”In a sense we set out to create a moving picture photo album of their memories. I hope it’s an honest portrait, a moving portrait and ultimately a portrait of how complicated, yet simple and powerful, love is.”
Every family has a story, but none quite like that of renowned celebrity gossip columnist Jeannette Walls, unveiling the deeply guarded secret she’d long kept of her childhood in The Glass Castle: a wildly gothic coming-of-age amid poverty, disaster, rebellion and estrangement from society that has now been adapted into a film by Hawaiin-born writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter Andrew Lanham.
“That’s the magic of storytelling — if one person is willing to be brave and tell their story, then that allows other people to be honest. I think there’s incredible value in coming to terms with your story, and I hope that the telling of my story will encourage other people to revisit their own.” –Jeannette Walls
Yet perhaps most amazing about Walls’s book, harrowing as it was, is its sense of deep family love, a love as vast and magical as her parents were strange and inexplicable. It allowed her to turn her youth into a grand adventure and an empowering journey towards redemption. Careening from hunger and crisis to starlit nights of enchantment, Walls found all the light and darkness of the world.
Chronicling the adventures of an eccentric, resilient and tight-knit family, The Glass Castle is a remarkable story of unconditional love. Oscar® winner Brie Larson brings Jeannette Walls’s best-selling memoir to life as a young woman who, influenced by the joyfully wild nature of her deeply dysfunctional father (Woody Harrelson), found the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.
The book burst onto the literary scene and spent seven years on the bestseller list, captivating readers with its gripping story of a nomadic clan living by their parents’ passionately held if reckless rules. At the heart of its allure was Walls’s determination to survive, to get out and make her own life, but without letting go of the complicated affection she felt for two parents whose wildness was at once full of wonderment and a catastrophe. Walls’s book was the opposite of a lurid tell-all. Instead it was a love story, one full of cracked hearts, broken promises and unseen need, yet also one that dug to the bottom of how sustaining and transcendent love can be, no matter who you are or where you are from.
The story already played like cinema: a fairy tale spanning a life lived in cars and shacks to the heights of New York publishing. It’s something co-screenwriter and director Destin Daniel Cretton keyed into as soon as he read it. But Cretton, who broke out with the much-admired indie Short Term 12, also saw the story as relatable by anyone who has been both troubled and enlivened by their family.
“Destin, from the beginning, saw all the light, the happiness, the joy and the lessons, and he brought that,” Jeannette says. “He hasn’t whitewashed anything. He hasn’t left out the bad things. They’re all there. His script captured exactly what I tried to do with the book: to show the beauty and the ugliness, the bright and the dark of my childhood.”
Cretton explains his affinity for the book: “This is such a personal story to Jeannette, when I read it, it felt incredibly personal to me, too. My upbringing was not as crazy as hers, but I related to her exploration of love and its many facets and the way that families can have both beautiful times, and difficult, scary times. It felt real and relatable and so cathartic. It’s one of those stories that makes you feel more connected and not so alone in the world.”
He and co-screenwriter Andrew Lanham also saw it as a story of a highly successful, seemingly settled woman, the adult Jeannette, who must return to the muck and mire of her family history in order to reconcile her future. “We focused in on the idea of a young woman who is filing through her memories, trying to make sense of her life so far, and to finally make peace with the past and her parents. Ultimately, it is the story of a woman learning to love and accept herself,” says Cretton.
Cretton found Walls’s ability to openly wonder about her parents’ truly extreme behavior, yet still have overwhelming compassion for them, especially powerful, and something he had to underline the entire production. “Every page of Jeannette’s book shows another side of these incredibly complicated characters and their relationships to each other. One moment you’re falling in love with a character, but then they do something to make you hate them, and then you turn the page and love them again. It’s all so deeply human.”
For Walls, Cretton had hit upon the one idea she felt had to come out of any screenplay adaptation: that her family, disorderly and difficult as it might be, reflects as much as any our universal human urge to hold tight to our loved ones no matter how much it tests us. Since publishing her book, she has found that many more people than she even imagined took that to heart.
“One the many blessings of having told my story in the book is that people not only get it, they sometimes get it even more than I do,” says Walls. “There are so many people out there with stories that, while not identical to mine, share something essential in common. In telling this story of both great hardships and great abundance, I not only reconnected with this childhood that I tried to pretend did not exist for a long time; I also connected with other people.”
Another person Walls’s story hit home with is Oscar® winner Brie Larson (Best Actress, Room, 2015), who portrays her as a young woman in The Glass Castle. Says Larson: “This is a story about family, about how you become the person you are and about accepting the fact that people don’t always love you in the way you need but you can forgive them. It’s very rare to be able to watch someone like Jeannette move from childhood into adulthood, seeing all the missed connections and moments that were misunderstood, and then to see her have the chance to regain some of what was lost. I really wanted to do right by her and her story.”
As time has passed, Walls feels even more strongly that the raw beauty of love can be found in nearly ever family, and every family has a story to tell. “Some people have accused me of being overly optimistic, but that’s how we survive our tough times, looking for the joy, because otherwise it might kill you,” she concludes. “That is why we tell stories. If we can share with one another the lessons of our survival – how on earth did you get through that? – then everyone feels they can get through it, too. If people leave the theaters thinking about their own family, I’ll be ecstatic.”
