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(Not Spoiler Free)
The Glass Castle is a new film based on journalist Jeannette Walls 2005 memoir of the same name. It was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who also wrote the film along with Andrew Lanham, and Marti Noxon. Brie Larson stars as adult Jeannette, Woody Harrelson as her father, Rex Walls, and Naomi Watts plays her mother, Rose Mary Walls.
The film tells the story of the family life of the Walls, with a focus on Jeannette’s relationship with her father during her childhood and young adulthood. They begin as a close knit, but complicated, family who spent the first 10 years of Jeannette’s life constantly moving around the southwest.
Rex was a dreamer and nonconformist who loved his children, but was also an alcoholic and gambler who couldn’t hold a job. Rose Mary was an artist who saw the unique beauty in the world but was lacking in affection and the ability to care for her children on a day to day basis. Between them, they gave their children an early childhood filled with adventure and magic, as well as poverty and chaos.
Eventually, as Rex’s issues worsened and Rose Mary became less and less able to cope with her family, the Walls ran out of options in the Southwest. They moved to the small, failing coal mining town of Welch, WV, Rex’s home town. What had been a difficult life in the southwest became a life filled with severe poverty, abuse, neglect, and near starvation. It’s hard to fathom why the children weren’t taken from their parents.
The movie spends most of its time focussing on the period in Welch, alternating that thread with Jeannette’s young adulthood as a gossip reporter in NYC. It hits most of the important beats of the book, but condenses them, as is virtually always necessary when adapting a book to a movie.
What wasn’t necessary was the reordering of events, and changing the location of several events from the southwest to Welch. If the filmmakers didn’t want to show every move around Arizona and Utah, they could have located the most important events in Phoenix, where the family lived for a year, or kept the locations generic, as they often seem in the book.
The flipping back and forth between time periods also doesn’t always work. The pacing and moods are different between the two time periods, and there’s not necessarily a direct correlation between the connecting scenes.
The movie spends a long time with adult Jeannette in very slow scenes that don’t reveal anything new, then skips over important information from her adolescence, making events hard to follow. I was able to piece it together, despite events being reordered or outright changed, because I’d read the book. Metamaiden came in cold, and got lost in the middle a few times because important details were left out or went by so quickly.
The movie is well cast. The actors are amazing in their roles, as one would expect with a cast of this caliber. The young actors all pull their own weight in the flashback scenes, though Jeanette’s siblings don’t get much fleshing out (an issue in the book as well).
The costumes seem accurate enough to the period, though they all seem too new and clean. Throughout the movie the sets and the family often look cleaner and neater than they should. Especially in Welch, when keeping clean was a major issue for the Walls children.
The look and feel of the sets and locations is spot on. The desert scenes were shot here in New Mexico, and illustrate the metaphor of the open country and big sky as the glass castle. The Welch scenes were shot in West Virginia, and the viewer can feel the damp, cold, wooded hills hemming the family in and trapping them in their poverty and misery, with the new glass castle turning into a garbage pit, just like their lives.*
The tragedy of the story is the tragedy of what addiction and mental illness do to families. It’s somewhat redeemed by the resilience and loyalty that dysfunctional families can bring out in children. Rex never realized that he already had his glass castle in his wild home and his children. He squandered and abused what he had, over and over, in worse and worse ways, for his entire life.
The worst part of the movie is that it tries to make a hero out of Rex. From the trailers, you wouldn’t even know that either parent is anything other than lovably quirky. The filmmakers decided to not only focus on Jeannette’s relationship with her father, but that it needed to be ultimately heartwarming, and not the heartbreaking, manipulative, confusing, traumatic relationship that children have with abusive, addict parents. Even if they love those parents, which most of us do.
To me, the better story would be to focus on the story the way the book does: How the independence and adventures Jeannette and her siblings had as children and adolescents led all 4 of them to be able to escape from Welch and their parents, with all of them working together to get the others out. In my experience, that kind of strength, cooperation, and loyalty is unusual, and an examination of how their circumstances drew them together, when their parents wouldn’t take care of them, would be worthwhile. Instead, the movie cuts that part of the story out.
The story is such a compelling tale that the movie is still worth a look, despite it’s flaws, especially now that it can be viewed at home. If you haven’t read the book, it might take a couple of viewings to figure out all of the details. Or maybe you’ll be inspired to read the book to get the full story.
Book vs Movie
The book wins, hands down, in this case. It’s a compelling read that never drags, filled with adventure, drama, suspense, romance, heartbreak, triumph, tragedy- you name it, it’s probably there. The author describes each part of her life with an openness and clarity that draw the reader in. Over and over, I had to remind myself that what I was reading was a memoir and not fiction. I kept thinking that there was no way that people were really making these decisions.
There are a very few times that the movie shows us the characters’ emotions in a visceral way that the book can’t match, something films usually excel at. It’s a major flaw of this film that they took the teeth out of the parents, in particular, and left out the worst of their abusive and neglectful actions. That means that the heroism and closeness of the kids is also downplayed.
Better filmmakers would have been able to give us the complexity of Jeannette’s relationships with her father and her mother, and the strength of the bond between the siblings. Instead it sometimes feels like we’re going through a checklist of important events from the book, crammed together in random order, without the implications of each considered.
The book includes the context for each event, telling it as a story, woven together until you understand the patterns, and even begin to see symbols and metaphors in the family’s lives. The movie tells the story on a surface level, filling in clichés, and smoothing out the uniqueness of the story.
*No offense against West Virginia! It’s a beautiful state. I’m only referring to the Walls experience of it.