Read and Watch: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

Read and Watch

I often find myself in conversations with friends about adaptations of books that didn’t quite translate well to film. The overarching theme seems to be that the book is always better. And in many ways, the original source should seem more authentic than an adaptation. But sometimes films are able to capture things that take too long to write, or an adjustment was made that speaks to the truth of what the book’s narrator may have been hiding from the reader. Both film and literature bring their strengths and with adaptations, we can see those strengths and their corresponding weaknesses.

I recently read a book and then watched the film adaptation and had feelings. And since I have this platform to share things I am thinking about, I thought I would spend the time to compare the two, the good and the bad. My most recent read was We Have Always in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

Spoilers ahead – warning that what comes next may be a spoiler for the film or the book and I cannot be held responsible for it ruining your experience of either story.

I read the book first. Shirley Jackson captures the underlying haunting sensation of a small town scared of some of its inhabitants and the fear settles in everything she describes. (If you’re not keen on taking on a whole book, read The Lottery for a sample of her style.) The narrator, Merricat, is both a child and an adult (which she established herself), but she clearly lives in her own world. The internal thoughts she shares are naive while also deadly. She tells a story about change that she believes threatens her and her family, or what’s left of it. You get a sense she will do anything to protect what is hers. Jackson’s storytelling is chilling through its subtlety – you, as the reader, know not to trust Merricat, but can’t help but want to protect her from the things she fears like the villagers and her cousin. You want answers, but Jackson keeps them from you – both to preserve Merricat’s innocence and to protect your willingness to support this family. Nothing is explicit, but you understand nonetheless. The story lives you to imagine what happened and fill in your gaps, which makes the “reveal” kind of dull, because you already solved it.

The film, on the other hand, directed by Stacie Passon, lacks the subtlety of the book. From the beginning, you see each of the characters as caricatures – exactly as Merricat describes them. The uncle is fine, just a little off; the cousin is horrible; the sister is perfect, but lost. What was suggested to be a child’s perspective is shown as the truth. What was haunting (because you couldn’t prove it wrong) sits in front of you, with a “creepy” soundtrack. Because the characters are exactly as they were described, it’s hard to believe that any of it is quite right. The film simplified that which was complicated in the book – everything is exactly as it seems.

What really irks me about the film is that it justifies the men’s actions on screen – the man in town who hates the family irrationally in the book becomes a scorned lover, the cousin who may or may not just be there for their money is a brat and physically aggressive. It just didn’t fit with Merricat’s innocent understanding of the world outside of her home, her castle. She didn’t like them because of what they could do, not what they actually do. Men are frightening in the book because of their potential to take away what Merricat treasures most – her sister and her home. When your fears are demonstrated, you lose that creepy feeling that something could go wrong, which is what the book hinges on. The film was missing that underlying sensation that this family is always one step away from the worst case scenerio.

Overall, I enjoyed both, don’t get me wrong. And both individually left me feeling dull and haunted. But in this particular case, the book was the better storyteller, because it didn’t tell me everything.


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