The Story Behind The Story
Jeannette Walls had been working for many years as a New York columnist before she revealed her remarkably off-the-wall origins to anyone. She had come to learn by then that the heightened trials and tribulations she faced growing up were light-years outside the mainstream.
Her parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, fiery free spirits disdainful of all institutions from employers to schools, didn’t want it any other way, though their children would suffer mightily at times from their derelict ways. Walls spent her early years literally on the road, rootlessly wandering from Southwestern desert towns to mountain campgrounds without ever calling anywhere home. Her whole family was in thrall to their father, Rex, a devilishly charismatic, sometimes brilliant, self-taught man who, when sober, captured his children’s imaginations, teaching them science, showing them the world’s wonders and above all, exhorting them to embrace life fearlessly. Their mother Rose Mary, a bohemian painter and self-proclaimed “excitement addict” was equally charming, but even less committed to the responsibilities of caring for a family.
Both parents believed in creating their own way of life, even if it meant being materially impoverished. When the money completely ran out and the romance of the wandering life started to fade, the family retreated to a declining West Virginia mining town, moving into the ramshackle house that would become the alter-ego of “the glass castle,” the amazing, solar-powered fantasy house that Rex Walls always promised he would build. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her siblings were increasingly forced to fend for themselves, supporting one another in their ingenious bids for their own survival, and encouraging one another to one day make their big escape.
Yet even when Jeannette did make her getaway, leaving Appalachia behind to become a writer in the big city, she could not really cut herself off from her family. The more she pursued her own life and relationships, the more she realized she had to come to grips with what the Walls family had been through together, all that she had seen on the margins of American society.
That’s when Walls began writing, an event that came full circle when the adult Jeannette’s reconciliation became the center of the film adaptation. The book’s success was extraordinary, garnering awards, selling more than 2.7 million copies and being translated into 22 languages.
Adapting the Book
The Glass Castle first came to Destin Daniel Cretton via Oscar®-nominated producer Gil Netter (Best Picture – Life of Pi, 2012; The Blind Side, 2009), who intuited that Cretton might be able to get inside Jeannette Walls’s story in a way no prospective filmmaker had with co-writer Andrew Lanham.
Notes Walls: “There had been some early attempts at adaptation, but it was just not working out. At one point, I was advised that my book, as written, could never be made into a movie, that we’d have to make so many sacrifices, it would be an entirely different story. At the time, I settled on the notion that I might be able to live with that, but I still felt that even if a screenplay was not entirely faithful to my book, it should at least capture the essence of the book.”
Unsure of how things might progress, Walls says she was waiting for a miracle. “Well, that miracle happened for me, and it was named Gil Netter,” she says. “Gil got his hands on my book and made it all happen. He moved mountains, or in some cases, made sure that the mountains didn’t move. He is the one responsible for pushing this beast into existence and as it turns out, one of the most important and brilliant decisions that Gil made was getting Destin aboard.”
Cretton wanted to approach The Glass Castle not as a story of outrageous family dysfunction, but as one of the power of unconditional love. He didn’t see the Walls family as off-the-scale curiosities, but as sympathetic, fascinating, somewhat broken human beings like the rest of us. “I think that’s what the most successful storytelling does,” says Walls. “It takes down the barriers that so often we erect, thinking ‘Oh, I’m not like those people. They’re kind of weird.’ When you take down those barriers then you get all these deep emotional connections.”
Breaking down those barriers is why Cretton decided to start the adaptation with Jeannette in her mid-20s, just as events push her to piece together her history, to open her scarred heart to a series of vivid flashbacks. “That’s something I did in my 20s and it’s something lots of people do at that age. Whether it’s their first time seeing a therapist or taking that ‘Intro to Psychology’ class, it’s often a time to look back and see how you got where you are now and how your family impacted you. Everyone has that moment when you try figure out what made you who you are and how to reconcile the discord in your family with the love you feel for them. That’s where we find Jeannette.”
It was always essential to Cretton that Jeannette be 100% behind the project. Walls says she trusted him implicitly as they embarked on intense conversations about the nature of love, family, art and storytelling. “Destin is magical,” comments Walls. “He is the kindest, gentlest, most empathetic human being I’ve met. But you can’t let that kindness and that sensitivity fool you. The man has a mind like a steel trap. Destin sees everything. He sees the light and dark in all things, and that was so important. I always felt this story must not be an entirely dark story—but you also wouldn’t want to paint over the unsettling parts and make it an entirely light story. Destin has all the skills to mix both shades.”
Cretton notes that he did not attempt to create a perfect facsimile of the Walls’s lives or of her book, but rather present their story as a mirror of American family life. “This is storytelling, not the documentary truth, but hopefully, by adding new dimensions to Jeannette’s story, we are creating something fresh that can be enjoyed and embraced by a whole new group of people,” he says.
“Jeannette’s book touched so many people, and we definitely wanted to make The Glass Castle for everyone who loves the book, but we also wanted to make this movie for the Walls family. In a sense we set out to create a moving picture photo album of their memories. I hope it’s an honest portrait, a moving portrait and ultimately a portrait of how complicated, yet simple and powerful, love is.”