Fans of V.C. Andrews' 1979 novel Flowers in the Attic likely began salivating when news broke last year that Lifetime was planning a movie adaptation of the teen incest story. Could the result be anything less than a camp-fest of epic proportions?
The answer is no. Although the addition of Mad Men's Kiernan Shipka and Ellen Burstyn may have raised expectations that this particular offering would rise above the typical standards set forth by Lifetime movies, sadly, it doesn't.
For those unfamiliar with the story line, a primer: The tale involves teens Cathy (Shipka) and Chris Dollanganger (Mason Dye), who go with their mother and younger twin siblings to live at their grandparents' mansion after their father is killed in a car accident. While their mother Corinne (Heather Graham) tries to get back in her father's good graces, her children are locked in a secret room upstairs — we won't spoil for novices why their identities must be kept hidden — and are fed sparingly by their uber-religious, abusive grandmother (Burstyn). Weeks turn into months and then into years, and as the children begin to confront the awful truth about their mother while planning their escape to Florida (where else?), the bond between Cathy and Chris becomes much more than a familial one.
It's true that actors' performances are often only as good as their source material, and Andrews' novel is certainly not a pinnacle of literary prowess. The Lifetime version follows the plot of the book more closely than the 1987 film version starring Louise Fletcher and Kristy Swanson. But based on previous performances from Shipka and Burstyn — who, judging from her performance, probably still has some scenery in her teeth months after Flowers wrapped — it's no exaggeration to say they're really slumming it here.
And then there's Heather Graham, as the selfish, cruel Corinne. "Look at me, I'm an ornament," she says at one point early on in the film. "The only thing I was ever good at was being pretty." That assessment is a disappointingly accurate critique. In the original movie, Victoria Tennant's Corinne was evil incarnate, but here the widow just seems vacant. Graham's performance as a fembot in the Austin Powers films was less mechanical. (Side note: Will Shipka forever be pigeonholed into playing a daughter who suffers at the hands of an unstable mom? Let's hope not.)
The sexual tension between the teen siblings is appropriately disturbing, even though it at times feels more like they're a couple on a blind date rather than siblings who have grown up together. But apparently bloodlines can compensate for a lack of chemistry, and the (spoiler alert) sex scene between Chris and Cathy — which is presented as more of a rape in the book and eliminated entirely from the original movie — is given an oddly romantic sheen when it finally happens in Lifetime's rendition.
"If you've read the book and you actually read the scene where it happens, you can't show that on any network," Dye tells TVGuide.com of the uncomfortably tender portrayal. "No network will allow you to do that. ... It's almost a more tasteful approach to it, instead of going the route of the book."
Lifetime has already announced plans for a movie based on the Flowers sequel Petals on the Wind, but casting details have not been finalized. "I know in the book it takes place over the next 10 years," explains Dye, who says he only learned of the planned follow-up at a recent Television Critics Association panel where it was first announced to the media. "So, unless we can make me 35 years old or something, I don't know if we would be able to do the book justice, stay true to it."
As far as Flowers is concerned, those who are looking for a typical Lifetime movie, complete with all the melodrama and parody-level line readings that can be crammed into a couple of hours, will be thrilled. For those who hoped the bar would be set a little higher, the movie as a whole is far less than the sum of its parts.
Flowers in the Attic premieres Saturday at 8/7c on Lifetime.