The Inverted Fairy Tale of We Have Always Lived in the Castle


Merricat, Constance, and Charles at dinner (probably thinking about poison)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson’s last novel, is one of my favorite books. I got to teach it this semester, and it was such a joy to dig into the quirky dark humor of the book with interested students.

A short novel, it tells the tale of two reclusive sisters, Merricat and Constance Blackwood, and their invalid uncle Julian who has been a bit addled ever since he was poisoned six years ago (escaping the fate of the rest of the Blackwoods, who all died that night from arsenic in the sugar). Though Constance was acquitted of murder, the villagers still suspect her, and she remains painfully agoraphobic. It isn’t until their smarmy cousin Charles, clearly after the Blackwood fortune, arrives that their orderly way of life is turned on its head.

The richness of the story doesn’t lie in its plot. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward tale with a mystery that is easily solved early on. But the mystery isn’t what the story is really about. Its beauty lies in Jackson’s masterful articulation of these peculiar characters, the way the mundane becomes magical, the wry, dark humor of their oddness. Everything is infused with richer meanings, from the trinkets and totems that Merricat buries or the book she nails to a tree as a spell of protection, to the endless jars of fruit preserves that line the walls of the cellar, a culinary history of the Blackwood women.

One of the most interesting elements of the story is the way it is told: coming from the perspective of disturbed possible sociopath Merricat, eighteen-going-on-twelve. It’s an inverted fairy tale about the haunted house on the edge of town, inhabited by two witches who frighten the town’s children, but it’s told from the perspective of the witches themselves and shows us how the house became haunted in the first place.

With all of this richness to the story itself, I had high hopes for the film adaptation, which was finally released yesterday (May 17). And since I could not help but judge the movie on its faithfulness to the sardonic darkness of the novel, I was thrilled to find that director Stacie Passon effectively captured Jackson’s tone.

First, the characters: I thought the casting was perfect. Taissa Farmiga embodies the weird, frantic whimsy of Merricat and in her posture communicates the simmering anger at the disruption of her routine. Alexandra Daddario is the perfect Constance, with her increasingly desperate smiles as she hopes to keep everything together. Sebastian Stan was a competent Charles, but I really loved Crispin Glover as Uncle Julian and found each of his scenes to be an absolute delight.

Though there are several elements added to the movie, it was a remarkably faithful adaptation of the book, perhaps one of the most faithful book adaptations I’ve seen in recent memory. Even the minor additions to the tale made perfect sense in the context of the story and did not feel out of place. The small licenses the movie took with the story also made sense for the medium in which it was being told, which is inherently different from a novel, as I had wondered how the simple plot would translate to the screen, with most of the characters’ tensions existing internally. I thought they amped up some of the external tensions just enough.

I can understand criticisms of the movie from those who are not familiar with the source material, suggesting that it was slow or flat, and I think these criticisms have merit. But I cannot help but see the movie through the lens of its source material, and as an adaptation of one of my favorite books of all time, it was exactly what I had hoped it would be. I am on the moon. And here on the moon, all of our adaptations show great care and concern for the source material.

Oh, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I am so happy.

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Categories: Reviews

2 comments

  1. Loved the book and look forward to seeing the movie. Thanks for the great review

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