Saturday, January 18, 2014

Books on Film: Flowers in the Attice (Reprise)

post originally published Saturday, August 11, 2012

When a book is very popular among a large group of readers, filmmakers generally like to take special care with the film adaptation. They consult the author of the work, they read the book themselves, they pay homage to the original material. This isn't what happened when Flowers in the Attic was transformed from a YA horror book that struck a strong note with teen girls...into 93 minutes of on-screen swill that you can't ever get back. Cringe if you like, but that description really isn't harsh enough for one of the worst book-to-film adaptations in the known world.

The Book
Full disclosure: I'm a little biased. Flowers in the Attic is actually a very special book to me, as it inspired me to become a writer (the jury's still out on whether or not I am). It was written before I was born and published in 1979 by V. C. Andrews, known to friends and family as Virginia. The book was her first and it was an almost immediate success, spawning three sequels, one prequel and a wildly successful novel-writing career that continues decades after V. C. Andrews's death. It's sold over 40 million copies worldwide.

Most of them have been read by teen girls. The main protagonist is a teen girl herself, Cathy Dollanganger, and she's got a pretty charmed life. The story opens with a brief sketch of Cathy's life. She lives in Pennsylvania with her older brother Christopher and her parents, Chris and Corrine. A pair of twins are born when Cathy is 7, two blonde cherubs named Cory and Carrie. The whole family is blonde, and so beautiful they're known for perfection among their friends and neighbors. 
Of which they have many. All of these loved ones have gathered for a birthday party in the first chapter of the book, waiting on father Chris. He works through the week as a salesman, and comes home every Friday to big fanfare. This Friday, he's supposed to have even more than the usual weekend fun -- a big surprise party with a gorgeous wife, pretty kids and lots of friends, to boot. 
It's not meant to be. Chris is killed in a traffic accident, and the police arrive at the party instead of the expected father. Cathy's perfect world falls to pieces in the aftermath of her father's death. It seems her mother has never had a job and probably can't even spell the word job, so Corrine feels that her only choice is to return home to Virginia, and her parents.
It's the first time anyone has heard any mention of any grandparents. Before you know it, the family of five is whisked away into the Blue Ridge Mountains with only four suitcases between them. To a gigantic mansion they're led in the dead of night, and spirited up a back staircase of the house into a tiny, over-stuffed room all the way at the top.

Here the four children will remain for the next three years. They are told, in the beginning, that they must stay hidden for one night only. Corrine fell out of favor with her parents some time ago, you see, and now she must make amends. She must get her father, an old curmudgeon who's richer than most countries, to accept her. Once he accepts his daughter, she'll tell him that there are also four grandchildren he must learn to accept. 
Sounds reasonable, right? Only soon Corrine stops visiting as often, leaving her four children with only her mother, their grandmother, to tend them. She comes once a day with a picnic basket of food for them, and to quiz them to see if they're reading the Bible. Olivia the grandmother wears nothing but gray, and her heart is black. She reveals quite soon the reason Corrine fell out of favor with her family: Chris was actually her half-uncle, and their relationship was incestuous. This is a terrible sin in the eyes of the Lord. Olivia Foxworth and her husband, Malcolm, are extremely righteous people.
And sin is unforgivable. 
Cathy, Chris, Cory and Carrie have only one bedroom, one bathroom and the mansion's massive attic to share. The dusty, neglected space becomes their playground, and they decorate it with paper flowers and pictures they draw over the long, long months that follow. They cannot attend school, or go outdoors, or ever open the door to the rest of the mansion that's kept locked at all times. They can only recite Bible verses at the demand of their grandmother, and wait for their mother to arrive...and attempt to grow up in this hopeless fashion. 
Cathy is 12, and Chris 14, when they are shut away inside (this makes the twins 5). In the three years that pass, their teenage hormones awaken and their bodies change (as bodies are wont to do). And inevitably, incest develops. When Cory dies, Cathy and Chris start putting the pieces together.

They have been getting sick, and now Cory is gone. Carrie, once vivacious, now barely speaks or eats. All are thin, pale and weak. They devise a way to sneak out of the room, and start learning a little more about the house that surrounds them. They learn that their mother has no intention of ever letting them out, because if it is ever discovered that she had children with her first husband she cannot inherit the many millions that could be hers.

And the grandfather? He's already dead, and the promise of release that was dangled before the children is never going to manifest. In fact, a bit of investigation reveals the reason they're all sick: they're slowly being poisoned to death with arsenic. It's already been successful for one out of four. So they start to steal into the mansion and steal from their mother, who is planning on marrying a young and handsome lawyer. Corrine is going to continue her life and enjoy all the money while her young children wither and die.

