Photo courtesy of New World Pictures, via The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com)
“We lived in the attic,
Christopher, Cory, Carrie, and me,
Now there are only three.”
-“Flowers in the Attic”, page 381
Every generation has its outlawed tomes. Those tantalizing tales that contain that element of danger; be it illicit romance, high crimes, even twisted and deviant thoughts that no one would dare to utter to a living soul. It’s an elusive element, reminiscent of the proverbial forbidden fruit dangling off the vine. The mere discovery of what’s prohibited always makes the first bite the sweetest when it is finally captured. Simply utter the name of a certain author or book and a torrential flood of memories and opinions are unleashed. The 18th Century introduced “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” (known colloquially as “Fanny Hill”), while the early part of the 20th Century brought us “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (1928), “Tropic of Cancer” (1934), and “Lolita” (1955). These and countless other literary works were, at one time or another, deemed deplorable, morally corrupt or obscene, with some stories challenged or banned outright in certain countries. To carry on the tradition of literature considered inappropriate (and a must read), girls growing up in the 1970s and 1980s had the works of V.C. Andrews. Her very first published novel would eternally stand as her signature work: “Flowers in the Attic”.
Released in 1979, “Flowers in the Attic” kicked off the career of one Cleo Virginia Andrews, a writer who specialized in Southern Gothic stories fraught with family secrets, treachery, vengeance, strife, and sex. Her novels were bubbling with such salaciousness, some had considered them abhorrent. While her relatively short stint penning books earned her a certain reputation and notoriety, the sheer popularity of her overall brand still continues 35 years after her passing. Following her death in 1986, the future of Andrews’ books was in question. An announcement was made by her family that a ghostwriter was found to continue penning novels under the V.C. Andrews banner. Identified years later as Andrew Neiderman, from 1987, he continued novels that Andrews began before ultimately taking over the writing completely.
FITA presented a horrific tale of four perfect, happy, golden-haired children who are locked in a literal and figurative Alcatraz, from which there was no escape or respite from cruelty, abuse, greed, filicide, attempted prolicide, and lust. It wasn’t merely eaten up by bibliophiles, it was devoured. Ravenously. While what takes place in the story is definitely unconscionable, it was so finger-licking, plate-scraping good; it fed the mental appetite until the last page, and that hunger still wasn’t satiated. No doubt due to subject matter very few authors have dared to touch, let alone describe in detail: incest.
According to sources, FITA would go on to sell over forty million copies, and thanks to both Andrews and Neiderman, there are, to date, six sequels (“Petals on the Wind” (1980), “If There Be Thorns” (1981), “Seeds of Yesterday” (1984), “Christopher’s Diary: Secrets of Foxworth” (2014), “Christopher’s Diary: Echoes of Dollanganger”(2015),”Secret Brother”(2015) ) and two prequels (“Garden of Shadows”(1986) and “Beneath the Attic”(2020) ) in this series.
Eventually, as most literary works often do, a film version was released in 1987 by New World Pictures, starring Kristy Swanson as Cathy (five years before she broke into the mainstream in the title role in 1992’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Victoria Tennant as Corrine, Jeb Stuart Adams as Chris and the incomparable Louise Fletcher as The Grandmother. The movie was supposed to finally bring this sordid, scandalous story to life, but as I will be describing for you throughout this article, the very subject matter that solidified FITA’s rightful place as one of the most controversial books of all time was sanitized by the studio to make it more palatable for late 1980s audiences and practically ruined the tale for VCA fans.
I was around 10 when this film was released, and obviously, at that time, I was certainly too young to watch the movie, let alone comprehend the gravity of the material. Also, I don’t recall reading the books until years later (and I have indeed read all of the books except the most recent”Diary” series and “Beneath”), but I do remember that back then pay per view channels would create tantalizing trailers that constantly played, dangling some of the juiciest parts of the movie right in front of you until you could no longer resist and paid the fee to watch. That doesn’t mean the film was good.
As we dive into the first lackluster movie version of “Flowers in the Attic”, first things first. Let’s get some backstory on the tow-headed Dollanganger children. A quartet once monikered as the Dresden dolls, their young spirits and very lives would be torn, faded, and worn, just like the only flowers they would see for over three years, paper ones displayed in their attic prison.
THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE MOVIE AND THE BOOKS!
YE BE WARNED!
