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How The Glass Castle Transferred the Spirit of Its Subject From Page to Screen

Jeannette Walls said the film adaptation of her bestselling memoir captures her optimistic outlook regarding her troubled upbringing.

Jeannette Walls lived through the childhood in The Glass Castle, then wrote about it in her bestselling memoir about unconditional love in the face of family dysfunction.

But she still admits to having “a bit of a meltdown” the first time she saw Woody Harrelson, who plays her eccentric and emotionally unstable father in the new film adaptation.

“The producer warned me. People never like movies about themselves the first time. But I loved it,” Walls said during a recent stop in Dallas. “It captures the nuances and contradictory characters — that despite the alcoholism and the craziness and the dysfunction, there was still love and joy and hope.”

The film tells parallel stories of Walls’ relationship to her family both as a child and as a young adult. She and three siblings grew up in the Appalachian foothills during the 1960s, living a nomadic lifestyle subject to the whims of her father, Rex (Harrelson), whose grifting and fiercely independent methods were borderline abusive if rooted in good intentions — not to mention life lessons about resourcefulness and non-conformity. Her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) was an artist and caregiver who despite some ideological differences with Rex, tolerated his outbursts and remained loyal.

The parallel storyline finds Walls (Brie Larson) living in New York during the late 1980s, working as a gossip columnist in New York and trying to reconcile her feelings about her family, particularly her impoverished parents, while preparing to marry a financial adviser (Max Greenfield).

“Greater understanding always leads to greater compassion, and this was a very compassionate movie,” Walls said. “These people are wacky and damaged, and they did a lot wrong, but there’s still a lot of good. You’re not sure if you’re envious or contemptuous of them. But that was my childhood.”

The book was first published in 2005 and was optioned for a big-screen treatment shortly thereafter. Several screenwriters took turns adapting the material before producer Gil Netter (Life of Pi) teamed up with director Destin Cretton (Short Term 12).

Walls, 57, wasn’t actively involved in the production, except as a resource for the filmmakers and actors. She talked frequently with Oscar-winner Larson and with Ella Anderson (The Boss), who plays her as a young girl. And she praised Harrelson’s investment in Rex, down to his speech and mannerisms.

“I just wanted a relationship where I could trust the filmmakers. They constantly contacted me in a way that was very affirming. It was a very collaborative effort,” Walls said. “They almost always got it right. They really got the complexities of my family.”

She also appreciated Cretton’s authentic touches in the film. Some of it was shot in the West Virginia mountain town of Welch, where the Walls family relocated for a few years and where much of the story takes place. And the filmmakers used Rose Mary’s actual paintings instead of re-creating them.

Ultimately, Walls said the film version of The Glass Castle captures her optimistic outlook regarding her troubled upbringing, by finding the splendor amid the considerable sadness.

“Even if you have a painful past, there’s also beauty in it. You’ve got to come to terms with these things,” Walls said. “Everything in life is both a blessing and a curse, and it’s entirely up to us which one we choose to focus on. In coming to terms with my past, I chose to embrace the magic and the wonder.”