How does a filmmaker recreate a life? A life so complicated, untraditional and free-spirited that it was difficult for me to even visualize it in written form.
As I headed to the theater to watch Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ memoir “The Glass Castle,” I assumed that it simply couldn’t be done. After all, Walls’ life was so extraordinary that I believed the film would inadequately portray it.
With any recreation, naturally there would be some aspects left out. So yes, there were moments when Walls’ story didn’t line up with the movie. Critical scenes from the book were not mentioned, moments or events were rearranged and actors were perhaps improperly cast for their part, but Cretton did something quite remarkable: he managed to capture the emotion and energy of the human spirit.
The film opens with a desert scene, the Walls family packed in their beat up car, driving down the empty road. It reflected exactly the type of environment Walls explained, an adventurous family exploring the wilderness.
Walls’ parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), had a different approach on parenting that significantly influenced their children. They disregarded the traditional ways of raising a family—rather than sending their children to school and having steady jobs, they were carefree roamers who weren’t tied down.
Rex was a dreamer who used his imagination and intelligence to inspire his children. When they would question why they weren’t attending school each day like most kids, Rex would say, “You learn from living, everything else is a damn lie.”
Harrelson cast as Rex could not have been a more perfect fit. He not only appeared as the loving fatherly figure, but he also managed to simultaneously capture the short-tempered alcoholic that Walls described. Harrelson’s acting allowed the audience to witness his psychotic characteristics, and see the abusive way in which he treated his children over time. His body language and his movements showed aggression and power. It was intriguing to watch his behavior, but, it also made you feel sympathetic for the children.
Rose Mary was not able to balance out Rex’s aggressive qualities. She would keep to herself while her children would struggle, making her a rather disappointing character in the film. She didn’t do anything to stand out, and in most scenes it was as if she wasn’t even present. Watts’ acting caused the audience to become frustrated at her, because she showed no compassion towards her kids. For instance, when their house contained no food, the youngest children would eat sticks of butter and sugar to fill their stomachs, and she wouldn’t do anything to help. This related to her apathetic personality in the book, however, it was not any more enjoyable to watch on the screen than it was to read. But, in terms of Watts’ acting, she was spot on as it was necessary for her to take the role of an unlikeable character.
The movie switched back and forth from when Jeannette was a young girl, to a grown adult, making the character development that much more interesting. The audience would watch her struggle as a child, feeling as if her voice was not heard and that she was trapped in her own family. Then these feelings of hopelessness were contrasted by scenes showing the successful woman she had become.
The film had a hopeful message to all of those who struggle with abusive parents or dysfunctional families. At many times, it’s difficult to look past the unhealthy qualities of people you’re close with. But once you do, you’re able to show unconditional love for them.
As with all adaptations from books to movies, several important details were omitted or scenes were altered. When the Walls’ family moved to Welch, VA, Jeannette was invited by a Black classmate to go swimming at the community pool during the time of day that was allotted for just Blacks to use the pool. This scene in the book reflected race issues occurring during this time period. However, Cretton chose not to expand on the idea in the film, perhaps deeming it to be unimportant. Including commentary on racism would have made the movie stronger as it would have added more historical information and perspective to the film. Though it wasn’t necessary to include all aspects of the book, it’s disappointing to recall specific scenes and then not see them present in the movie.
Despite some aspects of the book not included, the overall performance from each actor made up for that. The audience witnessed the character buildup as they watched the characters change when the film progressed.
At the end of the film, the screen filled with photos and videos of the Walls’ family in real life. This made the film more sentimental as it caused the audience to remember that all the events that were present in the film, both positive and negative, were based on real documentations of someone’s life.