We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle directed by Stacie Passon (2018)
I have previously done The Haunting of Hill House book vs movie if you want to check that out! In this book there is a street called Hill Road which leads me to think both stories take place in the same universe…
On one hand, I like how this book gives you so much to think about. The story isn’t complicated, but there is so much symbolism and so many metaphors. It is one I had to think about and read about quite a bit in order to figure out what Jackson was saying. This certainly isn’t a surface level thriller/gothic story. So in that regard I would give it high marks. It wasn’t a book that I just couldn’t put down, and despite it being pretty short it did take me a few days to read because I was never in a rush to return to it.
I think this movie has good performances; however, I have complaints with the script and the direction this went in. Overall, it stays close to the book but it makes some seemingly minor changes, but those “minor” changes give the story a very different vibe and message then we had in the book. The book also had some dark humor, and I didn’t see any of that come through in the movie. Jackson seems like someone who had a morbid sense of humor at times, and this movie just takes itself so seriously.
From here on out there will be spoilers for both the book and movie!
Setting the story
So beginning with the first act, where we get a feel for the lives our characters are currently living, before someone changes their lives in act two.
I loved in the book how Merricat just tells us about her day going into town and there are rhymes kids yell at her that allude to her family being poisoned. We don’t get the full story until later when they have guests over, and one of the guests wants to hear all about the famous murders.
In the movie, early on we are told in voiceover that her sister Constance was tried and acquitted for the murder of their family. We then later also get the scene with the guest that is asking all of the questions. Since they kept the scene when the women come over for tea, why did they feel to include the exposition at the beginning? I would have preferred they kept it like the book where we just see Merricat and her interesting routine and her strange family, then over time we get the backstory.
We will get to the sisters, who of course are the main characters of the story, but first I wanted to talk about Uncle Julian. First of all, he was also poisoned with the intent of death, however he lived but is now an invalid. Parts with his character in the book are some of the scenes that were funny because of how he is obsessed with remembering the details of that dinner and what led up to it. The way he talks to Constance-the person he thinks tried to kill him and did kill his wife, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew-in a very normal way and telling her how she should have put the poison in some other dish for whatever reason, was amusing. He also has dementia though and has a hard time always remembering who everyone is and what has happened could also contribute to the strange way he talks to her. He doesn’t acknowledge Mary Kathrine because he believes she died in the orphanage while the trial was going on.
He doesn’t know (or does he?) that Merricat is actually the one that poisoned them, so it is interesting that for some other reason he believes she isn’t around.
A part that is in the book, and in the movie though only partly, that I liked was when he is talking about what he will write that day and says, “I shall commence, I think, with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie…I am going to say that my wife was beautiful.”
Later he is telling Constance that when he dies to give his papers to someone that can finish his work and he says he wants it to be, “some worthy cynic who will not be too concerned with the truth.”
In both, Julian dies in the end when the house catches fire.
Constance and Mary Katherine
To talk about the sisters, I want to just start with the fact that everyone thinks Constance is the one that poisoned her family but she knows that Mary Kathrine is actually the one that did it. She loves Merricat though and has never told anyone and never even talks to Merricat about it. She doesn’t even appear to be upset that she had to go through a trial and could have been put in prison for being blamed for something she didn’t do.
We know in the book that Merricat was often getting in trouble and being sent to bed without dinner and Constance talks about how she would sneak food to her. So it seems she has always wanted to help Merricat, even when it means appeasing her unhealthy desires such as allowing her to get away with murder.
Merricat also buries things and money in the ground as part of this kind of witchcraft she makes up. In the movie, she is reading a book about spells, but I’m pretty sure that in the book she was just making up her own stuff. But Constance is fine with Merricat’s strange ways. She doesn’t play along and her response is often, “Silly Merricat.” But she doesn’t chastise her.
Constance has become agoraphobic and so Mary Kathrine is the one that will go to town. Mary Katherine likes it this way and when the women come for tea and try to convince Constance to enter society again, Merricat gets very upset.
So this is the life the Blackwood’s are living, until their cousin Charles shows up. In the book Merricat hears him knocking and calling, but thinks he is some guy from town or someone who read about them. She runs to get some item for protection, and when she comes back Constance has let her in. In the movie, Merricat had gone to town and when she returns, he is there.
