More than a quarter-century before Stephenie Meyer hit paydirt with her Twilight novels, author V.C. Andrews tapped into pretty much the same pool of mostly female high school and college-age readers with Flowers in the Attic, her 1979 gothic horror novel that became a cult smash and, like Twilight, spawned multiple sequels.
In 1987, Flowers was adapted into a feature film starring Oscar winner Louise Fletcher, Victoria Tennant and Kristy Swanson. That movie was commercially successful but was widely reviled by Andrews loyalists for its many deviations from the novel. Those same fans may want to tune in this Saturday night as Lifetime presents a new made-for-TV remake that is said to be far more faithful to Andrews’ book.
Frankly, I can’t imagine that anyone who doesn’t already have a sentimental attachment to Flowers in the Attic is going to find much to enjoy, however. The years have not been kind of Andrews’ twisted story about a too-closely-knit family and the crazy quilt of horrors that befall some of them.
As the TV movie opens, the impossibly good-looking Dollanganger (seriously) family is enjoying a blissful upper-middle-class lifestyle until the father, Christopher Sr., is killed in a driving accident. His widow, Corinne (Heather Graham), has no marketable skills (“I’m an ornament – the only thing I was ever good at was being pretty,” she sighs), so she uproots her four kids and moves them back to the Virginia home of their grandparents, whom the children never have met.
Corinne’s mother, Olivia Foxworth (Ellen Burstyn) greets her long-estranged daughter and the four children – Christopher Jr. (Mason Dye), Cathy (Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men), and little twins Carrie and Cory (Ava Telek, Maxwell Kovach) – with a chilling sneer, and shows them to an upstairs room in a little-used wing of the mansion. The children will be allowed to share this single room, which has an attached attic, as long as they remain out of sight and make no noise, the old woman says.
Corinne explains to her children that her father disinherited her when she married Christopher Sr., so she just needs the kids to lay low until she can charm her way back into his will. As the days turn into weeks, then months, then years, however, the young Dollangangers are subjected to increasingly horrific treatment.
There’s a controversial thread running through Flowers in the Attic pertaining to the nature of multiple relationships within this insanely dysfunctional family. It’s a theme that has gotten Andrews’ novel banned from several high school libraries and the 1987 big-screen Flowers in the Attic omitted it entirely.
Lifetime’s remake restores that element, although it does so with such timidity that it’s still barely there. I’m not complaining, exactly, but if we’re being honest, that too-hot-to-handle hook was one of the main things that drove sales of the initial novel.
Andrews’ claustrophobic and mostly static narrative may work well enough on the page, but it makes for a turgid film that is somewhat bolstered by a couple of good performances. In the role of the grandmother so evil that she does everything but hop on a broomstick and try to bake her grandkids into gingerbread, Burstyn improbably finds occasional moments to reveal the pain and grief underlying Olivia’s unforgivable actions. Shipka, who has been immersed in what must be an extended master class in acting via her role as Sally Draper on Mad Men, was only 13 or so when she made this Flowers in the Attic, yet she convincingly charts Cathy’s transformation from frightened girl into defiant young woman.
Graham, however, is a disaster. I’m not saying Corinne is an easy character to pull off – in fact, as written, she’s pretty ludicrous – but the actress clearly is completely, hopelessly over her head here. When Corinne sits Cathy and Chris down and tries to explain to them why her parents are so cold to them, Graham looks like an inexperienced Junior Miss contestant delivering a monologue during her talent competition. That’s not good, since Corinne is, in most respects, a pivotal character in the plot mechanism.
Given how many copies the Flowers in the Attic books have sold over the years, it’s just possible that all those fans will rush to relive the experience this Saturday night, even though this TV movie isn’t very satisfying. Lifetime clearly is hoping so, because the network reportedly already has committed to filming Petals on the Wind, the second book in the series.