When The New Yorker first published Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in June of 1948, the short story was met with confusion and disgust. To this day, apparently the magazine still hasn’t received that much mail over a work of fiction. Regardless of those early negative reviews, though, this shock tale has since gone on to become ingrained in the public consciousness. Everyone remembers their immediate reaction upon reading about a deceptively quaint village where the locals conduct the most heinous ritual every year.
Despite its widespread recognition, “The Lottery” has received only a few screen adaptations over the years. The earliest was in Cameo Theatre, a long lost 1950s anthology series notable for its minimalistic production design. Then there was Larry Yust’s ‘69 short-film; this piece of kindertrauma captures the source material’s unmatched ability to go from casual to ghastly in mere seconds.
In addition to direct adaptations are those looser ones that occasionally crop up from time to time. These include the notable South Park episode “Britney’s New Look” and Mary Harron’s contribution to the short-lived anthology show Fear Itself. The former uses Jackson’s story to contextualize the magnitude of mistreatment experienced by Britney Spears; the belittled pop singer is sacrificed so as to ensure a prosperous harvest. In Fear Itself’s interpretation called “Community,” “The Lottery” is spiritually referenced when two hapless urbanites suffer the insidious evils of a gated development.
Falling somewhere between all these straightforward and less exact adaptations is a telefilm from ‘96. The Lottery first aired as part of the Sunday night programming for NBC, where it went up against the two other big networks’ own TV-movies: ABC’s period piece A Loss of Innocence and CBS’ story of sink-or-swim paternity, The Bachelor’s Baby. Of the three, The Lottery placed second in viewership. It’s safe to say, audiences back then primarily tuned in because of the movie’s familiar inspiration rather than for its cast, which included the up-and-coming Keri Russell and former MTV Sports host Dan Cortese. Also among the ensemble is Veronica Cartwright, William Daniels, Stephen Root and Sean Murray.
The foremost challenge for anyone adapting “The Lottery” as a long feature is the length. After all, the original story benefits from its brevity. Meanwhile, director Daniel Sackheim and late screenwriter Anthony Spinner stretched Jackson’s concept into a more standard mystery. As opposed to focusing solely on the village and its residents, though, this version adds an outsider to the mix. Dan Cortese plays Jason Smith, a grieving son whose father’s dying wish is to have his ashes spread over his wife’s grave. Doing so would entail Jason leaving the big city for his parents’ hometown, a place he himself left at a young age with no recollection of the area’s atrocious local custom. His own memory is indeed fuzzy, otherwise he would remember why his father moved away in the first place.
Jackson was vague about the setting for her short story; a definite location is never provided. This forces readers to use their imagination rather than be confined by concrete details that come with preconceived notions. Spinner’s script, however, brings the protagonist to a named destination: New Hope, Maine. For plenty of people, a New England locale isn’t that far off from what they envisioned as they read the story. The concept of superficial tranquility marred by a dark undercurrent is stereotypical of stories set in that American region. The unfortunate history of New England lives on long after the fact, and The Lottery profits from that reality.
Something Jackson was explicit about is the date of The Lottery: June 27. And that specific date nags at Jason during his journey. After his car breaks down in New Hope, and he encounters red tape regarding his father’s deathbed request, Jason then becomes fixated on the fact that so many people there died on June 27. Including his mother at the age of twenty-four. A good many viewers already know what lies ahead for Cortese’s character as he falls deeper down the rabbit hole, but the telefilm’s rising action is well conducted, albeit slow in pace. Even those lucky folks with no idea of what’s to come still sense something bad is in store for Jason as the ominous date in question comes closer into view.
Keri Russell, whose breakthrough role in the college drama Felicity was only two years away at that point, plays a crucial but difficult role in The Lottery. Popular school teacher Felice Dunbar is unlike other New Hopers, who are more standoffish than usual. No, she greets Jason with a warm smile that hides an unpleasant secret. Having grown up in New Hope, Felice naturally believes The Lottery serves a good purpose, but meeting Jason makes her question everything. And for a minute, it would seem Russell’s character is capable of shaking off years worth of indoctrination.
What makes Felice relatable for some people (and uncomfortably so) is hers and others’ glaring sense of conformity. Felice’s kindness toward Jason, along with her background in education, would suggest she is different and has a more advanced moral compass than her peers. Unfortunately, Felice is no different from those too afraid to think and act differently when something is as unambiguously wrong as The Lottery. Her surrendering to this harmful tradition is heartbreaking when seen through Jason’s eyes.
While Jackson ended things with the latest Lottery recipient collecting their “prize,” this adaptation goes beyond that point. The entire production has done an admirable, if not unnecessary job of filling in the gaps of Jackson’s story. As a depressing farewell gift to the viewers, Spinner’s screenplay confirms the obvious: The Lottery will never stop. Now, this isn’t the type of closure one would normally expect to find in a movie-of-the-week. Surely it would have been easier to have Felice not pick up a stone and instead leave New Hope. The original story loses something in its translation to the small screen, yet the movie at least refuses to sanitize itself in the end.
Seventy-five years later, Shirley Jackson’s story remains timeless and relevant. “The Lottery” illustrates the dangers of herd mentality and complacency, and it asks people to question the bad systems in place. This TV treatment doesn’t omit those same important lessons, although the overlong mystery leading up to the climax is admittedly of less interest. Still and all, there are strong performances here, and the movie’s centerpiece is disturbing and hard to watch even by today’s standards.