Shirley Movie Review


NEON [Fair Use]

A poster for Shirley, winner of the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Arianna Bianciella, Contributing Writer

Since 1948, Shirley Jackson has been an eccentric visionary and one of the few women writers of the horror genre during that era. Jackson is known for her renowned short story anthology, The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, which is continuously favored by authors. In the biopic Shirley, based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and directed by Josephine Decker, Jackson’s life as a literary genius is retold for the audience.

Jackson finds herself subjected to the dark encirclement of writer’s block and depression. Her marriage to Stanley Hyman, literary critic, and college professor, is under strain, and she develops an obsession with a case of a missing woman from Bennington College. This all occurs while she works on her next novel, Hangsaman, as she also refuses to leave her house and socialize with newlyweds Rosie and Fred.

One of Jackson’s children, Laurence Jackson Hyman, openly criticized the biopic, especially the portrayal of his parents, citing it to be extremely inaccurate as he was not involved in the production of the film. During his mother’s original writing of Hangsaman, she was already an active mother of three children, living in Connecticut, a frequent traveler to New York, instead of Vermont, as portrayed in the film.

In the film, however, Stanley and Shirley are portrayed to be a childless, middle-aged couple. Even the exact order of Shirley Jackson’s publications, which were confusingly rearranged. Notably, Hyman admits, his mother had a dark sense of humor, a shyness, and airiness, which Moss gracefully respected during an interview with Hyman for The New Yorker. The writing abilities of Shirley Jackson were not only admired by other writers, but also those in entertainment circles: Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, for example, requested Jackson to write a select few episodes for the comedic series, but she declined.

As Stanley and Shirley forge professional relationships with Fred and Rosie, respectively, their own obsession with seeking the Hymans’ approval becomes their weakness. The fictionalized biopic is paved like one of Shirley Jackson’s renowned novels – quirky, intense, thrilling, the line of being something Shirley Jackson would have written rather than events she may have actively witnessed. Currently streaming on Hulu, Jackson and Hyman’s lives are portrayed on screen by Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg.