Flowers in the Attic is smut for pubescent girls. This is the salient fact about the 1979 novel, the one that explains its lasting power, and the one that troubles all attempts to turn it into a movie, even a Lifetime movie—another form of smut for pubescent girls and the women they turn into. This Saturday night, a new version of Flowers, the strange love story of a horribly abused and neglected girl and her just as abused and neglected brother, premieres on Lifetime, starring Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka. It is simultaneously less explicit than the book and more explicit than the 1987 TV movie adaptation, a bit of careful positioning that only highlights its odd message about the virtues of overcoming abuse through incest.
Written by V.C. Andrews and passed around like a dirty mag by young women for much of the ’80s and ’90s, Flowers tells the story of Cathy Dollanganger, a young and beautiful girl who, along with her three siblings, is locked in an attic for years by her religious-freak grandma and demon, narcissist mother. Trapped with her hormones, finding the one escape she can, Cathy begins an incestuous relationship with her older brother. Writing about Flowers in the Attic for Slate earlier this month, Tammy Oler argued that Flowers was important to a generation of teenage girls because of its brutality and intensity. It “contained the emotional stuff of adolescence that was missing from the YA novels that proliferated in the 1970s and ’80s. … Flowers in the Attic indulged our fear that things were so deeply fucked up that they might never be OK” while also recognizing a “deep and abiding fear that has shaped women of my generation: the fear of turning into our mothers.” I concede all of this has been essential to Flowers’ lasting reputation among women of a certain age while countering that none of that would matter if not for the sex.
Flowers takes the thrilling orphan fantasy of so much children’s literature from The Boxcar Children to Harry Potter—what if your parents were dead or gone and you had to survive?—and marries it to the unstoppable hormones of puberty. Written for adult women, Flowers became a hush-hush phenomenon among teenagers because it focused on the two crushing forces controlling their lives—adults and chemistry. Cathy and her brother Chris are locked indoors by abhorrent grown-ups not just with their younger siblings but with their sex drives. They resourcefully, if perversely, solve both of these problems with the only option at hand: each other.
As a teenager, I remember V.C. Andrews books being the ones you graduated to—if you graduated—after the relatively minor titillations of Sweet Valley High. But in retrospect, that was like graduating from training wheels to a Trans-Am. The popularity of V.C. Andrews’ oeuvre, and of Flowers in particular, is a throbbing reminder that 15-year-old girls are as seething with longings as boys plagued by wet dreams. Girls leave less evidence—no stiff sheets, no ransacked Kleenex boxes—but V.C. Andrews’ plots are proof that an absence of evidence is not the same as innocence.
But teen sexuality is tricky subject material. Teen sexuality manifested in incest is trickier still. And the new Lifetime movie is not up to the job. Flowers in the Attic, like so many Lifetime movies, tells the story of a young woman triumphing over debasement. The incest is not, however, the debasement. Cathy—Shipka, in the role, is as poised and mature as ever—and her family live a smug and idyllic life until their father dies and their mother, Corrine (Heather Graham, ineffectual), out of money, must run back to the family that cast her out. Hoping to secure an inheritance, Corrine and her rigid mother (Ellen Burstyn) conspire to keep Cathy, her brother Chris (Mason Dye, wooden), and their younger twin siblings hidden in an attic for years and years, where they are tortured by both women: whipped, tarred, denied food, neglected, poisoned.
As the twins get older, Cathy and Chris act more and more like their mother and father, until they take this particular pretending to its disturbing but logical extreme. In the book, the first time Cathy and her brother Chris have sex, he rapes her. This rape does not make him the villain so much as a victim of his own hormones. In the later Dollanganger books—adaptations of which Lifetime is, mind-bogglingly, readying as we speak—Cathy and Chris get married and raise kids (they did not have together) together. This is not just incest by necessity; it is soul-mate stuff, superficially the least creepy kind of incest but deep down the creepiest kind of all. Lifetime cares only about the superficial: Sweet incest is absolutely as far as it will go. It skips the rape.
What is so brazen about Flowers in the Attic, the book, is that the incest is basically a testament to the Dollanganger kids’ heartiness, to their will to survive. They did what they had to do, in all respects. They triumphed over adversity through perversity. What is so erotic about the book to teenage girls is not the incest, per se, but that the incest is taboo, a taboo Cathy and Chris shatter because their urges (physical and emotional) are more powerful than the mandates of polite society. It’s these urges that the movie soft-pedals.
This is totally understandable—there are things it is extremely exploitative to have actual 14-year-olds do onscreen—but this has the strange effect of giving the whole movie a very soft glow. This is a film about a world so twisted a brother and sister doing it is the nice, comforting thing that happens, but Flowers in the Attic acts as if it is just another life-affirming Lifetime movie about surviving terrible situations. If the book, as Oler says, “indulged our fear that things were so deeply fucked up that they might never be OK,” the movie indulges our fantasy that even the most screwed-up thing is not really that screwed up—nothing a brave, plucky girl and the brother she has sex with can’t overcome.