The blockbuster 1979 novel may finally get a movie version that's scandalous enough for its most fervent fans

By Sara Vilkomerson
November 15, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

Nearly 30 years before books like Twilight and The Hunger Games caused a YA sensation, teenagers everywhere were captivated by V.C. Andrews’ 1979 novel, Flowers in the Attic. It sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, and became the scandalous book for a generation of young women to pass around at slumber parties. The plot would make even Katniss Everdeen shudder (decades-old-spoiler alert!): In order to make sure she inherits a fortune from her wealthy father, a mother locks her four children away in an attic for over two years, leaving them to endure horrific abuse at the hands of their sadistic grandmother. Not gothic enough for you? Read on: During the imprisonment, elder siblings Cathy and Chris develop romantic feelings for each other — and eventually a sexual relationship.

A 1987 movie adaptation of the novel starring Kristy Swanson, Victoria Tennant, and Louise Fletcher disappointed fans (even as it delighted lovers of camp) with its deviations from the deviant behavior, including a complete omission of the incestuous relationship. But good news, V.C. Andrews purists: A new production of Flowers in the Attic — starring Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka, Heather Graham, and Ellen Burstyn, and airing on Lifetime on Jan. 18 — promises to go there. “The script is faithful to the book,” says director Deborah Chow (The High Cost of Living). “The biggest complaint about the first movie is how they changed the story. I think the feeling was, if we’re going to do this again, then it should be what it was.” To put it less delicately: “Will there be incest? Yes,” says Mason Dye, who plays Chris. “We stay very true to the book.”

Finding an age-appropriate Cathy for such age-inappropriate behavior was tricky. “Casting too old was one of our biggest concerns. We were so fortunate with Kiernan because she really is 13,” says Chow (the actress has since turned 14). “But she has this maturity to her that makes it not feel ridiculous. She’s been schooled by Matthew Weiner and Mad Men — you’re not going to get a better foundation. And after all, she’s been doing this since she was 6.” Indeed, Shipka shrugs off all concern about handling the material. “When it comes down to it, everything is just acting,” she says. “It’s not my real life. I can separate the two.”

Less able to compartmentalize, however, is Oscar winner Burstyn, who says that playing the ruthlessly cruel grandmother has wreaked more havoc on her psyche than she imagined it would. “I find it really hard,” she says. “At the end of the day, I’m totally drained — I’ve been sleeping 11 hours a day!” Burstyn first read the book only after she signed on to the project. “There’s an erotic charge that happens while stepping over the line in regards to taboos. Breaking them really causes discomfort and fascination,” she says. “While reading it I was thinking, ‘This isn’t high literature, but I sure can’t put it down.'”

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