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Is It Possible to Take ‘Flowers in the Attic’ Seriously?

What would a “good” adaptation of Flowers in the Attic look like? I confess, after seeing Lifetime’s attempt, this past Saturday night, I still don’t know the answer.

I found this one pretty serviceable as the hastily-thrown-together project that it was. Sure, Heather Graham’s entire career remains a mystery to me. But then the character she plays, that of the children’s mother Corinne, is pretty much designed for a bad actress, so we were par for the course. I also felt a little bad for the kid they hired to play Christopher, because he seemed to be laboring under the belief that he was in an art film. All the hard thespian work in the world will come to naught when everyone around you is simply playing the mortgage. But he at least managed to hoist some of the more awkward scenes over his shoulder and drag them to watchability. Go ahead, readers, this week, if you DVRed this one and are planning to spend some serious time filing your nails while watching it. You won’t be sorry.

What the movie nonetheless lacked was the book’s curiously dank atmosphere. Being a sort of camp thing, it didn’t take the horror seriously enough to even try. In fact, trying never seemed to be the point of this project at all; from the beginning it felt like a grand joke, as all Lifetime movies do nowadays, things designed to be mocked.

That seems to me a shame. I leafed through the book again this week and was surprised to find that years after my own obsession with this stuff ended, it still has a pull all its own. Yes, the plots are absolutely insane, as any piece on Andrews you read this week (I liked this one, by the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum) makes a point of remarking. Every time I am called upon to describe them to someone who hasn’t read them extreme hermeneutics are involved. And yes, the prose, taken line by line, is generally bad. (“She had a particular style. You wouldn’t call it a good style, but it was a style. It was so unique,” her editor, Ann Patty, told Buzzfeed this week.) But it still has a hypnotic quality that is particularly Andrews. It’s that hypnotism that lets you get through the absurdities of what is being described. That strikes me as deserving serious consideration.

Not everyone is quite so dismissive A few years back, the novelists Sara Gran and Megan Abbott wrote a piece for the Believer on Andrews, probably only the serious treatment her appeal has ever been given. After tracing the long trail of bad reviews that dogged Andrews from the start, they ask:

If we were less sensible, and did want to know more, what would we see? Maybe that Andrews picked up on something that was swirling around her, a dark side of the 1970s we still haven’t looked at very clearly and whose shadows still cling to us. Maybe we would discover that her books actually contain a taloned commentary on the Freudian family romance, the process by which children escape their parents’ erotic hold by fantasizing that they are the abandoned offspring of a noble family (or, in the case of Flowers, the cast-aside product of an incestuous marriage)…. We might even have to revisit our own personal tales of abuse, and our feeble attempts to lock trauma up and throw away the key. Most of all, if we weren’t so sensible, we would see a full flowering of adolescent-girl rage.

They go on to suggest that it isn’t merely readers’ personal experience of abuse that the books recall, but also all the discussion of it floating about in the culture when the books first appeared. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the first wave of public discussion of child abuse, and also the waves of hysteria — which led to things like the McMartin preschool case — which followed. They quote Andrews herself on the subject:

“It was an odd sort of coincidence that I would start writing about child abuse right when it became very popular to write about it,” Andrews said in 1985. “There are so many cries out there in the night, so much protective secrecy in families; and so many skeletons in the closets that no one wants to think about, much less discuss. I tap that great unknown. I think my books have helped open a few doors that were not only locked, but concealed behind cobwebs.”

It’s certainly true, as Gran and Abbot suggest, that the uncomfortableness around Andrews’ books eerily mirrors the uncomfortableness the culture seems to feel about its address of sexual abuse. And then, of course, Lifetime, as this country’s leading purveyor of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? type dramas ripped from the headline, would never be the right venue to throw off the veil. Lifetime’s lifeblood, if I may put it that way, is the uncomfortableness. It couldn’t possibly be self-aware about it.

But, to bring that full circle, somehow all this only makes me long for someone to do a real adaptation of the film, really go for it, and make something that actually can spur new discussion on its own. Paging Sofia Coppola, in fact, right now; somehow I think she could pull it off, even if she did drape the thing in a lot of soft French pop music. At least it would feel somehow less like our adolescent selves were being mocked by cynical television executives.