On Jan. 18, when Lifetime debuts its original movie Flowers in the Attic, starring Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham, and Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka, prepare to see Twitter explode in a frenzy of nostalgic ecstasy. The V.C. Andrews book on which it’s based, first published in 1979, was an instant sensation — think The Hunger Games plus Twilight with a healthy helping of Fifty Shades of Grey — and has gone on to sell more than 106 million copies and be translated into 26 different languages. Generations of teens have been captivated by this gothic tale, still pretty scandalous all these years later: After the death of her husband, a beautiful young woman takes her four children back to her estranged parents’ estate in order to inherit a fortune. The catch? The children must stay hidden in an attic, where they end up being imprisoned for over two years. Their only contact with the outside world is a sadistic grandmother who psychologically and physically abuses them. And that’s not even the most prurient part! Trapped by circumstance, the eldest siblings fall in love, and their relationship eventually becomes sexual.
“[The book] wasn’t pitched to teens, but younger readers could feel like they were reading something forbidden,” explains Louise Burke, president and publisher of Pocket Books — which signed Andrews in 1979 and has remained sole publisher of Flowers and its four sequels (known collectively as the Dollanganger series). With the Lifetime movie bringing the novel back into the zeitgeist, Burke notes there’s already been a surge in e-book sales. There’s also a spiffy new cover that triumphantly proclaims it is “Now the Lifetime Movie Everyone’s Talking About!”
Indeed, from the moment the network announced its plans to turn Flowers into a TV movie, the book’s many fans took to every e-form possible in order to wax poetic. When its high-caliber cast was revealed along with a trailer clearly aimed at the bull’s-eye of a particular generation — set to Taken by Trees’ slowed-down cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” — expectations grew to a fever pitch. “The social-media reaction to this thing has been unprecedented,” says Rob Shernow, executive vice president and general manager of Lifetime. “We’ve never seen a Lifetime movie that’s had so much reaction and anticipation.” The network’s decision to make the film “was a complete no-brainer for us,” Shernow says. “It’s a project that hits all the sweet spots. I can’t believe no one had done it before.”
But of course someone had, sort of — a 1987 movie adaptation starring Kristy Swanson, Victoria Tennant, and Louise Fletcher has been much derided by fans over the years for, among other things, ignoring the icky-yet-fascinating romantic relationship between the siblings. Not so with Lifetime’s version, directed by Deborah Chow (The High Cost of Living), which hews closely to the original text.
If Flowers in the Attic (airing at 8 p.m.) proves to be a success, there are plenty more V.C. Andrews titles available for adapting: Her name is on 76 books. Yet, in an appropriately unusual twist, Andrews herself wrote only eight of them. Since her death from cancer in 1986, every Andrews title — almost always with a female protagonist, almost always involving some dark sexual secret — has been written by Andrew Neiderman. “Her style has become my style,” he says. Andrews had a less-than-easy life; she was forced to use crutches and a wheelchair throughout adulthood due to painful arthritis. Later on, she lived with her mother — by all accounts an imposing figure. (Fun fact for amateur Freudians: Andrews dedicated Flowers in the Attic to her mother.) But the author certainly had a lot of imagination and time to devote to sketching out ideas for other sagas that had enough characters and outrageous plots to extend over multiple books.
Neiderman, who also successfully publishes under his own name (The Devil’s Advocate, for example), shared an agent and editor with Andrews. “My wife read V.C. Andrews and was carrying on about it. I thought, ‘Why isn’t she carrying on about my books?'” he says with a laugh. He began his collaboration with the Andrews estate by completing the final book in her Dollanganger series, and then worked on the unfinished manuscripts in the Casteel series, which Andrews launched with two books, Heaven and Dark Angel. Over time, Neiderman learned how to match Andrews’ distinct tone, and he’s since produced 18 additional series under the V.C. Andrews name. (The latest book, The Unwelcomed Child, will be released on Jan. 21.) “I studied what she did,” he says. “It’s a recipe of different genres that are put together in a certain way. When I write as myself, it’s completely different. When I write [Andrews’ titles], I’m writing as she would write.” And Andrews’ longtime fans agree. “He really does get the sensibility,” says Burke. “[Readers] feel that he’s captured Virginia’s voice.”
Lifetime is no doubt pleased that there’s an ever-growing list of V.C. Andrews works to choose from: On Jan. 9, the network announced that it’s already developing Petals on the Wind, the sequel to Flowers in the Attic. “We’re trying to reinvigorate the movie brand. We’re trying to tap into that pop culture vein that is fresh and exciting and make something new,” says Shernow.
According to Neiderman, however, it’s Andrews’ timeless themes that keep readers coming back again and again. “Virginia said she was intrigued why people who were supposed to love each other hurt each other so deeply,” he says. “That resonates everywhere.”