When I was 15, my best friend Kathleen handed me a book with a spooky looking house on the cover, titled, Flowers in the Attic. I took the book home and started it at bedtime that evening. Once opened, the book remained so until I turned the last page, at which point my brain exploded. Double incest! Incest BABIES! Homicidal moms and violent nanas!
I had just joined the legions of fans whose faces would light up at the mere mention of author V.C. Andrews and her iconic "Flowers" series. The 1978 film version of the book--starring Louise Fletcher, Victoria Tennant, and Kristy Swanson--is a perennial favorite, but like many fans I always found its departures from the novel disturbing. (Yes, I just said that the omission of incest from the first movie is more disturbing than the presence of incest in the original source material. CALL THE COPS. I am obviously a danger to society.)
The Lifetime channel premiered its remake of Flowers in the Attic last month. The updated version stars Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham, and Kiernan Shipka as Cathy. AND I MISSED IT. The first time, anyway. I set my DVR remotely so I could watch as soon as I returned to Houston.
(Author's Note: "Flowers in the Attic" virgins can read a quick plot synopsis to get caught up.)
FITA was one of those books I read over and over as a kid. I've viewed the movie many times, and while the line, "EAT THE COOKIE!" is among my oft-cited movie references, I have always wished for a film that better represented the original novel. The 1987 movie omitted a major storyline--the incestuous relationship between brother Chris and sister/narrator/protagonist Cathy--that is central to the plot. The film also concocted an ending far removed from the one in the book; both of these departures remove Flowers from the context of the five-book "Dollanganger series." Should subsequent movies have been made based on the sequels, their plots would also have required substantial plot changes. Now, they never actually made any sequels, but still--readers can only take so many changes to their favorite books-turned-movies, right?
I'm not sure how it is possible that I've seen Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? every single time it's ever aired on Lifetime, but I missed the month-long Flowers in the Attic promotions, but it happened. So when I finally sat down, weeks after the remake aired, I was nervous. I had managed to avoid all media coverage of this movie, including articles with tempting titles like, "5 Things to Know Before Tonight's Flowers in the Attic Premier!" and I was desperate to love it.
Things I LOVED
There were many, many things I loved about Lifetime's remake, starting with casting. Heather Graham makes for a terrific Corrine, who has to transition somewhat seamlessly from doting mother to a woman who would poison her own children--after locking them away in an attic for three years. And Ellen Burstyn as Worst Grandmother Ever, Olivia? Absolutely brilliant. I'm not a Mad Men-er, but I'm a huge fan of Kiernan Shipka on the red carpet and enjoyed her performance as Cathy. (Hope she's not Method.)
Bravo to Lifetime and the scriptwriters who stayed much truer to the novel's plot--another major improvement over the 1978 original. Incest isn't a minor plot point in Flowers in the Attic; it's a recurring theme throughout the book, and the sequels. That Chris and Cathy continue the incestuous journey their mother and father began isn't merely incidental to the story of the Dollanganger family, but the central pillar of it. Incest, for these characters, is their escape as well as their prison. METAPHORS! It turns out there is a reason for all of this accuracy. Lifetime has begun production on the second story in the Dollanganger series, Petals on the Wind. Sign me up.
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Things I HATED
Lifetime improved on the 1978 version of Flowers in the Attic far better than I anticipated, but still falls short of capturing the meat of the source material. This is a dark, Gothic novel that is full of real violence. Chris rapes his sister before they embark on a consensual sexual relationship, and the beatings meted out by Ellen Burstyn's Grandmother Olivia pale in comparison with the novel. Part of the issue is Chris. Instead of confusing us by raping his sister, he confuses us by continually sticking up for his mother, willing us--through his pleas to Cathy--to hold on to her faith in Corinne.
Mary McNamara, the Los Angeles Times television critic, wrote in her review of Flowers in the Attic that the movie goes wrong by holding back on the fun and campiness that lines the darker plotlines, and I have to agree. Burstyn's Grandmother Olivia is the only one who really gets to let go for more than a scene or two, and even her physical abuse is kept largely off-screen. The rest of the characters have long fuses that seem to burn slowly, and even Cathy's anger feels diffuse.
Overall, it's impossible to not recommend all things Flowers in the Attic. Not only do I believe that there is no such thing as a bad Lifetime movie, I really do think that Lifetime got a lot more right than wrong; I will definitely set my DVR for Petals on the Wind. Please, read the book, watch the movies, and then do it all over again, year after year. You're in good company.