Charles breaks their routine and his outsider’s perspective brings attention to the strange way they live. He is annoyed and disgusted by Julian. He says he makes a mess when he eats, with food all over himself (a details we didn’t get when Merricat was describing life to us which shows that to her it was no big deal and nothing worth noting). He also thinks he should be in a hospital and it shouldn’t be Constance’s job to always take care of him. He also finds it morbid that Julian is always talking about the murders.
He does not like Merricat, partly because she does not like him, but he also is angry that she buries valuable things including money.
In the movie, they have this sexual tension between Constance and Charles, which I did not feel in the book at all. I thought the movie in general just had a lot of sexual tension that had not been in the book and I didn’t like that addition (like didn’t it seem like Mary Katherine was in love with Constance?? Or was I just reading her overprotectiveness wrong). But he woos her with talk of taking her to see the world basically.
In both, he is very focused on the safe and all of the money that is in there because their father hadn’t trusted the banks.
In the book, Merricat often refers to him as a ghost and tries to get rid of him. One evening she sees his pipe sitting on his side table and decides to start a fire with it. In the movie, before Charles noticed the fire, he had been attacked Merricat because he was angry with her. But he stops hurting her when he smells smoke. This was not in the book. He was verbally antagonistic towards her, but he was never physical with her in the book.
As the house is burning, the girls hide while the fire department comes to put it out. While they are getting the fire under control, the townspeople are saying how they should just let it burn. The main firefighter is doing his job though and not listening. However, once the fire is out, he picks up a rock and throws it through one of the windows and this spurs everyone else to threw rocks and go inside and ransack the place. They then find Mary Katherine and Constance and persecute them and ridicule them. Things come to an end when someone yells that Julian is dead and they all need to leave.
After the fire
In the movie, we just see like the following day or two. During which time, people from the town come and drop food off for them, with apologies for what they did. Charles also comes by, trying to manipulate Constance. He eventually breaks down the door and attacks Constance, when Mary Katherine hits him on the head and kills him.
In the book, people from town brought food to apologize but it was of the course of time. They also always came when it was dark because while they felt guilty and wanted to make amends, they didn’t want their neighbors to see.
Charles also comes back, but it seems like quite a bit of time has passed and he brings another guy with him. They hear him telling the guy about how they have so much money inside, and again he tries to manipulate Constance into opening the door but she doesn’t and he eventually leaves and that is that.
In the book we also see years down the road and how the Blackwood home because the local “haunted house” with all sorts of lore about the two women who live inside.
The truth of the murders
In the book and movie, Mary Katherine says something about how she will put death in the townspeople food and kill them to which Constance says like last time? In the book Merricat says yes, which is when we find out for sure that Merricat is the one that killed their family. Constance brings it up again the next day and apologizes for talking about it and says she will never mention it again.
In the movie, she says the thing about “like you did last time” and from here we find out that their father was physically abusive and that was why Merricat killed him and she killed the mother because she would allow it to happen and not stop him. It also seems implied that he was abusive to Merricat as well. This was not in the book at all.
Throughout the book (and movie), Mary Katherine is always telling Constance how she wants to take her to the moon and how great it will be. In the end, when they are more isolated than ever, Constance says she is happy and Merricat says, “I knew you would like it on the moon.” Mary Katherine has achieved her goal of living an isolated life with her sister.
Abusers often want to isolate the person they are manipulating, and so I think of Merricat as being controlling over Constance and manipulating her. She says she loves her, but often people are manipulative and abusive under the guise of love.
In the book I said Constance always called Merricat silly, but in the end of book and movie, Merricat says something like, “I wonder if I could eat a child?” (Because the townspeople have spread stories about how the witches in the house eat children). In the past, Constance would have dismissed her with a “silly Merricat”, but here, she is going along with it saying, “I don’t know how I would cook a child.” We see that she is “converted” to Mary Katherine’s ways.