Cathy and Chris aren't going to let that happen. They store up their cache of money and endure humiliation and abuse at the hands of the grandmother before at last, they make good on their escape. Looking back at the mansion, Cathy vows to get her revenge on the grandmother, on the house itself...and most of all, on her mother Corrine Foxworth.

That's not at all what happens in the film version.

The Film

Neither the critics nor the fans liked the film version of Flowers in the Attic, which came to theaters in 1987. When it did, Louise Fletcher was the biggest name associated with the flick. She's famous for being mean, having previously played chilling screen villain Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The film also starred Kristy Swanson in the role of Cathy, who at the time was a relatively unknown child actress.

Because of the horror element of the book, famed director Wes Craven was on tap to direct the film (if only), and he came up with a completed draft of a screenplay. But the producers shied away from Craven's inclusion of the incest which was so much a part of the book, so they chose a man named Jeffrey Bloom to write and direct instead.

V. C. Andrews demanded, and won, final script approval...but even this would not be enough to save this truly horrific film adaptation. She turned down 5 scripts before approving Bloom's, but it was further edited and ripped apart by producers and the two studios involved in making the movie. Later, Bloom talked about the contentious atmosphere in the discussion room, and the producers' insistence that certain important elements from the book be omitted from the film.

The author herself appears in the movie, though her cameo role isn't credited. You'll find her near the end of the movie, posing as a maid who's scrubbing the windows in Foxworth Hall.

Kristy Swanson has said that an adaptation of the book's sequel, Petals on the Wind, was also planned but never filmed. She even got a script for it, but found it to be such a "sexfest" that she "didn't know if it should be done."

How bad is the film version of Flowers in the Attic? Bloom eventually stormed off the set, fed up with the many changes to the book's nature, and the final scenes were shot under someone else's direction. Victoria Tennant, who played Corrine, also reportedly stormed off the set in anger after her final scene was filmed. According to urban movie rumor, however, there is some hope on the horizon: another adaptation is in the works. Rumor has it that a new screenplay will be written by the Andrews ghost writer, Andrew Neiderman, so a much better version of this classic book could still come to fruition.

What Got Adapted?

It's difficult to list every single thing that got changed when the book Flowers in the Attic became a film, and if I do I'll just become enraged, but I will hit some main points. In the film, the children were locked up for about a year, which is just a silly change. Why make it? Probably because the main actors in the flick were children, and they can't age on cue. The incest between Cathy and Chris was eliminated, and that ended up making Louise Fletcher look ridiculous as Olivia Foxworth.

It's not her fault. Fletcher wasn't put in gray outfits for her turn as Olivia, which just plain doesn't make sense, and most of her scenes she's screaming and looking wild-eyed for no real reason. This isn't in keeping with the character, though Fletcher worked quite hard at the role. Reportedly, she called V. C. Andrews over the phone to discuss Olivia's character with her, and stayed in character the entire time she was filming so she could maintain the proper distance from the children and the rest of the cast.

The children's ages were changed on film as well, probably because the timing of the events was also changed. Cathy and Chris are 14 and 17 when they are locked up, which is wrong, and Corrine is already marrying Bart Winslow on the day they escape. This is also wrong. Corrine married Bart while the children were locked up, and by the time they escaped the couple had already moved away from the mansion.

This is what leads up to the end scene of the film, which is so abominably bad the writer/director decided to walk away from the project altogether. He refused to film it, the producers insisted, and he walked instead. Unfortunately, they also shot the ending without him. In a scene that's almost silly in its over-the-top drama, Cathy confronts her mother in the middle of Foxworth Hall while Corrine is being married. Shouting "eat the cookie, Mother!" Cathy chases after Corrine...who winds up falling out of a window and being hung by her own wedding dress. That's when actress Victoria Tennant also stormed off the set, and that's how the movie ends...laughably. Instead of cold revenge, Cathy expresses crazy anger, and it completely ruins the entire movie (as if the other changes didn't do that already).

Throughout the film, there is also little to no mention of ballet, Cathy's dream and driving inspiration, Chris's desire to be a doctor, or Cory's beloved pet mouse and penchant for musical talent. Jeffrey Bloom did film some scenes depicting the incest in the book, but these scenes were cut from the final version. In his planned original ending, the children escape the mansion in secrecy and never confront Corrine -- which is much closer to the ending of the book.

Seriously, it's not a good movie (and I like a lot of movies). Even if it wasn't associated with the book, this wouldn't be a very good movie. But it is, and that makes it even worse, so please don't watch it. You should read the book, which is brilliant, and my summary absolutely does not do it justice so don't let that stop you. 
The New Movie
Lifetime's new adaptation of Flowers in the Attic airs tonight at 8p EST. Live Tweet with me during the movie -- I'll be pointing out what I like and don't like the entire time!

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