In 1948, Shirley Jackson published a short story in The New Yorker called “The Lottery”. In 1996, a modern version was adapted when a made for television movie was produced by Anthony Spinner. Both versions relay that there is strength in large numbers, even when the outcome is immoral. Mindsets and rituals in society are often the result of our complacency; it is easier to keep with tradition then to question its necessity or benefits. The time set of the movie versus the story and the time they were intended to be experienced allow for some interesting differences in the stories. In the end, both maintain the theme that blind obedience is irrational and grotesque.
The written story begins with a lovely scene; I would almost envision a small, harmonious town setting like the park in The Music Man. The story is told from a third person viewpoint and is unemotional but very knowledgeable about the town, the lottery and the people. This lull’s the reader into a false sense of security and excitement about what will take place. In the end what takes place in the movie and book is a lottery where slips of papers are drawn from a box to select one person from the village. The person selected is a scapegoat and is stoned to death in the town square by every single villager. The viewpoint in the movie version is seen from Jason. Within the first fifteen minutes we see the immorality and corruption of modern day society through his experiences.
Jason’s in traffic: he finds a dead body; he witnesses the death of his father in a mental hospital and comes home to being dumped by a girlfriend that is career climbing by sleeping with her boss. The viewer feels for him and is relieved when he leaves Boston to explore Harmony, his birthplace and mother’s death place. He promised his father he would place his remains with his mother’s and he is curious by his father’s words to never tell the truth about what happened to the mother who passed away when he was too young to remember her. The viewer senses his lack of connection with anyone in society and is happy to see him arrive in such a clean, nice town. There is some foreshadowing that something is amiss from the moment he enters town; the local law and the innkeepers do not initially welcome him. I believe the producer has to start the movie out this way to give it some plausibility. Most people cannot associate with a clean, fresh, down to earth town in modern society and many filmmakers will show the contrast by the noise and crowds of a large city before drawing them into a place like Harmony.
Harmony also places a love interest for Jason. The innkeeper’s daughter, Felicity and Jason connect. She is wholesome, pretty and sweet. Felicity helps Jason to find his grandmother and is almost killed. While he is saving Felicity; her mother is emptying the ashes of his father into the trash. The viewer understands that while the town loved his mother, they felt betrayed by his father. This people of this perfect town are almost too close knit and are vengeful. The viewer wishes Jason would take the girl and leave. The book does not require such elements to keep the reader entertained.
The black box in the story and movie symbolizes death. It is stored and often forgotten about each year. No one really likes the box. The movie uses the platform’s original wood and old shaped nails to stress tradition. The men who erect the platform each year would just as well leave it up always and let it rot. The book discusses the black box and that it has been reconstructed with wood from the previous box to stress tradition. Mr. Summer is able to convince them to use paper instead of wooden coins in the box. The box is not taken care of in the book, which further symbolizes that people may be ready to forget the tradition. The short story has Mr. Adams and his wife raising questions about the necessity of a lottery prior to the drawing.
In the movie no one talks about stopping the lottery because before they are able to bring anything up on the subject it seems that Mayor Warner shows up to stop them by reaffirming the good fortune of the town, the nice place it is, and the duty of everyone to follow in their ancestors footsteps for the good of the town. In the movie you realize the town has a large assortment of guns, and because everyone has killed by tossing a stone that the crowds would kill to protect their shame. Old Man Warner is the person in both versions who warns the crowds about what would be if they did not continue this tradition. Also the stains on the black box indicate the stain on the residents’ souls each time they participate in the stoning death of the person chosen from the lottery.
In the book, the lottery has the Hutchinson family draw the unlucky ticket. She argues and protests the fairness of the drawing. The rest of the crowd is relieved because they get to live another year and her pleas for change are done out of selfishness. She even calls out for their married daughters to draw with them to better her odds; she, not her children, picks the marked ticket. Friends, children and loved ones, stone Mrs. Hutchinson. In the movie Felicity is the one who argues and protests when her family draws the unlucky marker. Her mother draws the final ticket with a mark and replies, “Thank God it wasn’t you.” This is a more plausible a reaction from a parent than that of Mrs.
Hutchinson in the book who wanted more family included to better her odds. Jason refuses to throw a stone but cringes as Felicity does. As much as he cared for Felicity, Jason is a good person and could not be a party to this. He remembers throwing a stone at his mother as a child and cannot understand why Felicity cannot walk away. The movie ends with Jason narrowly escaping town and telling the state authorities about the village and it’s implausible, immoral and illegal practices. Felicity will not betray the town or her mother’s memory as a hero to the town. Ironically, Jason is institutionalized in the end just as his father was.
Even though it is not conceivable that a custom of such a lottery could exist in our society today, it is a symbol for other activities and ideas and the message of the story does still ring of truth. The grotesqueness of ritual killings equates to the barbaric beheadings in the Middle East that they air on the web. Other cultures have traditions and penalties that we find uncivilized, but in their society there is no question about the humanity of their actions. Incredibly trivial practices also apply such as the latest fashion trends and trying to keep up with the “Jones’s”.
We are all human beings and we tend to follow in the footsteps of others; there is some comfort in taking the path that is well worn. Reading or watching a movie this outrageous makes you see how shallow and cowardly we can be as human beings. And if we choose to be sucked in to a lottery type syndrome then we are losing our lives and the part of ourselves that enables us to be individuals.
Courtney from Study Moose
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