The novelist Susan Scarf Merrell says she has been sitting out the pandemic at her house in Sag Harbor, where she has lived with her husband for the past 30 years. She takes a walk every day, calls loved ones on the phone and spends more time in videoconferences than she’d like. She writes in an upstairs bedroom, often accompanied by a snoozing beagle named Waffle.
Says Merrell: “This isn’t so different from my normal life, I guess."
Well, there is one difference: Merrell is celebrating the release of “Shirley,” a feature film adapted from her 2014 novel of the same name. An historical yet highly fictionalized drama, the movie casts Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson, the enigmatic horror writer best known for her short story “The Lottery” and her novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” Set in Vermont on the cusp of the 1950s, “Shirley” imagines a young couple, Rose and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman), who come to stay with Jackson and her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a literary critic who teaches at Bennington College. Expecting a weekend of scintillating conversation and literary dinner parties, the younger couple is instead drawn into a web of mind games, blurred identities and emotional cruelty. “Shirley” is directed by Josephine Decker (“Madeline's Madeline,” from 2018) and written by playwright Sarah Gubbins (“I Am Bradley Manning”).
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January, “Shirley” earned stellar reviews and received a Dramatic Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking. It was later purchased by Neon, the upstart distributor that recently earned a best picture Oscar for “Parasite.” Any hopes for a traditional theatrical release, however, were dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which in March began forcing movie theaters to close. “Shirley” will premiere Friday, June 5, on Hulu and many video on demand services and will play at participating drive-in theaters.
Merrell, 61, says “Shirley” marks her very first book-to-movie adaptation. “I’m so excited about the whole thing,” she says.
The seed for Merrell’s book --- its full title is “Shirley: A Novel” — was planted when she and her husband, the architect James Merrell, visited Bennington College to give a lecture on the role houses play in literature. Merrell says she fell in love with the school and, despite already being a published author, immediately applied to a graduate program there. By the end of her first semester, in 2007, Merrell had read virtually everything Jackson had written.
Merrell began researching Jackson’s personal life as well. Jackson’s marriage to a professor reminded Merrell of her own academic parents. (Her father, the late Herb Scarf, was an economics professor at Yale and her mother, Maggie, is a writer and lecturer on women’s issues and marriage.) It turned out Merrell’s family and Jackson’s family even had a friend in common: the author Bernard Malamud, who once taught at Bennington. Merrell says she has a vague childhood memory of visiting the Malamuds.
“Somehow I began to feel there was a kind of cerebral predestination in the relationship I was having with her,” says Merrell.
Back home in Sag Harbor, Merrell began working in earnest on “Shirley,” eventually fashioning it into something between “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Edward Albee’s famous play about a curdled marriage, and one of Jackson’s own Gothic tales. In the book, Jackson comes off as brilliant and witty but also foul-tempered, depressed and reclusive. Hyman appears as a curious mix of supportive husband and serial philanderer. Meanwhile, the couple seems haunted by the ghost of Paula Weldon, a vanished student whose case would inspire Jackson’s novel “Hangsaman.” All of that may be true, but other aspects of Merrell’s book — such as dark suspicions that Hyman was involved with Weldon — are pure fiction.
“There are things that are true and things that are not true,” Merrell says of her book. “It’s a weird thing to have done, and I admit it.”
Merrell says a mutual friend introduced her to Gubbins, the playwright and screenwriter, and the two discussed the book’s cinematic possibilities during a picnic in Long Beach. Eventually, Gubbins’ adapted screenplay found its way to Decker, the director, and to Moss. Filming took place in upstate New York for 29 days during August 2018.
“It’s not just a biopic of Shirley, it’s more like you feel like you’re in a Shirley Jackson story,” says Decker. “In a lot of her stories you go from stable ground into this kind of murkiness. It’s a little bit fluid and confusing. You sort of don’t remember how you got there. We wanted to have a similar feeling in our film.”
Merrell, who still gushes over the experience of traveling upstate to watch a night shoot with Moss, says she hopes the film will spur renewed interest in Jackson, who died in 1965. “I want my book to sell, but I also want Shirley’s books to sell. I want people to get to know the writer that I fell in love with,” says Merrell. “My hope is we have a Shirley Jackson pandemic.”