The misery memoir has become unfashionable, the backlash starting when a number of these were exposed as fabrications. The public’s appetite for these stories palled: as the stories became more and more awful, the bar for horror was progressively pushed higher. Too much misery toughens the heart, whereas the best art softens it. Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle – re-released by Virago this September – is art of the latter kind, successfully managing to convey the misery of Walls’s childhood without a descent into the emotional and embellished style typical of the misery memoir. The 2017 film adaptation, meanwhile, reinterprets Walls’s story (with her participation in this process), and is a visually stunning and brilliantly acted exploration of how love can transcend hurt, and how we can never really escape who we really are.
Walls’s childhood was extraordinary. Her father, Rex, was an alcoholic dreamer, refusing – or unable (Walls has conjectured in an interview that he was bipolar) – to get a steady job to provide for his four children. Her mother, Rose Mary, was in thrall to Rex, participating in this stunning neglect, too interested in creating art to care for her children. The scope and scale of neglect and selfishness that Jeannette and her siblings endured is horrifying. For example, when Jeannette was three years old, Rose Mary was too immersed in her paintings to cook meals for her children; this resulted in Jeannette setting herself on fire when attempting to make a hotdog. When the family were living in Phoenix, Arizona, Jeannette woke up with the local pervert “rubbing his hands over my private parts”. Jeannette screamed and the man ran away when her brother ran in with a hatchet; but her parents refused to lock the doors to the family home at night: “They wouldn’t consider it. We needed the fresh air, they said, and it was essential that we refuse to surrender to fear.”
The Wallses lived a peripatetic existence, moving from one hick town to another, usually in the dead of night as the creditors moved in. They slept in cardboard boxes, in houses with subsidence, vermin and leaking roofs. They often went hungry for days. Jeannette and her siblings would hunt through the rubbish bins, looking for food. In one shocking episode, as her children starved, they discovered Rose Mary hiding food for herself: “Brian yanked the covers back. Lying on the mattress next to Mom was one of those huge family-sized Hershey chocolate bars, the shiny silver wrapper pulled back and torn away. She’d already eaten half of it.”
The Glass Castle – named after the house that Rex designs but never builds – is not, however, a litany of horror. Walls has an appealing, unadorned prose style, and does not indulge in amateur psychoanalysis, or theorize. She also draws strength from her childhood, seeing the resilience it taught her, and the huge amount of love her parents had for their children, despite their inability to properly care for them. Early on in the memoir, as if a direction to the reader as to how to view her story, Jeannette recounts the story of a Joshua tree sapling, growing near an older one twisted and gnarled by the desert wind:
I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.
Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”
Sometimes, the idea is to take elements of a novel and craft a separate work from it (as Hitchcock did with Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train). Or, to take the cinematic elements of a novel and create a film from them (I suppose that this was the case with certain adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s novels. And some filmmakers really do attempt to translate a novel into sounds and images, to create an equivalent artistic experience. In general, I would say that most of us respond to what we’ve read and in the process try to create something that has its own life apart from the source novel.
That the film should not be dismissed merely because it does not strictly reflect the book is clear from the fact that Walls herself has praised the former. In an interview with Vanity Fair she said:
I loved it! I was ecstatic. I knew they’d get it right because I’d been dealing with them so much during the process of making the film, and I knew they were smart, sensitive people.
Destin [Daniel Cretton, the director] was really smart about getting at the heart of the book. A couple of other screenwriters had taken a stab at it, and they were good screenplays, but Destin immediately said, “This is about the relationship between the daughter and the father,” and he went into that, and I thought he cracked it right open […].
Destin wrote certain scenes that weren’t in the book, but it was always in conversation with me… He also made my first husband more of a character, but these decisions were always informed by what actually happened. He made smart choices and took certain liberties, and I thought it was brilliantly done. I learned a lot about storytelling from him.
With this kind of endorsement it is wrong to criticise the film from departing and building on the book.
The cinematic elements of the book are beautifully captured: the expanse of desert the Walls lived in, the star-speckled sky that the children gazed up at, the cityscapes they escaped into. But the substance of the film lies in the exploration of relationships, specifically the relationship between Rex and Jeannette. For all his faults, Rex adored his children, coming through in the end. When Jeannette thought she was going to have to drop out of Barnard because she did not have enough money, Rex scraped together the funds for her final year of tuition, despite the fact that he was living in a squat and was chronically addicted to alcohol:
“Dad, you guys need this money more than I do.”“It’s yours. Since when is it wrong for a father to take care of his little girl?”
The film, with brilliant performances from all (including Brie Larson as Jeannette and Woody Harrelson as Rex), explores the universal experience of a loving father’s great feeling of loss when his daughter marries, particularly when that man is not right. Within the struggle of Rex challenging Eric, Jeanette comes to find herself, realising that whilst Eric can offer her a financially and emotionally stable life in a smart part of Manhattan, this is not true to what she is. She takes the brave decision – particularly so given her troubled upbringing – to leave, choosing a return to a rural existence and throwing in her secure job for the uncertain life of a freelance writer. It really does seem then that there is no place like home.