[24 October 2007]
Recently on the new season of Ugly Betty, Amanda wondered aloud to Marc if Bradford was her father. This worried her because it would make Daniel – someone she had lots of sex with - her half-brother. To this, Marc replied: “Before you get all Flowers in the Attic on me, let’s first find out if Bradford really is your dad.” The exchange prompted me to run out and buy a copy of the 1979 V.C. Andrews classic that I had originally devoured when I was eleven years old. Perfect timing since the book is considered a “Gothic” drama and Halloween is just around the corner.
At the bookstore, I was unable to find the original paperback with the image of a weary-eyed blonde looking out of an attic window. Instead I found a copy with a schmaltzy pink dust jacket depicting an attractive blonde couple staring longingly into each others’ eyes. To anyone unfamiliar with the story, the book would appear to be a romance novel, not a story about incest, child abuse, and a host of other eye-popping hot button topics. For example: The ardent couple on the cover is actually supposed to be related - brother and sister.
After it was released, Flowers in the Attic was banned by various high schools around the country due to its scandalous subject matter. The racy ingredients that made up the book just added to the gusto with which I, and a large portion of my generation, ate it up with. Everywhere you looked in my junior high school halls or on the school bus, girls (and even some boys) had their noses stuck in the symbolic black paperback.
Unsurprisingly, the novel earned V.C. Andrews a solid cult following. She went on to write five more books in the cycle known as the Dollanganger Series, all of which I consumed as quickly as Flowers in the Attic. In fact, her books were so profitable that after she succumbed, prematurely, to breast cancer in 1986, her estate hired ghost writer, Andrew Neiderman, to continue writing under her name. As of this column, there are over 50 novels with VC Andrews’ name on the dust jackets.
In brief, Flowers in the Attic centers on the four Dollanganger children—12-year-old Cathy, her 14-year-old brother Christopher, and their young twin siblings Cory and Carrie. After the children unexpectedly lose their father in a car accident, their mother, who discovers she is destitute, writes to her own parent for help. Consequently, the children find themselves whisked away in the dead of night to a mansion belonging to their grandparents’ (people who they never knew existed before their father’s death). The gothic manor, known as Foxworth Hall, becomes their penitentiary. The children’s grandmother, who is simply referred to as “The Grandmother”, is a tall, frightening, religious fanatic that becomes a central character in the book and serves as the children’s ersatz prison guard.
Because their biological mother has been disinherited by her father for marrying her half-uncle, she must keep the fruit that resulted from their union a secret to avoid distancing herself even further from her inheritance. Consequently, she and the batty old crone hide the children in an upstairs room, and eventually the attic, until father either forgives her transgression, or he dies. To call this a dysfunctional family would be a gross understatement.
The book is often lumped into the horror genre but that’s unfortunate. There’s nothing about it that would spawn such a categorization apart from the long, dark hallways and cobweb-laced attic. The true dread can be found in how terribly the children are treated. Frightening or not, I was looking forward to revisiting the creepy mansion and the dark family secrets.
After crawling into bed with the book, hoping to recapture some of the pre-teen delight that the novel had once roused in me, I was immediately rattled by the bad writing. I can remember being bewitched as a youngster by Andrews’ prose and inspired to write copycat novels in my school notebooks when my teachers weren’t looking. But now I couldn’t get past much of the corny, over-the-top descriptions.
Even though the book isn’t a romance, parts of it could be mistaken for a Danielle Steel novel. Everyone is Barbie-doll-perfect and dazzling. When describing the children’s father, Andrews writes, “He stood six feet two, weighed 180 pounds, and his hair was thick and flaxen blond, and waved just enough to be perfect; his eyes were cerulean blue and they sparkled with laughter. . .” In fact, there is a lot of sparkling going on in the book –everything from eyes (everyone’s eyes glisten when they’re not “ringed in shadows”) to ice, stars, and diamonds have some sort of twinkling luster to them. Case in point: When I turned to a random page just now, I found this passage: “I stared up at the sky. It seemed to me like an inverted deep bowl of navy-blue velvet, sparkled all over with crystallized snowflakes instead of stars – or were they tears of ice that I was going to cry in the future?” You catch my drift?
The other thing that immediately stood out is the annoying childish banter from the twins. Lines like “Take me out of this baa-aad place! Take me out now! This minute! You take me out or I’m gonna kick down the wall! I will! I can! I can, too!” are downright grating. While it’s necessary to convey just how unhappy five-year-old twins are locked up in an attic, the same type of twitter is sprinkled throughout the story one too many times. It’s not only incredibly irritating, but unnecessary in my mind.
Once I got past the cheese and the kiddy chat, however, I fell right back under Andrews’ spell. Something about her ability to capture the dramatic adolescent still living somewhere under my skin prompted me to consume the 389-page paperback in just under four days.
Unfortunately, Flowers in the Attic is the perfect example of what happens to a favorite book when it gets pressed through the Hollywood machine. When the adaptation was released in 1987, I saw it in the theater, anxious to see my once-favorite book now made into what I hoped would be a great film. But I had my doubts. This was a masterpiece in my mind and there was no way anyone could recapture the magic of Andrews’ words.
Regrettably, my doubts were well founded and reinforced when I watched the film again recently. The movie, directed by Jeffrey Bloom, lacked any kind of passion – something that is rampant in the book. According to Andrews, Chris and Cathy are supposed to be young and so beautiful and charming that they’re referred to as “The Dresden Dolls.” In the film, however, the actors (Kristy Swanson as Cathy and Jeb Stuart Adams as Chris) are older than their 12 and 14-year-old literary counterparts, and not nearly as striking as I had imagined. In fact, they’re as flat and without substance as paper dolls. Kristy Swanson is so dull as Cathy—a character who is supposed to be prone to mountainous histrionics—that I had to wonder if she’d ever even heard of the novel.
Likewise, Victoria Tenant is stilted as the mother. She wears a vacant expression much of the time and is nothing like the layered character in the book. Louise Flecher, who plays the Grandmother, has a bit more life in her than the other actors, but is still not nearly as scary as the grandmother Andrews described.
The film’s tagline: “One of the decade’s most widely read best sellers is now this year’s incredible shocker” is also misleading. The only shocking thing about the movie is how much it butchered the novel. The sexual tension between Cathy and Chris and the result of it are completely absent in the film. This is unjustifiable since this key element is at the heart of the narrative and what drives the plot forward. In addition, the mother dies in the end of the movie, but lives on in the Dollanganger Series. This distraction from the manuscript ensures there will be no sequels to the movie, which is probably the only good move Bloom made.
Twenty eight years after the book was released, fans are still talking about it and about how appalling the movie remains. Perhaps someone will come along and re-adapt the novel in the future. Oddly enough, Wes Craven was originally supposed to write the screenplay and direct the film. I can only imagine how different the results might have turned out with him at the helm. Interestingly, VC Andrews died a year before the movie was released. Coincidence or not? While I’m not sure, I’m glad she didn’t live to see what a mess Bloom made of her classic. Forgive me for the bad pun, but I imagine it would be quite a thorn in her side.