Those who read V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic at some point in the last few decades are likely looking forward to this weekend when Lifetime airs the small screen adaptation of the novel about four kids locked away for years by their own mother. It’s a dark, twisted and emotional story involving abuse, neglect and more incest than you might expect from your typical work of fiction. And it was once adapted into a major motion picture in 1987, starring Kristy Swanson.
For those who haven't read the book, Flowers in the Attic is set in the 50s and involves four siblings whose mother, Corrine, brings them back to their grandparents' wealthy estate after their father dies. In an effort to win her father's forgiveness and a place in his will, Corrine and her mother (a.k.a "The Grandmother") conspire to hide the kids in the northern wing bedroom to keep Corrine's father from learning of their existence. What's supposed to be days or weeks ends up spanning years. During which time Corrine slowly distances herself from her children, and the grandmother abuses them, delivering steady "justice" to the children she believes are the devil's spawn.
The 1987 movie based on the book was campy, stripped down and barely resembled Andrews’ novel. If you're a fan of the book, it's likely you’re hoping Lifetime’s movie will be better, in which case, you’ll be happy to know that it is. But there are some things you might want to know going into it, so you know how to accurately set your expectations ahead of the film’s debut (Saturday, January 18 at 8:00 p.m.). In terms of spoilers, when comparing the book to the film, I'm aiming for vagueness here. Unless you haven't read the book, in which case, some spoilers ahead.
It's not a page-for-page adaptation but it works a lot of the key scenes in.
If you were expecting this TV movie to cram every single event from Andrews’ novel into an hour and a half’s worth of footage, you will be disappointed, though I’ll add that your expectations were too high going into it. If this were a miniseries or limited series, that might’ve been possible, but let’s face it. Andrews’ novel spans years and no matter how much they condense, they’re not going to get all of it in there.
With that said, the film does manage to catch most of the necessary highlights from the original story, among which are the Christmas party, Mickey the mouse, Cathy’s hair and more. Some of the more abusive elements of the story are changed a bit and even toned down, but the alterations aren't so drastic that the context is dramatically altered. Among the most notable deviations from the story is the ending, which takes a bit of a detour at one point. It’s pretty evident that the alteration was done to create a bit more suspense for the final act. Rest assured, it doesn't change much about the story -- certainly not by comparison to the ending of the original movie. And it leaves off with an opening for a sequel, which we may very well see as Lifetime says they’re developing Petals on the Wind.
Ellen Burstyn IS the grandmother.
You probably already know that Ellen Burstyn is playing the grandmother, but what I’m saying is, she is the grandmother. As the formidable and occasionally abusive Grandmother, Burstyn steals every scene she’s in and really sets the bar for this film. She’s just the right blend of intimidating and judgmental, with the slightest trace of human, which is good, as it makes her far less of a caricature than she might be otherwise. That human side of her also helps to draw the line between her motivations — as an extremely religious and occasionally abusive woman — and Corrine’s, as we see the kids’ mother quickly drawn back into a world of wealth and glamour while her kids waste away in the attic.
As for Corinne, I think the movie gets her character right and I like Heather Graham in general, but I had a hard time connecting with Graham as Corrine, especially by comparison to the way I connected to Burstyn as the Grandmother. That was less of an issue with Kiernan Shipka and Mason Dye, who play Cathy and Chris respectively, but it helps that I don't associate either of those actors with a lot of other movies. Both Shipka and Dye perform well, but the movie doesn't really have enough time to allow us to connect with their characters quite as deeply as we do in the book. That goes back to the issue of time, as the events in the film move pretty quickly. The book benefits from a first-person narration, taking the reader right into Cathy's head and offering us her view of everything, including her perspective on her brother.
In terms of developing the characters, the film lacks some of the depth of the book, but it does capture the true nature of Andrews' characters at their basic cores. Corrine is flighty and sadly shallow, Cathy is distrusting and temperamental, and Chris is the brainy optimist. As for Cory (Maxwell Kovach) and Carrie (Ava Telek), they’re in the background a lot of the time, coming into view when necessary but not really on screen enough for us to get to know them as individuals. I would’ve liked to have seen a bit more of Carrie’s loud side and Cory’s interest in music. That brings us to some other nitpicks…
The ballerina in the attic.
I already mentioned some of the deviations from the book, and a lot of them I’m fine overlooking, as it would be impossible for them to squeeze everything into the film. But there are two elements from the book that are far too vivid in my imagination to forget about entirely while watching the TV movie. The first is the vastness of the attic. As I pictured it from the book, the attic is a spacious area full of old things and lots of room for the kids to run around. It's their dusty old garden and playground. As it's presented in the TV movie, it appears to be little more than a room tucked away in a giant mansion. Maybe we're supposed to imagine it bigger, but every scene up there seems like it's happening in the same cramped space.
And then there's Cathy's dancing. In the book, Cathy's physical outlet is ballet. It's what she does to pass the time, it's the goal she repeatedly sets for herself and as it relates to who she is as a character, it's part of the more darkly enchanting side of this sad and strange story. Unfortunately, in the movie, this aspect of Cathy's character is pretty limited. Granted, Shipka’s ballet abilities may be limited, which could've been the issue, if not the time constraints, but the dancing is one of the core parts of who Cathy is as a character, so I would have liked to have seen more of that. And it’s part of the connection that forms between her and her brother. Speaking of which...
The incest isn't omitted or even down-played.
The TV movie doesn’t gloss over the romantic relationship that forms between Chris and Cathy during their years locked away in the attic. Yeah, the brother and sister develop the wrong kinds of feelings for each other and stuff eventually happens. On an emotional level, I’m not sure the TV movie ever has time to really dig into Chris and Cathy’s torment. But it does set up the nature of their relationship so that we’re made to understand, at least on some level, what’s happening between them leading up to the point where things get physical. The evolution of their relationship doesn’t spring up out of nowhere as it plays out on screen.
Still, it may seem like a bit of a leap for those who haven’t read the book and aren’t fully on board with what’s going on in these characters’ heads. In the book, Chris and Cathy’s relationship evolves due to a combination of adolescent urges, the shared abuse they’ve suffered and the mixture of hurt, rejection, abandonment and misplaced idolization both feel on some level or another toward their mother. It’s a twisted situation to be sure and it's by no means sugarcoated in the books, but Andrews sets it up so that it’s emotional as much as it is dramatic. I’m not sure the TV movie manages to capture all of that, but in terms of its willingness to explore the more taboo nature of the story, which was barely hinted at in the original movie, it doesn't hold back.
It's a lot better than the 1987 movie.
I can nitpick until the cows come home, and you'll be able to as well, if you’ve read the book, but the truth is, Lifetime’s take on Flowers in the Attic is far superior to the 1987 movie, which took too many liberties with the story and essentially stripped it down to a shell of what Andrews’ novel was. It's evident that the TV movie aims to stay true to the source material. With another hour to play with and a bigger
attic budget, much of the issues I addressed might've been resolved. But for what it is, exactly as it is, it's above average for a Lifetime TV movie and manages to capture the spirit of Andrews' dark and haunting novel. What's more, Flowers in the Attic feels like a genuine nod of appreciation for the original book and Andrews' characters, and it's well worth a look for fans who appreciated the series.
Flowers in the Attic airs Saturday, January 18 at 8:00 p.m. ET on Lifetime.
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