Shirley Jackson’s son responds to ’Shirley,’ the new Elisabeth Moss movie about his famous author mother
First, imagine someone writes an unflattering novel about your parents that uses their real names but is mostly fiction. Then, the book becomes a major motion picture. How would you feel about that?
That's the situation Occidental resident Laurence Jackson Hyman, 77, son of famed author Shirley Jackson, faced with the June release of “Shirley,” starring Elisabeth Moss as his mother.
“To watch your parents, 50 feet tall on the screen, is mind-boggling,” Jackson Hyman said. “The movie is thoughtful and artfully made, and I think Moss is a very talented actress.”
The movie follows a fictional young couple who move in with Jackson and her husband at their home in Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a college professor. In the story, the older couple exploits and victimizes their guests. As Shirley, Moss sports a sinister sneer as she deliberately sets out to make other people uncomfortable, while her husband is shown as a flirt and capricious tyrant.
But, in reality, Jackson Hyman said, “My parents actually were very popular on campus.”
The film portrays his mother as a woman he barely recognizes, he said. Even so, that has not prevented friendly exchanges with the actress who plays her on the screen.
Jackson Hyman met Moss when the film was shown in January at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. “Shirley” is streaming now on Hulu and some other services.
“I went up to Elisabeth and said ’Hi, Mom,’ and she was visibly confused,” he recalled. “Then I told her who I was and she said, ’Oh my god!,’ and threw her arms around me. Then we chatted for 15 minutes, as she kept brushing away other people who wanted to meet her.”
In a two-hour conversation with Jackson Hyman in June via computer, Moss even expressed an eagerness to portray his mother again. That was welcome news to Jackson Hyman, who manages his late mother’s literary estate, including a rush of film and TV adaptations of her stories and novels in recent years.
During that conversation, Jackson Hyman played his mother’s 150-year-old music box, lightly referred to in family lore as haunted.
“It would turn itself on at odd times,” he said. “It always favored ‘The Carnival of Venice.’ ”
Moss replied, “That’s terrifying. I mean, in the most wonderful way.”
See video of Jackson Hyman showing the music box playing the song here.
Despite Jackson Hyman’s respect for the craftsmanship of “Shirley” director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, his feelings about the accuracy of the film ― which doesn’t claim to be a biography ― are quite different.
“The screenwriter and director were attempting to make a movie in which Shirley was like a character in one of her own stories. My mother would never have openly insulted someone at the dinner table, as she does in the movie. She was very proper,” he said. “There are enough real facts in the movie to make you think it’s a biopic. But then it diverges, becoming entirely fiction.”
The morose, drunken, childless woman depicted the film is not the mother he remembers from his youth in Vermont.
During the early 1950s, when the film is set, Jackson was indeed known for her haunting short story “The Lottery,” in which the residents of a small village pick one among them, by lottery, to be stoned to death. When it was published in 1948 in the New Yorker, the story generated a deluge of complaints and even subscription cancellations.
Despite the chilling story, Jackson also wrote humorous pieces about her family for women’s magazines. She was a caring, funny mother of four who turned her children’s mishaps and antics into humorous pieces in print. Referring to Stanley Hyman only as her husband, she playfully portrayed him as rather hapless, Jackson Hyman recalled.
“My father was portrayed as a clueless husband who didn’t know where the kitchen was, much less how to make coffee, which was almost true,” he said.
“She really invented the genre,” he added. Later writers, such as columnist Erma Bombeck, won fame with a similar approach.
“To neglect that side of her is to give a one-dimensional picture.”
Jackson’s humor also showed in her voluminous correspondence throughout her literary career, which in ended in 1965, when she died of a heart attack at age 48.
She wrote 14 books, including nine novels, and several hundred short stories. Jackson Hyman and his sister Sarah DeWitt, who lives in Monte Rio, have collected and published two volumes of their mother’s short stories.
Jackson Hyman is compiling a book of his mother’s letters, due for publication by Random House next year.
“This will be the first time ever that people will read my mother writing about herself in her own voice. I think it will be a well-received book,” he said.
“She’s a rising star, oddly enough, a hundred years after her birth. A feature film based on ’The Lottery’ is in development at Paramount. I am attached as executive producer,” he added.
There have been many other screen adaptations of Jackson’s work. Last year, Netflix produced a series inspired by her novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” with a second season expected to air this fall.
Jackson Hyman ran his own successful San Francisco business, Woodford Publishing, for more than 30 years, publishing books that ranged from baseball to blues to photography. He also put out the official programs and publications for the San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees and other major league teams.
Although he offered to be a consultant on “Shirley,” adapted loosely from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, the filmmakers didn’t accept.
The publication of the book in 2014 offended his younger brother and two sisters, which led to a confrontation with the author at one of her public readings.
“I stayed out of the fray,” Jackson Hyman said.
At least Merrell’s novel didn’t deny the existence of the Hyman siblings.
“We’re all in the book, but we children were removed from the story for the movie,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.