The Adolescent Psyche

Lifetime’s ‘Flowers in the Attic’ Review: The Incest Is There, The Strange Magic Is Not

Lifetime doesn't make the mistake of leaving the brother-sister incest out of its television adaptation of Flowers in the Attic. What's missing here is context.

James Dittiger

When V.C. Andrews's mega-selling 1979 young-adult novel Flowers in the Attic was adapted into a campy 1987 horror movie starring Kristy "The Original Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Swanson and Louise "Nurse Ratched" Fletcher, most of the book's big plot points made it up on screen—except for one.

Included in the film was the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, alliteration-happy Dollanganger family: father Chris Sr., mother Corrine, and their four perfect "Dresden Doll" children (Chris Jr., Cathy, and younger twins Carrie and Cory). Chris Sr.'s death in a horrific car accident. The loss of the all the Dollanganger's earthly possessions. The revelation that Chris Sr. was Corrine's half-uncle. The revelation that there was such a thing as a half-uncle. And, finally, Corrine's decision to move back into her parents' sprawling Foxworth manse in Virginia, where Chris Jr., Cathy, Carrie, and Cory are immediately locked in the attic and abused by cruel, ultra-Christian Grandmother Foxworth for days, and then months, and then years, all so that Corrine's touchy father does not discover that she sired "devil spawn" with her dead half-uncle husband, which would apparently get her written out of his hefty Foxworth will.

Still, something was missing. And that something was the brother-sister incest.

So it's a good thing, I suppose, that Lifetime has now stepped in and remade Flowers in the Attic for television. The new version stars Heather Graham as Corrine Dollanganger, Ellen Burstyn as Grandmother Olivia Foxworth, and Kiernan "Sally Draper" Shipka as young Cathy Dollanganger. It premieres Jan. 18. I just watched an advance copy of it. And I am here to report that it doesn't make the same unincestuous mistake as its predecessor.

As any die-hard fan would tell you, leaving the incest out of a Flowers adaptation is like turning Herman Melville's Moby-Dick into a movie about a man who's very determined to catch a flounder. Since the late 1970s, Andrews's original novel has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. It's been translated into 22 languages. It's spawned four sequels, all of which hit number one on the New York Times Bestseller List and hung around for more than 15 weeks. And it's been banned in countless schools across the country. None of which would have happened if Cathy and Chris Dollanganger hadn't done some freaky stuff in that attic.

But this raises the question: How did an author with such unusual sexual fixations—Andrews's first published work was a short story titled "I Slept with My Uncle on My Wedding Night," and her plots, 63 of which she left behind upon her death in 1986, rarely deviated from the incest theme—create such a popular mainstream novel? And how much of her creepy magic, if any, has rubbed off on Lifetime's new, more faithful adaptation

It certainly wasn't Andrews's way with words that made her Dollanganger novels so readable; she starts an inordinate number of sentences with the phrase "Dolly-day!"—the ordinate number of sentences to start with the phrase "Dolly-day!" being zero—and continues on in an oddly stilted and eerily homespun style a reviewer once likened to "reading a court transcript of the Brady Bunch describing a decade of orgiastic abuse.”

But then again, no one's expecting Austenian prose in a mass-market paperback with a steamy trompe l'oeil cover. What really matters here is the rest of Flowers formula: the plot, the setting, the characters, the psychology. All of it is precision-engineered to appeal to the teenage mind, especially if that mind happens to belong to a girl who is older than 10 and younger than 16. It's part fairy tale, part Gothic horror story, and part softcore porn—and each part is targeted at a different aspect of the adolescent psyche.

In Flowers, it's the Dollangangers' father who dies. But as Corrine's visits to the attic begin to taper off—over time, she becomes increasingly obsessed with securing her inheritance and marrying her father's attorney—the children gradually lose their mother as well. This is the classic fairy-tale template. As I've written before, the greatest children's stories are about what happens when we become untethered from authority, whether by disobedience, disaster, or disregard, and the twinned feelings of freedom and fear we experience as we grapple with an autonomy we're not quite ready for. They are, in that sense, rehearsals for adulthood. Fiction and fantasy let children indulge their primal desire to grow up—to be rid of rules and face a dangerous and exhilarating world alone—from the safety of their own bedrooms. Flowers is no different.

But Flowers isn't just a child's fairy tale. It's a Gothic horror story—an adolescent story—as well. Just like Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto (1764) or J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter novels, Andrews presents her "castle" (Foxworth Hall) as a conflicted place of both refuge and terror—a home that suddenly becomes unfamiliar and even frightening with the destabilizing onset of puberty. Grandmother Foxworth threatens to starve the Dollanganger children until Chris agrees to cut off Cathy's womanly blonde locks; when that plan fails, the old crone covers Cathy's hair in tar. One minute Corrine is bringing the kids Christmas presents; the next she's slapping Cathy across the face and screaming that she'll never set them free. These are horrific versions of the indignities that normal teenagers feel like they're constantly suffering at the hands of their normal parents. Encountering such exaggerations on the page serves as a kind of catharsis, and provides a kind of perspective.

And then, of course, there's the incest. Spoiler alert: Chris and Cathy have sex. If Flowers had only been a fairy tale-slash-Gothic horror story, it wouldn't have made much of an impression. It was the transgressive sex—and the erections and the bathing and the breast kissing and so on—that appealed to the adult part of the adolescent psyche and really put the book over the top. "At some point or another, all preadolescent girls hear about the book where the girl locked in the attic has sex with her brother," Julieanne Smolinski wrote in 2011. "I went to the school library like a sweaty middle-aged dad guiltily cruising one of those Thai sex tourism sites. The book was hardly ever in, but one time I got lucky." For the pre-Internet-porn generation, Flowers not only triggered some weird new "adult" feelings; it also revealed how not weird those feelings really were. Because really: what could be as weird as sex with your brother?

And that's the problem with Lifetime's new Flowers adaptation—or any Flowers adaptation, really. The performances are fine. Burstyn is appropriately nasty. Graham is appropriately airheaded. And Shipka is especially skilled at conveying the confusion, awkwardness, and anger of adolescence. (She's so good in what is essentially the same part here and on Mad Men than one almost wishes she could stay 14 forever. Almost.) Meanwhile, Director Deborah Chow and writer Kayla Alpert have included enough of Andrews's tawdriest bits—the beatings, the torn ballerina dress, the doughnuts powdered with sugar and arsenic that Grandmother Foxworth feeds the children—that die-hard fans will be pleased.

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But beyond that I'm not sure who else will care. It's not just that Lifetime's Flowers isn't outrageous enough to shock viewers who haven't been lured in by nostalgia. (For all its incest, the movie is still pretty tame; Chris and Cathy's first roll in the hay is a lot more rape-like in the novel.) And it's not exactly because Lifetime's version isn't nearly as campy or fun as many viewers might have been expecting. (The earnest, dour mood is more Masters of Sex-meets-Are You Afraid of the Dark? than, say, Gothic telenovela.)

The problem is that so much of Flowers' appeal is about context. The context of the book itself being contraband—an illicit document snuck home in an overstuffed backpack. The context of you being a mixed-up, hormone-addled seventh-grader when you read it, alone in your bedroom. And even the context of Flowers' being a book in the first place—words on a page that you transformed into your own private mental movie, with yourself, perhaps, in a starring role. As a Lifetime Television Event—a sanctioned airing, projected into the living room, of some grown-up's version of Flowers in the Attic—that context is gone. Completely. And so is most of Flowers’ strange, strange magic.