slow, and I think it would feel slow even if you didn't know the story beats from having read the book. As in any Lifetime movie, the couple who seem to be perfect and have it all are actually hiding a Dark Secret, and being in massive debt is obviously not the end of it. As soon as the mean, judgmental Grandmother starts in with her rules about the hidden kids never sharing the bathroom and staying fully clothed, you're just waiting, waaaaaaaaiting, for the backstory that made her so paranoid about siblings sharing close quarters. And the longer the movie goes on, the less believable it is that eldest brother Christopher would still have any faith in the idea that if he and his siblings are just obedient and quiet enough, they'll get out of the attic and have happy lives.
Leaving aside the question of whether Flowers In The Attic is lurid enough for a post-Ariel Castro world, what becomes clear as you watch the film version is how thin the story actually is on plot. Between the tentpoles of mother Corinne's big reveals — "your dad died"; "we were broke"; "the parents who disowned me are crazy rich"; "your dad was my half-uncle"; "you have to hide until my father dies, which will be any minute now, and the only reason I'm back in his favour is that I told him I had no children"; "I married my father's lawyer"; "your brother died" — basically all that happens is that the kids sit around in an attic, for years. In the book, that translates to character development (ish) that not only contributes to the growing sense of dread but makes Cathy and Christopher's eventual carnality feel inevitable. But in the movie, not only is the inter-bombshell material kind of repetitive, but when you actually see Christopher facing off against Grandmother, it becomes less clear why, after about six months or so, he wouldn't have just knocked her down and fled to freedom. I don't care how far Foxworth Hall is from the train station; surely it has a phone!
The other thing that comes to the fore in the film more than in the book is how much almost everyone is motivated by greed and venality. Obviously that's true of Corinne (of whom more later), but the kids really put up with a lot of shit on (a) the promise of untold riches when (b) the evil Grandfather they've only heard tell of dies and leaves everything to Corinne. Obviously, they're also hanging in because they want to believe that their mother is telling them the truth and working on their behalves, but she's the one who made them hope for this man who disowned her to die, which is...gross.
And yet, Heather Graham's Corinne is the element of the movie that works the best. After her husband's accidental death, what catalyzes the events of the story is that Corinne has made herself a mere ornament all her life and is incapable of coping once he's gone. Graham is extremely believable playing the kind of woman who would not even contemplate getting a job to support herself and her orphaned children, but instead would try her luck throwing herself on the mercy of the parents who haven't wanted anything to do with her for her whole adult life. She's just as believable as the kind of woman who would allow her mother to beat her with a willow switch and then stay. Corinne has to portray enough optimism about her father's imminent demise to keep her dumb kids hoping she's just about to release them into the kind of freedom she currently enjoys, and Graham has to give her enough secret venality for us to believe that she would conceal his death from her kids in order to keep them hidden and try to kill them with poison-covered donuts. The problem with the film is that, by the end, I was rooting for Corinne to make a clean getaway with Bart Winslow, leaving three dopey blond corpses upstairs.
All that said...yeah, I'm in for the sequel.