Flowers in the Attic: Delving into the Hearts of Darkness

A look at the enduring power of V.C. Andrews’ novel, Flowers in the Attic, its film adaptations, and what the future could hold for this timeless tale.

When me and my best friend decided to watch 1987’s Flowers in the Attic a few years back, I looked at its cover and PG-13 rating and assumed we were in for some cheesy fun. I imagined us slinging one-liners at the screen like an inferior version of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.

Within minutes, I was slack-jawed and horrified. I told him, “this is really getting to me.”

By the time Flowers reached its happy ending (“happy” relative to the twisted parameters of its world), I concluded it was one of the most disturbing movies I’d ever seen.

In many ways, Jeffrey Bloom’s film is a conservative adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ 1979 novel. Periodic voice-over narration establishes the survival of teen protagonist Cathy (Kristy Swanson). Yet even as a buffer to the horrors on display, it offers little reassurance for the viewer.

The fear of religious fundamentalism and abuse (psychological and physical) is made disturbing through implication. The scene where desperate Mother (Victoria Tennant) attempts to win back the favor of her dying father by being flogged is a particularly diseased moment that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. While we don’t see any blows land, the mere uncoiling of the bullwhip is impact enough.

Excising some of Andrews’ more taboo thematic material, Bloom mostly approaches the adaptation as a “how will they escape?” thriller. Still, he manages to capture the coming-of-age despair of Cathy and brother Chris (Jeb Stuart Adams) with unsettling resonance. The children become pawns in a game beyond their understanding, and the utter devaluing of life is what chills the blood here.

The depiction of abuse and neglect is what most disturbed me. A parent who could be lulled into abandoning their children in the name of wealth and material possessions short-circuited my brain. This isn’t how parents are supposed to be, I thought.

So, in a strange way, I guess I’m thankful Flowers in the Attic made me realize just how caring my own family was.

The 2014 Lifetime adaptation had me even more curious, as I wondered how far it would venture into the heart of darkness of Andrews’ novel. In an odd trade-off, it’s closer to the events of the book while radiating a warmth absent from Bloom’s film.

This version never quite captures the icy menace of the ’87 film, but finds strength in its performances: despite her small stature, Kiernan Shipka (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) proves a formidable Cathy. Her scenes with Ellen Burstyn’s Grandmother capture the grand tension of two great performers locked in a battle of wits. It’s unfortunate, then, that Heather Graham’s Mother comes across as a pale imitation of Tennant’s performance in the ’87 film (she nails the dead-eyed stare, but little else).

Director Deborah Chow (The Mandalorian) and writer Kayla Alpert show an earthy interest in Andrews’ taboos. They don’t flinch from the incest theme, but present it with an element of understanding, which perhaps makes it more unsettling. At 20, Shipka has already established herself as an actress of dynamic range and maturity, and she brings a sense of feminine agency that was lacking in Swanson’s performance. Overall, there is more interest in the characters and their inner lives, not just the question of how they will escape their predicament.

I would be hard-pressed to call either adaptation a “favorite,” but both are effective for what they set out to do. And it’s a testament to the power of Andrews’ novel that it sat on my shelf for years because I was simply too afraid to dive in. Told from Cathy’s POV, it explores the isolation, alienation, confusion, and forced maturity the children must adopt in order to persevere. As a result, its horror is more visceral than either filmed version.

What of the future of Flowers in the Attic, though? The fact that it’s been adapted twice, and with such divergent results, speaks to the interpretive power of cinema. In thinking of who else could provide a distinctive take on Andrews’ prose, one name came to mind.

Of the genre directors working today, few understand the psychological effects of isolation and alienation better than Osgood “Oz” Perkins. The Blackcoat’s Daughter confronted the toll of parental loss and loneliness at a remote boarding school; I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House followed the solitary routine of a hospice worker at a haunted estate; and Gretel & Hansel explored the burden of survival visited upon two children who have no other choice. These films engender an empathy for their characters, but also an ability to bring them face-to-face with real terror.

Perkins has carved out a unique voice in the horror landscape, and is never content to fall back on genre cliches. Because of this, I think he could extract great (and terrible) things from Andrews’ novel that have been shuttered in previous adaptations.

Both versions of Flowers in the Attic, and The Blackcoat’s Daughter, are streaming via Amazon. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House can be found on Netflix. 

Do you think Oz Perkins would be a good choice to revive the Flowers in the Attic franchise? Let us know in the comments.