We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Posted on June 26, 2019

We Have Always Lived in the Castle: Novel to Film

Dawn Keetley

In many ways, Stacie Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2018) is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel. Indeed, it is perhaps the most faithful Jackson adaptation to date –certainly more faithful than the three principal versions of The Haunting of Hill House, for instance (Robert Wise’s 1963 film, Jan de Bont’s 1999 film, and Mike Flanagan’s 2018 serial Netflix adaptation). In an interview, Taissa Farmiga (who plays Merricat Blackwood) explains “Part of the desire of everybody attached—the director, the producers and actors—was to stick as close as possible to the novel. And when we couldn’t, because things don’t always translate to the screen, we wanted to at least stay close to the essence of what the book is about.

The seemingly small ways in which Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle diverges from Jackson’s novel, however, make a significant difference. Indeed, they shift the terrain of the narrative entirely from the enigmatic and even weird  to the profoundly familiar. Passon’s film is still a very good film in its own right, but it simply doesn’t challenge and baffle its viewers the way that Jackson’s novel does.

The weird and enigmatic Merricat of Jackson’s novel

At the heart of Jackson’s novel are the Blackwood sisters, Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and Merricat, who live alone with their disabled, mentally scattered Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). Six years ago, the rest of the Blackwood family—Constance and Merricat’s father, mother, brother, and aunt—mysteriously died of arsenic poisoning at a family dinner. Julian survived. Constance was tried for the murder of her family and acquitted, although everyone in the town believes she is guilty. What we learn late in the novel, though, is that it was Merricat, twelve years old at the time, who poisoned her family. She put arsenic in the sugar because she knew that her beloved sister Constance did not use sugar. Why Merricat poisoned her family is the strange terrain that Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle explores. And the answer is  never entirely clear, although what is clear is that Jackson never gives us anything like a motive that would, from a normative perspective, either explain Merricat or justify her family slaughter.

Jackson’s Merricat shows herself to be angry, unruly, willful, and resistant to change. She is also violent, describing her hatred for the villagers she encounters in her twice-weekly trips to the village; she imagines them suffering and dead on the ground. She also seems obsessed with punishment. What does become clear is that her family punished her for her wild behavior—for roaming the grounds, burying objects, wielding her magic spells of protection around the sister she loves. Early on, Constance tells the one person who still visits the girls, a friend of her mother’s, that Merricat “was always in disgrace” and that she was a “wicked, disobedient child” (34). Later, in a scene that is crucial in illuminating her character, Merricat hides outdoors and fantasizes her parents talking about how she must never be punished, must never be sent to her bed without dinner; they tell Merricat’s brother to give her his dinner and insist that Merricat must always be “guarded and cherished” (96). One can only presume this is pretty much the opposite of how Merricat’s parents actually treated her.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Passon’s rendering of the scene in which Merricat fantasizes her parents; the terror on her face in this scene indicates Passon’s narrative of abuse

Jackson walks a fine line here. On the one hand, Merricat seems to have a primal intolerance for what seem to be quite acceptable forms of parental discipline. All we know for sure of Merricat’s past is that her parents punished her by sending her to bed without dinner. Merricat responds to these banal punishments with rage, and to the extent that she has a motive for killing her family, it seems to be precisely this intolerance for punishment.

There are also hints that Merricat was unfairly singled out by her parents because of her divergence from gender norms. There’s no sense that her brother—who spent at least some time, for instance, climbing trees—was subject to the same discipline as Merricat. He got to eat his dinner. Merricat is clearly not a beautiful, charming young woman like Constance, and she is not a boy like Thomas. Herein, perhaps, lies some of Merricat’s rage and some of her justification.

These justifications, though, do not dispel Merricat’s strangeness—her demonic energy, her predilection for magic and casting curses, her annihilating hatred of the villagers, her complete absence of guilt for poisoning her family. Jonathan Lethem, in the introduction to the recent Penguin edition, claims that the novel may lie in the “bad seed,” evil-child genre, and there is indeed something of Rhoda Penmark (from William March’s 1954 novel The Bad Seed) in Merricat. The latter wants quite different things from Rhoda, whose desires are conventionally feminine (a beautiful brooch, for instance), but Merricat has the same complete lack of compunction about pursuing, at whatever cost, exactly what she wants. What Merricat wants is to be alone with her cat Jonas and with Constance.

