The cast of the new Flowers in the Attic remake are looking deadly serious.
Like many twelve-year-olds in the 1980s, I read the dirtiest book I could get my hands on: Flowers in the Attic. The V.C. Andrews title was published in 1979 and I read every paperback in the five-book series so many times, the covers fell off. And I wasn’t alone: Flowers in the Attic sold over 40 million books. V.C. Andrews went on to write a number of other series; when she died, a ghostwriter took over. To date, over 50 books bear the name V.C. Andrews.
A Lifetime film version of the book premieres this Saturday, January 18, and fans like me wonder how much the network will update the raunchy plotline for modern viewers.
Flowers in the Attic, perhaps Andrews’s best-known novel, revolves around a beautiful rich woman, Corrine Foxworth, who marries Christopher Dollanganger, Sr., and is subsequently disowned by her religious and incest-obsessed parents, Malcolm and Olivia Foxworth. Readers later discover that Christopher is Corrine’s half-uncle, and together they have produced four perfect children: Christopher, Cathy, Carrie, and Cory. They might have lived happily ever after, but Christopher dies in a car crash and Corrine—who has zero marketable skills—must return to her abusive parents. And here’s the catch: If her tyrant father learns that she and her husband produced any “devil’s spawn,” she will not inherit anything. Fortunately, the old buzzard is on his way out. So Corrine and her abusive mother decide to hide the children in the attic until the father kicks the bucket. From there, the children are subjected to multiple scenes of physical and emotional abuse, including beatings, a harrowing instance of the grandmother pouring tar on Cathy’s hair, and an incestuous rape scene (which is supposed to be mitigated by the fact that Chris is in love with his gorgeous sister Cathy).
Readers loved the best-selling book precisely because of these deplorable acts. When I asked a group of friends about the series, many women—most of whom are in their 30s or 40s—admitted to reading the books between the ages of 10 and 13. They loved them because they were “risqué,” “shocking,” “steamy,” “sinful, “dangerous,” and “trashy.” One reader said she felt like she was “reading something I shouldn’t be.” Another said the books made her feel “incredibly adult.” Multiple readers mentioned the iconic paperback cover art. Mothers had absolutely no idea what mature scenes were within those covers, and that was part of the reason we all felt like we were getting away with something. Unlike romance novels, a V.C. Andrews novel appeared serious.
Fries Entertainment released a movie version of the book in 1987, but the film changed major plot points and left loyal readers angry. The film all but removes the Christopher-Cathy incest sub-plot and kills off the infantilized and neglectful mother at the end. The book doesn’t provide such poetic justice and instead continues the circle of abuse for many years—and sequels—to come. Like Olivia and Malcolm, Corrine becomes an arch-villain. Andrews can essentially tell the same story all over again.
The first Flowers in the Attic film involved a lot of… baggage.
When Lifetime Network announced that it was releasing an updated film version of the book, readers rejoiced. Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham, and Kiernan Shipka (a.k.a Sally Draper of Mad Men) headline the cast. Fans are still upset that the original film nixed the incest storyline. One IMBD user posted a comment pleading with the director to “do it justice!” and lamented that the first movie had “NO INCEST.” In other words, true fans want to see every bit of abuse because that’s what made Flowers in the Attic interesting in the first place. Every female character is either an abuser or abused (often both). Sex is always wrong, whether because it’s incest or rape or because it’s used to manipulate men. And beautiful women always suffer because of their beauty.
In a world where Fifty Shades of Grey—which is far more explicit with its sex scenes and includes rape, but not incest—is now a bestseller, one wonders if Flowers in the Attic will resonate with a new audience. It’s tough to find someone under the age of 30 who has even heard of the series, let alone read it. When I asked my twenty-year-old students what their generation’s Flowers in the Attic is, they were stumped. The closest they could come was Twilight. While Twilight certainly has an underlying abuse trope, it doesn’t hold a candle to Flowers in the Attic. My students hypothesized that their generation has the Internet, so they don’t need to read dirty books under the covers.
Still, it seems that Flowers in the Attic provided more for its readers than just a dirty secret. Flowers in the Attic tells its readers that victimization is sexy. Emily Bazelon, in a 2007 article for Slate, posits that “Cathy is full of guilt and shame and yet never really is responsible for her transgressions, given how she’s been treated. She gets to act out all of an eleven-year-old girl’s worst fears about sex, without becoming evil.”
In V.C. Andrews’s world beauty and desirability is always a curse, a sure path to victim status. Conversely, being ugly (like the grandmother) means a lifetime of bitterness toward women who inspire lust in men. Andrews’s victims are forever beyond agency. For that reason, Cathy is never responsible for any of the horrible events that befall her, nor is she responsible for the horrible things she does to others (like seducing her mother’s new young husband). And her brother Chris is not responsible for raping her: The horrible abuse by women (his mother and grandmother) led him to it and Cathy’s beauty pushed him over the edge.
The underlying message of misogyny is impossible for me to miss now, but as a young reader, I was captivated by a world that tormented its heroines. It’s not surprising that adolescent readers would identify with a heroine who is persecuted by the whole world. Cathy is controlled by everyone around her through no fault of her own. That’s adolescence in a nutshell.
Whether or not a new Flowers in the Attic film adaptation will inspire a new legion of fans remains to be seen, but perhaps avid Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey fans will welcome a new woman-in-peril heroine—admittedly slightly less passive than Bella Swan or Anastasia Steele—who reminds us that being victimized is the fate of all women.
Related Reading: Check out the Thinking Kink series on BDSM in pop culture.
Christine Seifert is an associate professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, a YA novelist, a frequent Bitch contributor, and a voracious reader of books.