Twelve years ago, readers across the nation became enamored with Jeannette Walls and the band of unconventional misfits she calls family, who come to life in her 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle, cataloguing the former journalist’s rough-and-tumble childhood.
The book’s early pages recall one of the author’s first memories—catching on fire while cooking hot dogs on the stove at just 3 years old, resulting in third-degree burns across her torso. Though the account of this traumatic memory is brief, the incident explains a lot about Walls’s childhood and the laissez-faire parenting that marked her development.
Naturally, there’s more to the Walls family than the apparent neglect this chapter describes. While Jeannette’s parents take the road less traveled in terms of raising a family, the memoir never fails to highlight the love between the members of the Walls brood, making for a read both touching and nuanced.
Over a decade has passed since The Glass Castle rose to the top of the bestseller list, cementing itself as a book club go-to for years to come. And today, the big-screen adaptation, starring Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, and Woody Harrelson, hits theaters. According to Walls, talks about a film adaptation began soon after the memoir’s release, but the reality of bringing the beloved work to the silver screen was hardly a simple process.
“I was just delighted for any movie to be made—I didn’t care if it was any good or not,” Walls explained during a discussion at the Whitby Hotel in N.Y.C. on Wednesday. “And then some scripts came in and I was like ‘Hmm… Rethink that policy!’”
When it came to finally turning her story over, she entrusted producer Gil Netter, whose previous credits included the film adaptation of Life of Pi. “I figured if he knew how to make a movie about a Bengal Tiger and an Orangutan in a boat, then he would know how to make a movie about my family,” Walls joked of the collaboration.
Of course, before The Glass Castle was a movie, or even a memoir, it was just Walls’s life—a pivotal chapter she’d kept to herself for decades.
“It’s something I tried to write about when I was younger—when I was in my 20s and 30s,” Walls said, “and I’d write a couple hundred pages and throw it away. It was really my mother challenging me to just tell the truth, but also my husband pulled the truth out of me. He thought I was exaggerating. When I first told him about my childhood he was like ‘Alright, whatever…’ but then he met my mom, and he was like, ‘Oh, this is really complicated, but you must write this story.’ I wrote the first version in six weeks, and it was really bad. I spent five years re-writing it, trying to be honest, and part of being honest is finding your voice. “
However simple it may seem, Walls insists that finding that inner honestly has been a great challenge.
“You have to really clear your mind and think ‘What really happened, and how did I really feel about it?’ Once you write something, you kind of own it, and it doesn’t affect you the same way. It’s extremely cathartic and I highly recommend it for anyone considering it—but you have to be fearless about it, you can’t worry about what anyone’s going to think about it. You have to take my mother’s advice and just tell the truth. If there’s something so horrible and so painful that you cannot imagine putting it down in words, that means you must."
The writer continued: "You confront it and say ‘Am I being honest? No, I need to go a little deeper.’ My husband was the one who said, ‘You’re not being honest there, you’re being superficial, go a little bit deeper.’ I don’t want to say it doesn’t affect me, because obviously it does—we’re all a little dinged up, we all have issues from our past—but the trick is not pretending that you don’t have those issues. It’s kind of owning them.”
In addition to the catharsis afforded by committing her memories to the page, Walls says the reader (and now viewer) feedback has been incredibly rewarding.
“For so long I just felt trapped in this. Nobody will understand, it’s kind of shameful ... And then when one person tells a story, it opens up other people to tell stories, and that to me is why we tell our stories—it’s for those emotional connections, so we’re not alone. There are so many people that come up to me and say, ‘The details of our lives are different, but you and I have a lot in common.’ One of the people who came up to me after a screening, she looked so fabulous—she was all Neiman-Marcused-out, and she had diamonds on her hands ... and she goes, ‘Girlfriend, you and I could be sisters’—and you know, that’s what it’s about. It’s about these bonds, these emotional bonds.”
For Walls, seeing her life in movie-form has allowed her memories and feelings toward her childhood to take on a new dimension, which includes the guilt she held in connection with her siblings—particularly her youngest sister Maureen, who now suffers from schizophrenia.
“A lot of people said ‘How can you forgive your parents?’ and the person I forgive is myself, because we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and have to make some tough choices to get by,” Walls explained. “I think of myself as selfish, and that was one of the transformative things about watching this movie, was seeing Brie Larson make these tough choices. I loved her and was rooting for her in a way that I never loved or rooted for myself, so it was kind of magnificent. I thought people would really hold me in contempt when I told my story, and they don’t. And I think we’re our own toughest critics sometimes. Being a survivor, you do carry around survivor’s guilt.”
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Now that she’s seen the adaptation in full, Walls is pleased with the results.
“I was overjoyed,” she said. “They didn’t gloss over the weird, ugly stuff, but they also didn’t ignore the joy. One of the reviewers wrote ‘jagged joy,’ and I just loved that. It was raw—there was pain and there was joy and there was agony. There was hurt and there was redemption ... There’s all of those things—it’s life.”
The Glass Castle opens in theaters nationwide today.