Shirley

shirleySTARS2It’s now considered a classic, but when Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery was originally published in the New Yorker back in 1948 it was extremely controversial. Readers called it “outrageous,” “gruesome,” and “utterly pointless”. Most people were confused by the fable. In a similar fashion, this movie appears to seek the same reaction from viewers.  Shirley unfolds like one of her tales.

Shirley is a completely fictionalized biography of the acclaimed American writer.  Shirley Jackson was an actual person.  The author is well known for horror and mystery.  The Lottery became one of the most frequently anthologized short stories in English.  It’s essentially mandatory reading in the U.S. curriculum so chances are you were forced to read it in school.  That’s not a dig. I agree it’s an effective composition that evokes dread, but * full disclosure * my introduction to it was involuntary.   Another work of hers includes The Haunting of Hill House which has been adapted to film in both 1963 and again in 1999.

Shirley, however, isn’t really about anything that concerns those contributions.  Actually, the facts of this story are a humorous detail.  The movie, directed by Josephine Decker, is adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell.  In what I assume was an innovative attempt to make the career of Shirley Jackson more interesting, her life and that of her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) has been reimagined.  Jackson is suffering from depression, unable to write.  She rarely leaves her bedroom.  Stanley invites a couple — Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) — to come to live with them in North Bennington to help out.  This situation inspires Jackson to write a book.  There is some validity.  Shirley was a married author who released a novel called Hangsaman.  The screenplay fictitiously envisions that piece was inspired by this arrangement.  However, the rest of the narrative including the very existence of this couple is made up.  I’m all for creative license, but why in this case?  Was the truth even more dreary?  If the writers had been a slave to authenticity perhaps there might be some excuse for the banality of this tale. Yet this is a complete fabrication where the writer could have created any number of scenarios in which to delight the audience.  The fabrication they chose didn’t do it for me.

Shirley is such a bizarre film because it seems to eschew the basic qualities that make a captivating picture.  The central protagonist isn’t likable, it moves at a snail’s pace and nothing particularly exciting happens.  Elisabeth Moss conspicuously goes the actorly route by sporting unkempt hair and a pair of unflattering spectacles.  How closely her behavior matches the real author is not something I am qualified to review.   I know what I find entertaining, however, and this ain’t it.  I’ll concede that Moss is good.  She perfectly affects a decidedly unique personality so her achievement is effective on that level.  A devotee of the author could easily imagine that the actual woman might be a dark person.  However, in this portrait, she isn’t a subject that you’d want to construct an entire production around.

An amusing addendum.  I recognize that Shirley Jackson’s most famous work was originally published in the New Yorker in 1948.  That esteemed magazine was a pioneer in giving the author significant attention.  The periodical could well be considered her very first fan.  That “weekly” publication (47 times annually) still exists and continues to review films as well.  Their numerical assessment of this movie?  40/100 according to Metacritic.com.  Ouch! And I thought I was being harsh.

06-09-20

2 Responses to “Shirley”

  1. I remember “The Lottery”, growing up. Even saw the short film, twice, in school. It terrified me. The movie was not very good. 2 stars

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    • I saw that film in school too! The 18-minute short originally came out in 1969. I like that it’s very faithful to the book. Shirey Jackson fans should seek that out to watch instead. (It’s on YouTube)

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