Commentary: Years later, 'Flowers' just as bad

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Before the literary frenzies of "The Hunger Games" or "Twilight," before young adult fiction was even acknowledged in the mainstream media, there was the addictively disturbing work of V.C. Andrews.

Her five "Flowers in the Attic" books became a pop culture phenomenon. The first appeared in 1979 and continues to attract a large passionate following through book sales and online fan fiction sites.

Ah, the Dollanganger family: nicknamed "Dresden dolls" and admired for their blond hair, sparkling blue eyes and straight white teeth. They also shared a filial love that literally knew no bounds.

These were not good books. Poorly written and riddled with overwrought scenes of emotional and sometimes physical abuse, the books became, of course, runaway best-sellers.

Hardbound first editions are offered on eBay for upward of $500. Used copies of the original Pocket Books "FITA" paperback -- with a cover illustration of a young girl's pale face at the upstairs window of a house -- can be found online for twice the cover's list price.

The story of a young widow who imprisons her four children while she attempts to charm her way back into her rich father's will is labored enough, but, of course, there's this whole incest thing/rape thing to consider.

Although marketed to housewives and young women, the books became THE forbidden guilty pleasure of middle school girls who filched their mothers' copies. Lifetime's new film version, which premieres Saturday, is given a "teen" designation on the network website.

"In a way, I feel like 'Flowers in the Attic' only works as a YA book, and on the younger spectrum, at that," said Erin Curtis, who blogs for the snarky and sometimes profane website ForeverYoungAdult (

"Let's face it: It's a terrible book. Even beyond the problematic rape, incest, tarring and beatings, not to mention infanticide, it's just a terribly written novel.

"The florid prose, the meandering plot -- these are not the values of a good book. And only people with a very confused sense of their own sexuality could be titillated by it. It's a natural choice for 13-year-olds!"

Incest seems to be au courant these days, from the Lannister twins on HBO's "Game of Thrones" to IFC's "The Spoils of Babylon," to married first cousins in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street."

In the much-scorned, hilariously bad 1987 feature film version of "FITA," inappropriate love is conveyed through longing glances, some over-the-top kissing and a sense of awkward closeness.

"Completely sidesteps most of the truly 'bad' parts [of the book]," Ms. Curtis said.

Lifetime's version makes it clear that young teen Cathy (Kiernan Shipka; oh, Sally Draper, we hardly knew ye) sleeps with her brother Chris (Mason Dye), but it's depicted as tender.

No, there is no rape in this movie, either.

The book's description is particularly offensive in that Cathy, the first-person narrator, conveys horror at her brother forcing himself on her. But midway into the act she decides, hey, if this is what Chris wants, who is she to deny his happiness?

"I think obsession with 'FITA' springs from the idea that our opinions of it changed so radically as adults," Ms. Curtis said. "I know so many women who confess to having read it as teenagers."

Forever Young Adult created a drinking game for Netflix viewers of the 1987 film. Fans of the site are invited to post suggestions, but the tried-and-true from the first movie will also apply to the new version. These include:

• Drink anytime Grandmother lays down a rule, or anyone refers to a rule. ("We can't let Cory and Carrie share a bed!" "We can't make noise!")

• Drink anytime Corrine (Heather Graham) lies. Continue to chug until said lie is finished.

• Take a shot each time someone gets punished. (Ha ha, JOKE IS ON YOU, for you are the one being punished!)

There's one thing about "Flowers in the Attic" -- both the first book and the films -- that doesn't make sense. If Grandmother hates her daughter so much, why go along with a sadistic scheme to trick Grandfather into leaving Corrine his fortune?

Wouldn't it be so much easier, and just as satisfying, to allow these kids to be tortured for a few months, then expose them to Grandfather and have him kick them all to the curb?

Ms. Curtis said there is a boatload of convoluted family history yet to come in the next couple of books to explain this (which my brain blocked from memory in an act of self-preservation). Still, a little heads-up would have made this saga a tad more plausible.

V.C. Andrews died in 1986, but her legacy lives on through dozens of ghost-written books. So if you're in a drinking mood while watching the Lifetime film Saturday, raise a glass to the woman who started it all.

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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