“As I was reading it I was criticizing, saying, this isn’t really good writing – I had a bit of an attitude,” the esteemed actor Ellen Burstyn told the Alternative Press when discussing Petals on the Wind, the sequel to VC Andrews’ classic gothic young adult novel Flowers in the Attic.Burstyn starred as the evil grandmother Olivia Foxworth in last year’s Lifetime network adaptation of Flowers, and on Monday reprised her role in the network’s take on Petals. “The only thing is, I couldn’t put it down! I was compelled to keep on reading … It gets you.”
As any fan of junk fiction, the summer blockbuster or Rihanna can tell you, the intellectual sophistication of a piece of pop culture is not proportional to its emotional resonance. Burstyn is certainly not the first to witness her heart overriding her head when exposed to a flimsy yet riveting work of young adult fiction, especially one with cultural roots as deep as Andrews’ five-part Dollanganger Series, of which Flowers and Petals are the first and second books.
Like a hybrid of Peyton Place, The Thorn Birds, and American Horror Story, the Dollanger books follow a family through several generations of incest, deceit, avarice and revenge. As one Twitter user concisely summarized when watching the first installment of the Lifetime adaptations: “When your daughter who you conceived with your half uncle who is sleeping w/ her brother kisses your new husband. #flowersintheattic.”
Since their publication in the early 80s, these books – especially Flowers in the Attic – have come to serve as an identity touchstone for a certain type of young woman: cerebral, high-achieving and semi-popular, but troubled by the rules and regulations of the society into which she uneasily fits. Cathy, the book's protagonist and narrator, is a good girl gone bad, not in a mall rebel way, but in the sense that she’s been pushed past the point of no return, past the limits of her fundamentally good nature, by the pressures of her life and by the bad behavior of those she trusted. “I will pray to God that those who should will hurt when they read what I have to say,” she writes ominously in the Flowers prologue (the conceit is that she’s a novelist writing all of these stories after the fact).
For a certain kind of girl, there’s a giddy, vicarious freedom in this kind of unabashedly expressed ruthlessness. Just ask Sofia Coppola, an icon of hip decorum if there ever was one. The very first film she ever made, a short called Lick the Star, follows a group of mean girls through their kill-or-be-killed middle school life, in which they sit in the back of the class thumbing through dog-eared copies of Flowers in the Attic and plotting the destruction of the boys who torment them. Eventually the girls decide to poison the boys slowly with arsenic, just like Burstyn’s character is accused of doing to her imprisoned grandchildren in Flowers. (“Lick the star” is a loose anagram for “kill the rats.”)
OK, so there’s a certain type of girl who is really into these books – she probably also loves The Craft, went to a good college, regularly writes in a journal, worships Isabel Marant and owns at least one battered pair of Doc Martens. Is that really a big enough demographic to justify resurrecting these stories for television, especially in an era where there seems to be an endless supply of fresh YA fiction to funnel into film? Why go back to the Dollanger well?
A theory: it’s the darkness. In comparison to contemporary big hit YA series like Hunger Games and Divergent, both of which star imperious young heroines, or even Twilight, in which the lead character may not be a morally superior vigilante but is nonetheless defined by her purity, the Dollanganger books are animated by depravity, not morality. This doesn't make them better, deeper or more relatable, per se, but it does give them a certain special resonance.
Fairytales – and all these stories are modern fairytales – are by design extreme. They’re meant to serve as safe places for the psyche to explore the core themes of life, light and dark. But we’re currently a little heavy on the sunniness. The Dollanganger books, which feature almost every kind of forbidden act you can think of, from attempted matricide to prolicide to every iteration of incest imaginable, offer a shocking but necessary way into that inky, gory, and deeply human psychological underworld.
Did you all enjoy the glorious (and maybe for some in this comm, true-to-life) trainwreck that was POTW?