We Have Always Lived in Whose Castle?

Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), a subtly gothic melodrama unreliably narrated by an 18 year old child-woman, appeals to slightly maladjusted teens (I knew a few who read and loved it at that age) but is also a brilliant comedy of manners about American small town life. 56 years after its publication a film version has been attempted, directed by Stacie Passon. It's worth a watch even though it torques up the melodrama at the expense of the subtlety.

The main change is to make the antagonist, Charles Blackwood, a nastier piece of work. In the movie he openly romances his first cousin Constance and physically grabs and pins down her sister Merricat, the 18 year old, in a moment of anger. In the book, the romance is buried to the point of invisibility and there is no grabbing. As with all Hollywood films today, there is the obligatory suggestion of parental violence or abuse. Jackson depicts John Blackwood, the dead father of Constance and Merricat, as a controller and a snob but not necessarily an abusive monster.

The motive for the book's central crime -- the unsolved poisoning of John and several family members -- isn't explicitly given in book or movie but the film's climactic staircase scene makes the suggestion that Charles' grappling with Merricat has awakened memories of similar behavior by John. it's implied in the reactions and facial expressions of the sisters during Charles' attack; Merricat even yells out "Father! Stop!" It makes the movie seem more powerful but it isn't Jackson's story; in the novel the reader has to decide who the monster is.

Shirley Jackson was a committed wife and stay-at-home mother of four whose feminism came out in her strong, complex writing. Passon's film version is also strong but leans to less complex, woke explanations for the characters' behavior. Possibly it's the only way to get a film made today.

Update: Notes on differences between book and film.