Change’s to the sisters
The movie doesn’t play Merricat as a wicked child, as she is often referred to, but rather someone who is protecting her sister form the evil people of the town as well as their own family of course. I did not like this change at all. I also didn’t like Charles being physical with them and they then killing him. I think it makes the story obvious and basic to have them being victims of men who are physically abusive. I like the mystery in the book. We see that their father was very greedy and prideful and mean, but we also see that Merricat is kind of a strange kid so maybe she killed her family simply because she didn’t like them but not because they were evil people per ce.
In both, we get a scene where Mary Katherine is imagining a dinner with her family and in both they are saying how Merricat is their most loved daughter and she deserves whatever she wants and she will never be punished and how she never does anything that needs to be punished. In the movie, this came across as her wishing her father would have stopped being abusive but knowing that it wasn’t going to stop. In the book, I read this as Merricat having a delusional self-centered pride where she felt she should have been treated that way but wasn’t. Maybe in the book she has some kind of personality disorder where she has an inflated ego and feels people should love her more than anyone else and she should be always praised and never punished.
Having said this, in both she says how much she loves Constance and that she is the most precious thing to her. So it isn’t like she is a psychopath who is incapable of love…
Men and women/nature vs world
I think the women in this book-Mary Katherine and Constance, represent nature and the men-Charles and their father specifically, represent greed and worldly desires. Constance and Merricat are both connected to the earth, Merricat buries things for her spells, and Constance has a green thumb. While the men value money and status.
With the poisoning, we see the gender roles change and women are now running the house and the focus is no longer on wealth and their status. The townspeople had hated them because they were rich snobs, but now they hate them because there is murder in their family. They had been cut off from the town because they thought they were too good for the townsfolk, but now they are cut off from the town because the town fears them and they (at least Constance) fears the town.
Julian is the surviving man, but he is an invalid and he had been poor to begin with. That is why he was living with them, because he and his wife had spent their inheritance poorly and now had to live with his brother who had made wise investments and was still well off. Despite their wealth, they still were sticklers about how much Julian and his wife ate and how much their presence was costing them.
It is interesting that Merricat chose to include killing Julian and his wife as well as her own parents. But anyway, Julian becoming wheelchair bound and being subject to Constance’s care is a symbol of how the men have been “crippled” in the house and the women are now in charge.
Also, Charles showing up and messing up the order of things could be an example of how they are living their nature-oriented life, but then this worldly presence comes in and disrupts it all. One he is around, Constance also starts saying all the time about how it is all her fault and she shouldn’t have let things get to so bad-meaning them being so isolated, Merricat being a mess all the time, and Julian not living in a hospital. He brings an outside perspective and brings attention to the fact that they way they live isn’t normal.
The fire is interesting too because fire represents cleansing and purification, and the end of one thing and the start of another. In the book, she doesn’t even compare their house to a castle until the end, because the way the fire burned the top makes it look like a castle to her.
In both, they make clothing our of table clothes, but in the movie specially their new clothes are made from a white cloth. Having them now dressed in white also seems to symbolize their rebirth, their purity, and while I just said rebirth, it also is a ghostly look because they now become ghosts to the town.
Speaking of the town, I think it was an important detail in the book that the townspeople bring the food at night so others can’t see. Mob mentality and wanting to conform to what others think, lead them to all hate the Blackwood’s and ruin their home. Yet when they are isolated from each other, they all regret what they did. However, they can’t show their contrition in daylight for fear of being judged by the town.
That scene after the fire when they drag out the sisters, almost has a sacrificial feel to it. Like the sisters are being punished not for what they have done, but in a sacrificial way for what others have done. They are the scapegoats and so they pay the price. Yet maybe Julian is the real “sacrifice” since he is the one who dies and puts an end to their persecution.
Book vs Movie
While the movie is visually pleasing and the casting was fine, I did not like the change they made with why Merricat poisoned her family. I also didn’t like the changes with Charles. It is just so basic to turn it into a victimized woman revenge story essentially.
Initially, I wasn’t crazy about the book. But the more I think about it, the more I like it (and maybe even love it?) I prefer The Haunting of Hill House, but this one is definitely worth reading as well.
Also, I didn’t even get into Jonas the cat, but I would be curious to hear if anyone has thoughts on him like what he might symbolize. Or maybe he just symbolizes once again, Merricat’s connection to nature and that’s it. Let me know what you think!