Taming Jackson’s Novel

Passon’s film captures some but by no means all of Merricat’s strangeness. We never see any sign, for instance, of Merricat’s burning hatred of the villagers, her desires to see them lying dead around her. Instead, from the beginning, Taissa Farmiga’s Merricat has something of the victim about her –and that is, ultimately, where Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle goes. The reason Merricat poisoned her family: their father was abusing Constance and herself. We don’t know for sure that it was specifically sexual abuse, but it’s strongly hinted.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Merricat at the diner with the hostile Jim Donnell

Early on, Passon makes Constance a sexual figure in a way she is not in the novel. When Merricat stops in the diner on her way back from her errands, she meets Jim Donnell (just as she does in the novel). In the novel, though, Jim is older and married and hostile to the Blackwoods, just as all the villagers are—because of the poisoning and because of the Blackwoods’ wealth and elitist scorn for the locals. In the film, though, we learn that Jim and Constance had been together and that Constance was planning on leaving with him—until, that is, Merricat told their father: “I told father. And father was powerful.” John Blackwood stopped the elopement and made sure Jim lost his car and his job.

The principal way in which the film differs from the novel, though, is that it unambiguously suggests that the Blackwood patriarch abused his two daughters. This is not a part of Jackson’s  novel, although it isn’t explicitly ruled out. The film’s interpretation of Merricat’s reason for  poisoning her family becomes clear after the sisters’ cousin, Charles Blackwood (Sebastian Stan), arrives at the house—something that happens in both novel and film. Also in both novel and film, he’s very clearly after the Blackwood money. He also, in both novel and film, seduces Constance—more powerfully in the film, in which Constance is more enamored of exploring the world beyond her village and the disrobed Sebastian Stan.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Charles attacks Merricat on the stairs as she tells “Father” to stop, under the portraits of “respectable” Blackwood men

Charles get uncannily positioned as the sisters’ father, as he sleeps in his room and starts wearing his clothes (again, in both novel and film). A crucial scene in the film, which is not in the novel, however, is when he tries to drag Merricat from the dinner table up to her room after she messes up his bedroom. As he pulls her violently up the stairs, Merricat starts screaming “Father, stop! No! Father, stop!” And here we see erupt, in an instant, the unmistakable aftereffects of a prior abuse.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Constance looks on in terror as Charles attacks Merricat

Later in the film, the sisters’ earlier abuse becomes even more visible when Constance says to Merricat, “He was wicked. He was a very wicked man, our father. He was very wicked to me.” She adds, “You saved me, my Merricat. . . . We’ll never talk about it again.” By contrast, Jackson never once attributes wickedness to John Blackwood; in fact, it is Merricat who is twice called wicked (34, 78).

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Constance and Merricat hide in fear when Charles comes back after the fire

If the point was not made clear by this point in the narrative, in a still more sensational divergence from the novel, after the fire that damages the Blackwood house, Charles not only comes back (which he does in the novel), but bursts into the house and grabs at Constance, knocking her on the kitchen floor. Constance starts screaming “No,” just as Merricat had done earlier—both scenes that repeat earlier abuse from their father’s reign over them. Merricat “saves” Constance again when she smashes Charles on the head and kills him. The sisters bury him. Earlier, when Charles was exerting his influence over Constance, Merricat had said, “Some terrible force has brought everything I’ve ever buried to the surface—like the opposite of a spell.”  When the sisters dig the hole for Charles, everything gets buried again. The sisters lives go on. As Merricat says at the end, “We put things back where they belong.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Charles Attacks Constance, in one of the most significant differences from the novel

I must stress again that Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is extremely good. The performances by the four leads (especially Taissa Farmiga) are great. And the writing is exceptional, making it difficult to tell which lines are Jackson’s own and which are the creation of writer Mark Kruger; they blend together seamlessly. The film is also visually beautiful. But the absolute strangeness of Jackson’s novel, of Jackson’s Merricat Blackwood, is rendered glaringly familiar. At the root of it all is an abusive father: Merricat killed the abuser and saved her sister and herself.

In a very intriguing choice, Passon begins the film with Merricat (who, in the novel, claims she likes only her sister, Richard Plantagenet, and deadly mushrooms) listening to a recording of Shakespeare’s King Richard III (the notorious son of Richard Plantagenet). We hear the scheming protagonist proclaim those famous lines: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stolen forth of Holy Writ / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil” (from Act I, Scene iii).  As viewers, we wonder who will be the film’s devil, clothed in sainthood. Perhaps it’s Constance? Merricat herself? Certainly the novel leaves us considering both of those options. But, in the film, it’s clear by the end that the devil is the patriarch. Everywhere the camera turns portraits and photographs show John Blackwood and his forebears looking the very epitome of respectability. But his respectability serves only to cloak a devil.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) walks down the stairs by the very “respectable” portraits of Blackwood patriarchs

You can stream We Have Always Lived in the Castle on Amazon:




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  • John Coleman January 30, 2021 at 3:50 am

    Just saw this movie a couple of days ago on Netflix and then the next day I read the book. Been looking for some sort of analysis and was happy to read this. Thanks for writing it and sharing it!

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