The Glass Castle: From Book to Screen

Jeannette Walls’ memoir had a “seven-year run on the New York Times best-seller list” after it was published in 2005, according to a NYT article . Now, 12 years later, a movie adaptation. So, the long wait is over. The wait, of course, belongs to those who don’t mind seeing a book turned into a movie.

As I’m a proponent of judging book and film as two different art forms on their own merits, I welcome movie adaptations. With this memoir, a non-fiction, I do feel the movie lacks the emotional punch as the first person narrative Jeannette Walls has so masterfully presented in her book. Walls’s memoir is a much livelier, engaging, and poignant piece of account depicting an extraordinary growing-up experience, a nomadic life of poverty until she and her siblings escaped from it.

As I’d mentioned in my review of the book, I was browsing in a bookstore when I picked up The Glass Castle randomly. The opening line captured my attention right away:

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.

That instantly drew me in. And for the rest of the book, Walls has not stopped captivating me with her growing up experience. She candidly shares how alcohol had ruined the potentials of her dreamer dad Rex, who had always dreamed of building them a glass castle. She tells us how her artistic mom Rose Mary had coped (or not), and the effects of their unconventional ‘parenting style’ had on the four children. Eventually, starting with the eldest, Lori, the children one by one escaped from their parents to NYC to start anew. As Jeanette saw her Mom digging through a Dumpster in NYC, she was a journalist at that time and living on Park Avenue. No judgement here, for the book explains all. The Glass Castle is a detailed account of Jeanette’s incredulous journey.


Now, having said all that, I must state that the movie is still a watchable production. Unlike his previous realistic drama Short Term 12 (2013), writer director Deston Daniel Cretton has a tall order here: from the massive field of information in the memoir, to glean and pick just a few episodes to include in the film and string them up as a whole, while making them as interesting and captivating as the book. I know, Cretton must eliminate and condense, the difficult task of a movie adaptation.

Cretton chose to focus on the love hate relationships between father and daughter, and the actors have delivered, thanks to the performance of Woody Harrelson as Rex and the actors who play Jeannette as a youngster, Ella Anderson, and as adult, played by Academy Award Best Actress Brie Larson (Room, 2015). Harrelson is spot-on and dominates the screen.

Mom Rose Mary is played by Naomi Watts. And with this character, I feel there may be a miscast here. For one thing, since the film is heavily weighed on Rex, mom has a much minor role, which is a shortfall, for she does contribute to the children’s development, and taught them to appreciate reading, art, and the value of resilience, using the Joshua Tree as an object lesson, bent but alive. In my mind, Laura Dern could be a more suitable cast.

While the book is chronological, the movie juxtaposes the past with the present. It is done quite well, no confusion or disjointed feeling here. The editing is smooth and moves both storylines forward effectively. The scene of the accident when Jeanette has to cook as a young child and is burned badly is placed aptly at the beginning of the movie. Scars that can be seen visually is a good reminder of one’s past where memories could fade.

One of the main differences between The Glass Castle the book and the movie adaptation is distance. The book is intimate and close. Walls is such a straight forward writer that it feels like she’s right there sharing, opening up herself candidly to the reader. With the movie here, we are just like that, sitting afar as a spectator. It took me a while to engage.

The major issue is the mood. The book depicts a nomadic existence as Jeanette was growing up. The children were herded from place to place across States, often as dad Rex escaped from debtors. They had slept open in the Mohave desert, so, they could pick their own star as a present. Surely these may all be a disguise for their plight, euphemism offered by irresponsible parents. But none can deny the thrills and exhilaration of escapades and adventures. The togetherness of the siblings, the wonder of life are apparent in Walls’ descriptions. The word ‘dysfunctional’ had never appeared in my mind as I read the book.

The film however, focuses on the darker side. The abusive and volatile Rex dominates the screen. Poverty and gloom take over. The tipping point comes as the eldest Lori graduates from high school, and she makes an exit plan. We breathe an air of relief as the children one by one escapes to NYC. A few years later though, Rex and Rose Mary move out to be with them, so they can all be together again as one family.

Is a family being together always the best? As we see, togetherness may not be an ultimate good to pursue when harmony is impossible to reach. What’s more important is keeping oneself intact, one’s past reconciling with one’s present, the integrity of self. In the film, that is the turning point for Jeannette in the scene at the restaurant with an important client of her husband’s. Jeannette comes out from hiding about her family, albeit at the most inopportune moment.

The final scene is a beautiful wrap. The Walls gather together to have a family meal after Rex has died from illness. The siblings chat about their formative years in laughter. Resilience and loyalty to each other have kept them intact. A rewarding closure and a beginning towards a better future.

