The Glass Castle: Moving, But Not the Memoir

By Lilly Gelman

Based on the bestselling 2005 memoir of the same name, The Glass Castle, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson, tells the story of Jeanette Walls — the author as well as protagonist in the film— and her three siblings, Lori, Brian, and Maureen, growing up in poverty with their drunken father and eccentric artistic mother in the 1960’s American South. Shifting back and forth between scenes from Jeanette’s childhood and her current life as a soon-to-be-married New York City writer, The Glass Castle gives the audience a deep sense of Jeanette’s complicated relationship with her father, and how their relationship has shaped the bold and fearless woman she has become.

Playing Jeanette herself, Academy Award Winner Brie Larson — showcasing her cartoonish beauty and bright red hair to match the crimson locks of the real life Jeanette Walls — presents both the fire and elegance of Jeanette felt in the memoir. Brie Larson has worked with Cretton in the past on their critically acclaimed 2013 film, Short Term 12. Through Larson’s performance in The Glass Castle, the audience experiences first the bliss and then the pain caused by Jeanette’s father, Rex Walls. Emmy Award Winner Woody Harrelson as Rex — a character who, at the outset, appears similar to Harrelson’s previous role as the drunken Haymitch Abernathy in The Hunger Games — allows the audience to feel for him the way Jeanette does: with admiration as well as disdain.

Noami Watts, playing Jeanette’s mother, Rose Mary Walls, alongside Max Greenfield playing Jeanette’s fiancé, David, beautifully complement Larson and Harrelson’s performances. Sarah Snook, Josh Caras, and Brigette Lundy-Paine work together fabulously as Jeanette’s siblings, Lori, Brian, and Maureen, respectively. All of these characters, however, appear as background noise when compared to the centrality of the relationship between Jeanette and her father.

While the film deviates from the chronology and details of the events in the memoir, The Glass Castle still portrays Jeanette’s emotional journey as she comes to terms with her past and upbringing. Nevertheless, the film lacks the shock and horror present in the book. Some unbelievable aspects of Jeanette’s life seem too terrible and horrific to have occurred to an actual child. In the memoir, Jeanette recalls how, as a seven year old, a young boy attacked her with a BB gun and Child Protective Services threatened to take Jeanette and her siblings away from her parents who had left Jeanette and her siblings alone in the house when the BB gun shooting occurred — all events left out of the cinematic version by Cretton. The film, while depicting the hardship, missed the surreal tragedy which Jeanette Walls articulated so eloquently in her novel.

Perhaps the issue of inconsistency exists in all film adaptations of novels and memoirs. In comparison to the book, the emotions elicited by and the connections forged with the characters feel weak, average at best. The Glass Castle portrays a beautiful story and depicts a deep and meaningful message, but without the background of the memoir, the emotions elicited in the film appear slightly flat and surface-level. Nevertheless, one would not waste two hours and seven minutes watching The Glass Castle, if nothing more than to experience the nuanced and emotion-filled performances of the main cast.

Cretton’s direction allows the audience to experience the events in the film through the eyes of Jeanette. The beginning generates a sense of magic as they portray young Jeanette — played by the talented Ella Anderson — as naive, hopefully believing in her father’s promise to build her family a “glass castle.” As Jeanette matures, the background music darkens as she realizes the reality of her drunken father and the necessity to escape her family in order to accomplish any dream at all.

The inability to escape one’s past emerges as a theme in the early scenes and encompasses the entire film. Jeanette cannot escape the affection she feels for her father and his “Glass Castle,” nor can she escape the anger and burn she feels each time he returns to drinking. Jeanette attempts to conceal her past from those in her new life in New York, but the roughness of those experiences remains within her. Like the hidden scar across her torso from a burn she received as a child in a cooking accident, the harsh reality of her childhood secretly persists, only visible to those who know her best.

Cretton created a story of a daughter accepting her father and her past, and, after accepting the memoir as superior to the movie, one can begin to appreciate what The Glass Castle has to offer independent of the memoir. Just make sure to read the book at some point.

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