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Shirley Jackson’s Influential Short Story ‘The Lottery’ Finally Heads to the Big Screen

There seems to be a renewed fascination in Jackson’s unnerving feminist texts, but these adaptations should live up to her legacy.
Shirley Jackson The Lottery
By  · Published on July 26th, 2018

There seems to be a renewed fascination in Jackson’s unnerving texts, but these adaptations should live up to her legacy.

Between the steady influx of laudable Stephen King adaptations and fantastic original prestige horror entries that have graced screens in the last year or so, the rise of the horror movie has caused a noticeable ripple effect in Hollywood. The genre’s current eminence has also brought another noteworthy name in the genre to the forefront of the entertainment industry. Shirley Jackson’s groundbreaking brand of brooding psychological horror has been no stranger to the world of adaptation in the past. However, her work — even her very persona as a whole — is increasingly finding new life on screen of late.

So far, we’ve got Stacie Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (which was initially put into development in 2009 before stalling), Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House, and a fictionalized take on Jackson to look forward to. Now, one of Jackson’s most well-known short stories, “The Lottery,” will head to the big screen for the first time ever.

According to Deadline, Paramount Pictures – the studio responsible for co-producing modern horror hits such as 10 Cloverfield Lane and A Quiet Place – is doubling down on its scary movie repertoire with The Lottery. Jake Wade Wall (who wrote the 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls) will pen the adaptation of Jackson’s controversial classic, but no director or actors are attached to the project at this time.

Jackson’s story may only be around eight pages long, but it succinctly portrays the sinister underpinnings of mob mentality and scapegoating to an uncanny degree. In the narrative, a village partakes in a decades-old ritual called “the lottery,” which is practiced yearly, ostensibly to promote a good harvest.

The rules of the tradition are simple. Heads of extended families begin the first round of the ritual by drawing lots from a mysterious black box until one of them lands upon a marked slip. Individual households within the triumphant family then draw a second round of lots in order to pick a winning house. Finally, each member of that victorious clan — regardless of age — participates in the third round of lot drawing until only one of them is left marked.

Marked for what, though? Well, the “prize” of this lottery is far less desirable than one would imagine. The so-called “winner” is subjected to a public stoning that the rest of the village takes part in. Due to custom and superstition, a violent sacrifice is thoughtlessly made.

“The Lottery,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, caused a riotous response. Critics raved about it, but Jackson also evidently received a whole bunch of hate mail after the story’s initial release. Many readers were adamant to know more about the story’s immorality. According to Jackson herself, “The Lottery” was definitely meant to hit home on a personal level:

“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Jackson absolutely succeeded in what she set out to do with “The Lottery.” Eerily enough, the fervent early reception seemed to imply a cognitive dissonance between shocked and morbidly curious readers and the text at hand. Jackson once posited that “People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.”

Eventually, public perception of the story changed after the narrative was both anthologized in a collected edition as well as adapted into various forms of media, including radio and stage plays. On screen, “The Lottery” was first translated to television for Albert McCleery’s anthology show Cameo Theatre, which ran from 1950 to 1955. That was followed up by an eponymous short film by Larry Yust released in 1969. “The Lottery” then inspired the making of a feature-length TV movie starring Keri Russell, although that particular effort is actually a sequel loosely based on the original tale. That film aired on NBC in 1996.

Clearly, “The Lottery” shook a nation of readers to the core. The story remains so confrontational that a straightforward adaptation of the material would definitely make for an eerie period thriller. However, it actually also makes total sense for Wall to shake the narrative up in order to maintain its freshness for modern-day audiences. “The Lottery” has such universal themes that feel timeless enough for a contemporization to pay off. As producer Frank Marshall told Deadline:

“I liked what Jake was doing in developing it and bringing up to the present day. It’s has a dystopian, ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ feel about it, which makes it very timely. And, it has a great twist at the end.”

Indeed, besides Marshall’s reference to the phenomenal Elisabeth Moss starrer, The Lottery could potentially fit right in next to plenty of the most franchisable dystopian IP. The Purge immediately comes to mind as a comparison due to its own themes of legitimized crime, particularly murder.

However, many successful cinematic ventures have actually hinged upon the normalization of depravity, so just pick any one of your favorite dystopias when imagining a modernized version of The Lottery. From countless YA adventures to an ever-present love affair with barren, unruly post-apocalypses, people of all ages have enjoyed watching fictional worlds burn over and over again.

In theory, the climate could be right for a story like The Lottery. Still, I sincerely hope that this doesn’t mean the story will get lost in the fray of similar-sounding projects. Jackson’s material simply deserves better than that.

Of her more thrilling offerings, Jackson is masterful at creating atmospheric psychological horror set pieces that prop up stories which crescendo languidly while constantly keeping readers on their toes. Her horror writing is undeniably pregnant with tension and dread, but it’s all there for a reason.

Jackson commonly discusses themes of repression and powerlessness in her work, and especially hits home through the heroines of her stories. Jackson creates wonderfully multifaceted protagonists who explode off the page as they fight against societal constraints involving expectations of womanhood. The artfulness with which Jackson juxtaposes internal strength and external restraint in her writing demonstrates exactly why she is such an influential female voice in horror literature.

As a result, whatever Wall decides to do with The Lottery had better live up to that same engrossing, mind-boggling nature of any Shirley Jackson horror story. Today’s scary movie boom feels like the perfect time her unique brand to be embraced, and I’m definitely not writing any onscreen translation off just yet. But let this serve as a reminder of why these adaptations need to be spot on.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)