Alongside equally striking parents Christopher and Corrine (at least one later book uses the more common spelling of Corinne), teenagers Chris and Cathy and their cherubic younger siblings, fraternal twins Cory and Carrie, led a rather serene life in Pennsylvania. When Christopher, Sr. is killed in an auto accident on his birthday in 1957, the now-widowed Corrine is left destitute. Desperate, she takes herself and the children to the only place she has left to go-her childhood home, Foxworth Hall. Formerly the apple of her father’s eye, Corrine was thrown out from this sprawling Virginia mansion by her parents and subsequently disowned, for reasons not initially addressed. Cathy and Chris question their mother about why they were never brought up before and why they were seeing them after all these years. They are going back so that Corrine can regain her dying father’s love, and his vast fortune. Their arrival under cover of night is enough to raise suspicion and they are met by The Grandmother (whose first name, Olivia, would not be given until the second book, “Petals on the Wind”). With a Bible sporting a humongous embossed cross sitting on the mantle, The Grandmother wastes no time laying down some very strict rules they must adhere to as long as they live there, including not making noise and that the boys were to sleep together in one bed and the girls in the other. The kicker? They will be locked into their bedroom when the women leave. Corrine tries to get Grandmother Dearest to be a little softer on them, but Granny is having none of it. Corrine tearfully asks the kids to be obedient and not to do anything that warrants punishment. The kids find that their windows are rigged not to open very far and have bars across them.
The next morning, The Grandmother wheels in a tray of food and not one to hide her instant hatred for her daughter’s children, she drops a bomb: their parents were blood-related; uncle and niece (Technically, as the book states, they were only half uncle and niece, with Chris, Sr. being the younger half brother of Corrine’s father, Malcolm. That’s something to keep in mind as we go on). Because of this immoral sin committed by her daughter, the Grandmother refuses to treat these innocent children as anything other than a complete abomination. Her vitriol is imposed with a religious undercoating threatening fire and brimstone . Then comes the cherry on top: the Grandfather will never know of their existence and they will stay hidden.
Corrine is taken to her bedridden father’s bedroom and with a stoic, yet pained expression, she begins to take off her blouse. To show just what Corrine meant about punishment, The Grandmother pulls out a whip in a flourish. When we return back to the kids, Corrine in tow,she forces Corrine to show them just what kind of punishment she dishes out: lashings for every year she spent married to her uncle/husband.
Corrine tries to meekly stand up for herself and hollers unconvincingly at her mother that if she’s mean to her kids, she’ll walk out. The Grandmother certainly doesn’t care and tells her as much. While budding doctor Chris tends his mother’s wounds in the bathroom, Corrine gets misty-eyed and tells them that the years she spent with Chris, Sr. were worth the lashes. To sweeten the pot and to make sure her kids stay in those rooms until she get back into Papa’s will, she tells them about the eponymous attic, and to turn it into their “special place”. The kids remain locked in those three rooms.
The days become weeks, then months, then years. Starved for food, sunlight, fresh air, and life, the kids can only turn to and depend on each other. Corrine spends less and less time coming to see her children while presenting herself as thriving. Yet she keeps telling her suffering children that she should be expecting to get back into her father’s will any day now and get all the cash. They just need to hold on a little longer.
In the books, the raging hormones start to flare up and we arrive at that pinnacle moment. Chris sexually attacks his sister, and eventually they fall into a mutual, consensual relationship. If you have delved into the Foxworth mythology, plenty of incestuous and consanguineous relationships and interfamilial assaults ran rampant throughout not only this series, but the rest of VCA’s works. When it comes to Chris and Cathy, was that incestuous love and attraction ingrained into their DNA? Or was it a matter of circumstance? After all, their parents were half-niece and half-uncle (“Garden of Shadows”, released seven years after FITA, was chronologically a prequel, yet the canon of the familial relationship between Corrine and Chris, Sr., was retconned, so not only were they half uncle and niece through Malcolm Foxworth, but also half brother and sister, sharing the same biological mother, Alicia Foxworth. Have you got all that?) For Chris and Cathy, trying to survive in this house of horrors, their mother’s abandonment and the grandparents’ abuse and callousness, they become the de facto parents of their school-aged siblings. Locked up, embroiled in the throes of puberty, told by the Grandmother that their mere existence was sinful, shameful, and how they were “the devil’s spawn”, and watching their mother change before their very eyes, they feel that their burgeoning sexuality and how they succumbed to it was sinful and shameful, as well. Yes, incest is definitely(and rightfully) taboo, but you do feel a sense of empathy for them, which does grow as you continue with the book series. In their own ways, all four of them are broken.
Back to the movie! Why was this film bad again?
True to form, one single sentence comes up again and again any time an adaptation from an existing work is done: too many things in the plot were altered. I could write another 10 pages about how much of FITA did that, but I will point out a few specifics!
