Glass Castle: Adapting to Big Screen Jeannette Walls Memoir

Jeannette Walls had been working for years as a New York columnist before she revealed her off-the-wall origins.

She had come to learn 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 on the road, rootlessly wandering from Southwestern desert towns to mountain campgrounds. Her whole family was in thrall to their father, Rex, a devilishly charismatic, 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.

Even when Jeannette left 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, selling more than 2.7 million copies and translated into 22 languages. 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 special way.

Notes Walls: “There had been some 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 approached “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 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.”


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