Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Movie vs. Book: The Lottery


Director: Daniel Sackheim

How do you take a five page short story and turn it into an hour and a half TV movie? It’s a lot harder than you think, and The Lottery almost made it.

The Shirley Jackson story takes place in a small, two hour period, and focuses on just the event itself. The movie version has to extend it out. Added is the tale of Jason whose father has just died. On his deathbed, his father requested his ashes be scattered on his wife’s, Jason’s mother’s, grave. Only thing is, she died when Jason was five and he has no idea where. Two minutes of investigation, and he finds the name of a small town in Maine. Once there, all sorts of mystery surrounds the nature of her death. Was it sudden and violent the way his father said, pneumonia as some in the town say, or did the father murder her, as others claim? If you’ve read the story, you can see where it’s going from there. And wouldn’t you know it, but he just happens to show up the week of that year’s lottery.

It could have been more interesting if they’d focused on the event itself more and less on Jason. Yes, I understand his quest is needed to extend out the tale to 90 minute length. But instead of being a creepy and haunting little tale, you have exploding cars and an expectedly doomed love story. In fact, his love interest, the daughter of the woman eventually chosen by the lottery, has a long monologue defending the tradition, and her own throwing of stones at her mother. It explains way too much. In the story, you’re left wondering how people could be so comfortable with human sacrifice in this day and age. She explains it all away, and takes with her some of the great mystery that left you thinking once the story was over.

I guess if you’ve never read this story it might be a good movie. It was exciting, paced well, had believable performances and a decent script. The story for the movie was decent. However, knowing the story and knowing the quiet horror it created, The Lottery left me feeling sad. Not for the characters, but the lost charm of the story.

-- Jenny

BOOK: THE LOTTERY by Shirley Jackson

This short story is one of the classics of American literature. It is taught in schools, it has been anthologized throughout the world, and it is the defining work for an author who had an impressive body of writing, both fiction and nonfiction.
It is a character piece, but in this case the character is the town in which the lottery takes place. And by town, I am referring to the society, not merely the landscape or the local buildings. By focusing on the interactions between members of a small village Jackson manages to provide the reader with enough information to allow them to fill in the gaps in the story intuitively. While not giving complex sketches of the characters behind the names, the comments which come from them or the simple actions they take allow the reader to define them either by archetype or by substituting people the reader knows.
Once she has crafted a group of people who are on the whole very familiar and sympathetic, Shirley Jackson uses those people to deliver a message. As with much classic literature, exactly what message is being delivered is mercifully left to the reader. It might be that the mindless following of tradition is dangerous. Or that the individual has value outside of their simple contribution to the group. Or any one of a dozen other meanings.
It is a wonderful story, and it is one of the key horror stories of the twentieth century, particularly among those which aren't normally seen as horror like "Flowers for Algernon" or "The Nine Billion Names of God".
Five stars out of five.