- The most glaring, painfully obvious mistake and omission which completely destroys any credibility this film could ever have? The incest between Cathy and Chris isn’t even mentioned. It’s like it never even happened. It’s not glossed over. At all. What were they thinking?? That’s why everyone read the book!!
- While the book covers between 1957 to roughly 1960, the costumes, particularly on Corrine, still scream 1980s. Large belts, permed hair, lacy gowns, and lots of pastels. Not exactly the proper togs for that time period.
- In the novel, after catching Chris in an imagined scenario that he lusted after Cathy after seeing her naked body, The Grandmother orders Cathy to cut off all of her hair or all of them will starve. They refuse, so The Grandmother drugs Cathy and pours hot tar on her head while she’s unconscious. After getting out the tar, Chris then only cuts of the front portion of Cathy’s hair and puts the rest under a scarf to trick Granny Dearest. In the movie, The Grandmother beats Cathy and shears her. We then get Kristy Swanson in a bad wig for the rest of the film.
- The kids do not confront Corrine when they break out of Foxworth Hall. There is no wedding shown, and Corrine does not meet her end until a later book. Relative to this, the children were being poisoned with arsenic mixed into the powdered sugar on doughnuts, not cookies.Also, Cathy does not taunt her mother with a fatal sweet in this book.
- The closing narration by an older Cathy tries to tie up the exposition neatly, when it’s hardly so. They did start a new life, but Cathy was hell bent on revenge. That what she focuses on in the two following books: taking her mother down.
- Carrie does not grow like a healthy child due to malnutrition, and ends up with a physical deformity, which is a major character and plot point in the books. All the producers did was pale up her and her siblings’ skin to depict their lack of sunlight and fresh air.
Tennant’s British accent does creep up a bit and for the most part, all the actors ham it up. Fletcher does try to channel her Academy Award-winning performance as the sadistic Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, but I thought her portrayal was a bit too subdued. The Grandmother was a hard, cold woman who did some horrid things, but again, due to time constraints and the script, it wasn’t explored as much as it could have been. Andrews has a cameo as a window washing maid, but I do wonder how much creative control she had over the script.
According to sources, the home used to depict Foxworth Hall was actually two absolutely stunning manor homes. If you’re an architecture nut, this will be right up your alley!
The first is Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts (which is roughly 45 minutes away from my own home north of Boston). It’s an extremely popular venue for weddings and other events. The rolling green hills, Stuart style mansion, and rose garden will give you chills. It is open to the public, but surprisingly, I still have yet to get there, despite living within driving distance, but I do plan to once the pandemic ends.
The second is the Greystone Mansion and Gardens: The Doheny Estate in Beverly Hills, California. Purchased by the City of Beverly Hills in 1965, it is also a popular event site and has had a number of films shot there, including “The Big Lebowski” and “There Will be Blood”. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, unfortunately, it is currently closed to the public due to the pandemic.
Two stunning homes can’t make up for all of the things that did not make this movie work, but this wouldn’t be the first attempt to bring it to the screen! Lifetime took up the task and made four television movies adapting the first four books: FITA and Petals in 2014, and Thorns and Seeds in 2015. The incest was reintroduced and was much more prominent, but again, they altered the story and they just didn’t have the punch that the books do. Starring Ellen Burstyn (another Oscar winner) as The Grandmother and Heather Graham as Corrine, there are attempts to stay more faithful to the books, including changing the casting of the children to reflect the passing of time. Lifetime also aired films based on the second series of books, focused on Heaven Leigh Casteel. I was already put off by the fact that they cast a redheaded actress in the lead, when it was well established in the books that Heaven had very dark hair and would bleach it silvery blonde to look like her deceased mother. Well, I watched the first movie and changed the channel. Again, more unnecessary changes were made to fit the script, and yes, the hair thing was HUGE. IMDB has now cited that yet another film series is a go, based on the fourth series of novels, around Ruby Landry. I highly doubt I’ll be tuning in.
I’ll be frank. FITA was not that great of a movie, but it’s mere existence compels me to watch it over and over again. Maybe someday, a brave director will do a more extensive version of this and all the other Dollanganger books and keep everything in tact the way it should be. We can only hope so.
***Credits, research, and other pertinent information according to “Flowers in the Attic”, “Petals on the Wind”, “If There Be Thorns”, “Seeds of Yesterday” and “Garden of Shadows” by V.C. Andrews, the entire sites and individual pages and articles on The Complete V.C. Andrews (www.completevca.com), The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), Lifetime (www.mylifetime.com/vc-andrews-casteel-series-films), Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), and New World Pictures “Flowers in the Attic”.
Image courtesy of Taking Up Room