‘The Glass Castle’ adapts best-selling memoir to screen with tame storytelling

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"The Glass Castle" | Lionsgate

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Jeannette Walls had a rough, unusual childhood. Shuttled by her parents from one abandoned home to another, she grew up waiting in vain for her father to build the “glass castle” he so often promised.

Her story is well-known — Walls’ memoir is a New York Times bestseller. And now, we have a film adaptation as well, helmed by Destin Daniel Cretton. “The Glass Castle” adapts Walls’ unforgettable memoir to provide a universal perspective on an unconventional tale. But in its approach there lies the undeniable truth that the onscreen version does not live up to the potential of its source material.

Cretton’s directing style cuts back and forth between Walls’ childhood in the ‘60s and ‘70s and adulthood during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — a narrative strategy that helps us navigate the ways in which Walls’ past experiences affect her in the future and aids in preserving her voice as an author.

In addition, the structure allows for space to witness and reflect upon the influential experiences that Walls’ character endures both as a child and as an adult — as a teenager trying to cure her father from alcoholism, and as an adult, continuing to lie about her parents’ whereabouts to her colleagues. Throughout this process, we see her grow both in her curiosity and intellect in her younger years, and her independence and ambition when she’s older.

Brie Larson gives a dedicated, emotive performance as Jeannette Walls — the same kind of impressive work that netted her an Oscar for “Room” — and when coupled with Woody Harrelson’s chilling performance as Rex, Larson’s portrayal lends itself to a complicated, dynamic father-daughter relationship on which the film thrived. Larson and Harrelson expose in their work the complexities of a relationship that is fueled by anger as much as it is by love, much to the benefit of viewers hoping to understand the two characters on a deeper level.

In her adulthood, Walls is a New York City socialite and columnist — a far cry from her rough-and-tumble childhood. Although the film adequately illustrates her growth, it also downplays some of the harsher realities she faced, realities which readers of the book would recognize as formative. The film is determined to cover the contrasts between Walls’ past and future experiences but does not adequately address the intense, and sometimes graphic,  moments that cause the shifts in her life.

It’s hard to deny that the film swings toward a more lighthearted tone than the one the memoir actually conveys. This is a missed opportunity; what made “The Glass Castle” memoir so memorable in the first place was its weight and its author’s willingness to be vulnerable.

The original work contained anecdotes that — while daunting and unnerving — showcased a narrative that brought readers of Walls’ book into her world and experiences. The film’s buoyant tone subdues the intensity of the story’s events, and as a result, the impact on the characters is often lost along the way.

It’s true that Larson and Harrelson cover the general ground of the conflicts and resolutions in the book: homelessness, feelings of neglect, starvation and ultimate forgiveness. But Cretton refuses to delve deeper into the story’s complexity and richness — leaving the cinematic depiction of Walls’ life feeling surface-level and not as unique or compelling as the book illustrates.  

In its entirety, “The Glass Castle” respectfully produces a cinematic recreation that honors Jeannette Walls’ story and those who are in it, but it fails to go above and beyond this mission. Nevertheless, it not only sheds light on the trauma she faced and its repercussions, but also highlights the importance of her ability to admit her past feelings of shame and develop a willingness to forgive. Despite its unconventional story, “The Glass Castle” brings to light the general, yet common situations of familial conflict and self-acceptance that audiences can hopefully find a connection with.

Contact Maybelle Caro at [email protected].