What we’re saying about “Flowers in the Attic”

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“People use the color yellow to symbolize hope. Yellow. Like the sun we rarely saw. When I was very young, I thought life would be like one, long and perfect summer day; after all, it started out that way. We were four beautiful children with blonde hair and porcelain skin. People said we looked like those fancy Dresden dolls that grace shelves and mantles — only we weren’t just admired, we were really loved. But that was before. Life is full of surprises, my mother used to say… and greed and fear and shame, as I soon learned. And hopelessness. We never colored even one of our paper flowers yellow.”
— Cathy Dollanganger’s (Kiernan Shipka) opening monologue

Lifetime’s adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ controversial cult-classic novel, “Flowers in the Attic,” is not a word-for-word recreation in moving pictures. Deborah Chow (“The High Cost of Living”) directs the film, Kayla Alpert (“Confessions of a Shopaholic”) writes the script and together they create a scene over the opening credits, as I referenced above.

Memorable and satisfying is Cathy Dollanganger’s opening monologue, to those who’ve read the book(s) and those who haven’t. Chow begins the film with a wide angle shot of the old, regal Foxworth plantation home. It’s years later. Plants have grown out from the bricks, the Foxworth Hall sign is falling. The inside is dark and empty, but Chow’s camera takes us through a slow tour of the home — slow like sneaky, you worry about making too much noise on the creaky floors. Cathy’s monologue begins. It’s chilling (“But that was before.”) and ends at the brick wall, in the highest point of the attic, where any non-reader realizes what this place is: a prison, by the Xs on the wall and “Cathy was here.”

This beginning is much better than the ending, looking at it as both an objective critic and as a person who read the book. Alpert adds things, that weren’t in the 1979 novel, to the ending of this film — a semi-fight between Christopher and Olivia, then Olivia getting trapped in the stairway and then the children getting caught (and let go) outside. (There’s also a fence that I don’t remember). This added action to the otherwise anti-climactic ending Andrews wrote, but it still felt like something was missing. It’s a jumbled mess.

I was scared Alpert’s alternate ending would cut the image of Olivia’s shadow staring out the attic window, as the children ran away. She kept it, but I didn’t like it. In the book, the children escape while everyone is sleeping and we see the shadowy figure of their grandmother in the window as they scurry off. Alpert made this lasting image as empty and anti-climactic as Andrews’ whole finale, which happens without confrontation. I don’t like thinking Olivia was stuck in the corridor and knew the children were running away. I prefer that assumption that she discovered their empty beds soon after they ran.

The physical fight between Christopher (Mason Dye) and Olivia (Ellen Burstyn) is a poor addition, only because it suggests that the reason Christopher is standing up for himself is because he realizes he can outmuscle her (after seeing her weak, without a wig, in her bedroom). The scene feels out of place. The real woman the children need to punish is their mother, Corrine (Heather Graham). However, the earlier scene, when Cathy slaps her mother across the face, is really satisfying.

Alpert cuts the rape scene and requisite incest that made Andrews’ novel so controversial, but I let that pass. What some might call soft sexual sequences, I call subtle and maybe even tasteful. I have nothing bad to say about that part of this adaptation.

Half of the acting is good, half is horrible. Graham made me anxious, uneasy, throughout the film. She speaks faster than everyone else and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Dye was nothing special either. His character, Christopher, is passive (always forgiving Corrine), but Dye appears a different kind of passive and struggles to find a balance with his character. He was just reading lines from a script.

Shipka is excellent as the strong-willed, smart Cathy. Had this been anyone else’s story, it would be a complete disaster. She saved this film by giving us somebody to connect with, love and root for. She had a tough job to do on this assignment: keep the film lively and interesting in a tight attic space. I really enjoyed the scene when she’s riffling through her mother’s closet, trying everything on, as a happy moment. The aforementioned slapping scene: very good. I was a Burstyn fan, too, although her job was much easier, since she often entered and exited scenes alongside Graham.

“Flowers in the Attic” brought in six million viewers and the sequel, “Pedals in the Wind,” has already been ordered by Lifetime.

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