Thursday, February 18, 2016

Shirley Jackson's Chilling "The Lottery"

A crowd gathers for the lottery.
Do you remember Encyclopedia Britannica Films? If you went to school in the U.S. from the 1950s through the 1970s, you never saw a DVD nor probably a videotape. If you were lucky, you might have seen a 16mm film in one of your classes (in my schools, we saw a lot more filmstrips...anyone remember those?). The best 16mm films were the ones produced by Encyclopedia Britannica, especially those that appeared under the "Short-Story Showcase" banner.

As the name suggests, these movies were based on famous short stories, such as Herman Melville's Bartleby and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment. The best--and certainly the most popular in my high school--was a 19-minute adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery (1969).

William Fawcett as Old Man Warner.
The film opens with townsfolk gathering to participate in a lottery. As they chat among themselves, we learn a lot about the lottery. It always take place on the 27th day of the month. It must happen annually because Old Man Warner has participated in it for 77 years. Other town have lotteries; in fact, one of them is thinking of doing away with it. The lottery may have started as some kind of pagan ritual linked to growing crops (Old Man Warner mumbles: "Lottery in June makes the corn ready soon.").

What we don't learn until the climax is the "prize" for winning the lottery. I won't reveal the answer here for those unfamiliar with this film or Shirley Jackson's (The Haunting) 1948 short story. Let's just say The Lottery would have made a fine Twilight Zone episode if it could have cleared the censors.

Encyclopedia Britannica Films' The Lottery was written and directed by Larry Yust, who may be best known for his photographs today (see www.larryyust.com). Yust was a Stanford University graduate with a degree in theater arts. His father worked as an editor for Encyclopedia Briticannica.

Olive Dunbar as Tessie.
His adaptation of Jackson's short story is a virtual textbook on how to make a first-rate low-budget film. The film takes place entirely outside (no expensive interior sets). It's a dialogue-driven drama. And the excellent cast is peppered with veteran supporting stars, such as Olive Dunbar (ten episodes of My Three Sons), William Fawcett (once a theatre professor at Michigan State), and William Benedict (lots of 1970s television guest appearances). There's also one actor that would go on to fame: 20-year-old Ed Begley, Jr.

Over the the years, I've met quite a few people who saw The Lottery in school. They always remember the ending vividly. If you've never seen it, you can view it here on YouTube (the quality improves after the first two minutes). Just keep in mind that for a movie made for school literature classes, it's pretty potent.

20 comments:

  1. They were packaged for PBS as THE AMERICAN SHORT STORY.

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    1. Interesting to know! Do you know when that was broadcast?

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    2. No good notion of the first broadcast, but I first saw it on New Hampshire PBS ca. 1977.

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    3. As the blurb on the Vimeo link I posted yesterday on my blog (in the course of citing your review) notes, the PBS package featured a ten-minute discussion/analysis of the story and film to help fill out half-hour slots, and perhaps also to help impressionable viewers to calm down (including any correspondents to the letter-writers to THE NEW YORKER who, whether canceling their subscriptions or not, demanded that the magazine never again publish any such fiction).

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    4. The Vimeo blurb is lifted from IMDb, where the entry includes at least one comment about seeing the film on PBS in 1976. I think also I've conflated the title of the longer-form THE AMERICAN SHORT STORY series of the 1970s on PBS (with such adaptations as "Bernice Bobs Her Hair") with the EB films package, which might've been broadcast under the EB umbrella title SHORT STORY SHOWCASE...their adaptation of "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" was comparably good, to me at least, at the time. (EB's film arm also produced one of the best unintentional comedies I've seen, in their atrocious "educational" docudrama THE ROMANTICS, built around Percy Shelley's funeral, of similar vintage.

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    5. Thanks for all the extra info, Todd!

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  2. I wondered how that was going to wrap up. I didn't think it would be quite so...visual.

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    1. I'm not sure you could show it in a public school lit class these days.

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  3. This brings back so many memories! YES! I also saw this in school, and I remember we were all stunned at the time, as we didn't know how it would end. It made a strong impression at the time, as I haven't forgotten it.

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  4. I saw this one when I was in eighth grade, and that was in the early 2000's. It's profoundly unsettling. Our teacher actually made a crack about how we'd find it "pretty tame" -- she turned out to be wrong.

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    1. As you and DKoren noted, it's disturbing and certainly memorable. I watched it for the first time in many years to write this post and was surprised at how well it holds up.

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  5. I've never seen any of these Encyclopedia Britannica films, and certainly not this one. The Lottery is a really disturbing story, and this film version is a faithful retelling. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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    1. I think it's a well-done adaptation.

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  6. I also saw this in school and it was a chilling experience. Even though we had read the story before watching the film the actual enactment of it was quite different. For a film from an educational outlet the acting was far above the level you would normally have gotten which added so much to the effectiveness.

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    1. The acting was uniformly strong. I was surprised to see Ed Begkey, Jr. in the cast when I recently watched it. I didn't expect to see a "name actor."

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    2. Younger Begley was game for this kind of work...hey, if Rip Torn could waste time with Norman Mailer...

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  7. An excellent post about a chilling little picture! Like so many others, I saw this a couple of times in my youth and found it remarkably powerful.

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  8. I remember this one. Right up my alley.

    I'll watch it this weekend; a nice prepper for the Sunday morning movie, to go along with the cartoon and the cliffhanger chapter!

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  9. I didn't see this film until the advent of the Internet. But it is my favorite short story ever. True story. We were assigned to read it when I was in high school. Like many of my high school projects, I blew it off and went to school the next day unaware of what I had missed. As we discussed it I kept kicking myself for not having read it and discovered the irony for myself. I have always adored irony in fiction, but even more so after this story.

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  10. Yes we saw this in school and I can recall a couple of people nearly throwing up....lots of us in tears and unable to compose our thoughts for the "discussion " afterwards...like to think it made us think about things like "tradition" but maybe not.... powerful stuff...

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