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The first memoir I ever read was “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. Mr. Brooks, my eighth grade English teacher, divided the dozen or so students into book clubs of three, and assigned a different memoir to each group. When he slipped Jeannette’s sea-glass-colored volume into my hands, I felt the room’s atmosphere shift. I forgot the stodgy sentence diagramming and half-baked renditions of monologues from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I wiped the post-lunch slumber from the corners of my eyes and dove right into a fantastic and nuanced story about a charismatic, dysfunctional family. I marveled at how prose so poetic, so magical, could also be so real. Reading this book was not a schoolroom assignment; it was a gift. “The Glass Castle” sparked my ideas about soul searching, developing resilience, growing up, and gaining independence, all via beautiful writing. As Jeannette writes about an unsupervised cooking accident, “I was on fire”—though fortunately for me the flames were metaphorical.
Suffice it to say, I had high expectations when I learned that “The Glass Castle” would become a movie in August 2017. It’s important to mention, here, that I’m not a purist who thinks that anything less than the original version of a text is heresy. The movie, written by Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham, Marti Noxon, and directed by Cretton, made me sad—but not because of potent storytelling, cinematography, acting, or even music. No, I was sad because the movie disappointed me. Its pretentious opening voiceover, manicured look, scripted dialogue, and curated coffee-shop playlist made the movie slow, tedious, and affected. The choppy and partial delivery of Jeannette’s narrative and clunky transitions from present to past gave me whiplash. Somehow the movie manages to be too formal and all-over-the-place at the same time.
The actors float through a story that’s clearly not their own, with the exception of Ella Anderson, whose sheer youth captures the wonder and unconditional love that Walls as a child has for her charming, troubled father. Brie Larson, who plays the adult Jeannette, is more Brie than Jeannette. As Jeannette’s father, Rex Walls, Woody Harrelson hams up Rex’s tendency to self-destruct, using an Appalachian twang and twinkling his turquoise eyes (color contacts?) each time the camera pans across his face. Max Greenfield, who plays Jeannette’s fiancé, seems to recycle old material from other roles. Greenfield’s “David,” who replaces Jeannette’s real-life first husband, Eric Goldberg, as described in the memoir, isn’t a far stretch from Greenfield’s role as Schmidt, the humorously uptight, materialistic, and at times whiny control freak Greenfield plays on the television show “New Girl.” The rest of the characters, such as Jeannette’s siblings and Rex’s mother, are also unmemorable.
Furthermore, the movie omits swaths of the memoir, including most of Jeannette’s nomadic, fantastical childhood. Cut with a thrumming, folksy soundtrack, the movie features still shots of cracked mountains, nubby Joshua trees, and flat terrain, simplifying this essential part of Jeannette’s coming-of-age story. In addition, several iconic moments of the memoir—when Jeannette collects geodes in the Battle Mountain desert in Nevada desert, or when she learns how to make Ginnie Sue’s chicken rolls after moving back to Rex’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia—are left out. While Cretton likely had to consider the movie’s length in eliminating scenes from Jeannette Walls’ book, including these memorable examples might have enhanced the movie’s storytelling, montage, and overall poignancy.
The real Jeannette Walls does, however, make an appearance in the film as an extra in one of the opening scenes. As Larson and Greenfield exit a restaurant into a waiting cab, a man and the real Jeannette walk arm-in-arm in the background. She’s probably not “blessing” the movie with her presence. Instead, her presence here reinforces that the movie is but a walking shadow of its former self, bursting with gut-wrenching genuineness on the page but schmaltz-ing it up on screen.
Both the film and the memoir end with the same Christmastime scene, as Jeannette, her siblings, and her mother sit down to dinner a couple of years after Rex’s death. The movie’s idealized family reunion seems to have jumped straight from a greeting card. There’s plenty of food, a warmly lit home, and a sense of familial comfort and camaraderie, and the scene ends with a close-up of Jeannette’s happily glowing face.
But the memoir takes a different, more unsettled approach. “It had grown dark outside,” Jeannette writes, “A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.” Jeannette herself knows that newly polished appearance of her family belies the chaos underneath, that Rex walked a fine line between adventure and destruction, putting his family likewise through the wringer, and that she has been forever shaped by that corrosive childhood. While the memoir lacks a Hollywood ending, its complexity is ultimately more satisfying.
—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.
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