Do stay behind to watch the video of the real life Jeannette with her mom Rose Mary as the ending credits roll. And do sit through the credits until the very last line, wherein lies the emotional punch of the whole film:

“To all families, despite the scars, still find a way to love.”

~ ~ ~ Ripples




Related Post on Ripple Effects:

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Glass Castle: Book Review

For my 100th post, I’d like to share an extraordinary personal narrative by writer Jeannette Walls.

The opening of the book grabbed me right away as I was browsing in a bookstore. The author, a successful journalist and writer, was in a taxi, all dressed up for an evening event in New York City. As she glanced out the window, she saw a homeless woman scavenging a garbage bin. A closer look made her realize that was her own mother.

That is one dramatic opening of a book. Knowing that it is the telling of a real-life story intrigued me all the more.

Since its publication in 2005, the award-winning childhood memoir of Jeannette Walls has garnered high acclaims and been on the New York Times Best-Seller List for 100 weeks.

Growing up nomadic is a succinct description of Walls’ childhood. At age four, she had already moved eleven times. Upon the direction of her eccentric father and idealistic mother, and often to escape debts or consequences of misdeeds, the four Walls children were herded across the United States from Arizona to California, across mining towns and even living out open in the Mojave Desert, moving on a whim and often given just minutes to pack up whatever meager possessions they had.

Afflicted with alcoholism, dad Rex had trouble holding down a job. But he was a man with a brilliant mind and a wealth of knowledge which he readily passed to his favorite daughter Jeannette. She learned from him science and engineering, mathematics and history. The glass castle is his promise to her, assuring her one day he would strike gold with the Prospector he had invented, and build the family a glass castle they could all live in. The glass castle remained a glimpse of hope, yet sadly proven to be one illusive dream.

Mom Rose Mary was an idealistic artist and writer. Besides teaching her children to appreciate nature, art and literature, she had taught them adaptability and instilled in them the spirit of resilience. Once driving through the Mojave Desert, they saw an ancient Joshua tree. Growing through the wind swept years, the tree was permanently bent and yet was still firmly rooted. Later, Walls found a sapling growing not far from the old tree and wanted to dig it up and replant it near their home:

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.

This book could well be named The Joshua Tree.

Rex’s alcoholism left the family in dire poverty. In this candid and personal account, Walls remembers that often she had to go without food for days. While in school, she would scavenge garbage cans for leftovers after lunch. Often they would have no electricity in the makeshift shack they called home, and took a shower once a week.

Mom was plagued by depression and often lived in a world of her own ideals. Her laissez-faire style of child-rearing often left her kids to fend and provide for themselves. Even if she found a job as a school teacher, she would soon grow tired of it and wouldn’t get up in the morning. The kids would have to drag her up, usually in vain.

I’m surprised the term “Dysfunctional” never occurred in my mind as I read the book. The Walls children were tenacious, resourceful, bold and confident. They were avid readers and did well in school.  What more, they were devoted to each other and loyal to the family. From an early age, they had to learn to handle an alcoholic father, a moody and depressed mother, and mediate their occasional fights and conflicts. The kids had to parent their own misfit mother and father. The Walls might be financially crippled, they were able to maintain strong relationships and an exuberant zest for life.

Walls’ account is candid and personal, poignant with cutting humor. One time in winter, when icicles were formed in their kitchen ceiling because the roof was not insulated and there was no electricity in their home, Walls describes her mom’s response:

All seasons have something to offer,” she said. “Cold weather is good for you. It kills the germs.

How we view the Walls parents of course depends solely on how their daughter presents them in her memoir. And this is precisely my point. Jeannette Walls has painted a loving picture of her parents depsite their failings. She is sympathetic to their struggles with their own demons. Through out the book, I am touched by her capacity to forgive, to persevere, to hope, and to plan for a better future, not only for herself, but for all her siblings.

The last chapters of the book detail how the author and her siblings pursued a new beginning by establishing an independent life in New York City, while still as teenagers. The story of resilience moved on to another phase. Readers are gratified to see a rewarding end to Walls’ years of perseverance.

Film rights have been optioned for the book.  If it is ever turned into a movie, from a visual sense, it is easy to illustrate the hilarious and sensational parts. However, my sincere hope is that the film will keep the integrity and poignancy of the memoir. Often, it is not what has happened that is worth telling, but how the narrator sees what has happened that makes the storytelling moving and memorable. In this case, both the what and the how are extraordinary and uplifting.

The following is a video clip of Jeannette Walls and her mother talking about The Glass Castle.

~ ~ ~½ Ripples

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, published by Scribner, NY. 2005. 288 pages.

NOTE: Here is the latest (April 23, 2012) regarding the film adaptation of the book. Lionsgate has bought the rights and Jennifer Lawrence is in talk for the lead. CLICK HERE to read more.