Sunday, June 01, 2008
  Shirley Jackson's The Lottery
Control click heading to hear "The Lottery" on NBC Short Story (March 14, 1951).

Here is Larry Yust's unforgettable short film The Lottery (1969), one title from an Encyclopedia Britannica educational film series. During the 1970s, I saw that Massachusetts Educational Television had made the series available, yet there was a curiosity. All the titles in the series were listed with the exception of The Lottery. This struck me as somewhat peculiar, so I made a phone call to find out why. I spoke to a woman who said that the MET "board members voted it out." So there you have it: This film was banned in Boston.

This is easily the best adaptation of the famed Shirley Jackson short story, first published in The New Yorker (June 28, 1948). Filmed in Fellows and Taft, California, the short is so naturalistic that it opens with a disclaimer ("The following is fiction"), even though it was part of a series called Short Story Showcase. Many people remember seeing this film in school and wanted to see it again years later, but it was hard to locate until it resurfaced six months ago.

Also see it here.

Joe Summers is played by Billy Benedict, a familiar face during the 1940s as a regular in the Bowery Boys. Benedict, who made almost 300 films and TV episodes before his death in 1999, was reunited with director Yust in the horror film Homebodies (1974), one of the few features ever directed by the talented Yust. Benedict spoke briefly about working with Yust in this interview.

The Academic Film Archive cited this "as one of the two bestselling educational films ever". When it was made, it had an accompanying ten-minute commentary film, Discussion of The Lottery by USC English professor Dr. James Durbin. To see the Durbin discussion, go here.

Shirley Jackson recalled reactions to the story in her 1960 lecture "Biography of a Story":

On the morning of June 28, 1948, I walked down to the post office in our little Vermont town to pick up the mail. I was quite casual about it, as I recall - I opened the box, took out a couple of bills and a letter or two, talked to the postmaster for a few minutes, and left, never supposing that it was the last time for months that I was to pick up the mail without an active feeling of panic. By the next week I had had to change my mailbox to the largest one in the post office, and casual conversation with the postmaster was out of the question, because he wasn't speaking to me. June 28, 1948 was the day The New Yorker came out with a story of mine in it. It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.

I had written the story three weeks before, on a bright June morning when summer seemed to have come at last, with blue skies and warm sun and no heavenly signs to warn me that my morning's work was anything but just another story. The idea had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller - it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day's groceries - and perhaps the effort of that last 50 yards up the hill put an edge to the story; at any rate, I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator, and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later I decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing...

One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the 300-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only 13 that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: "Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker," she wrote sternly; "it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don't you write something to cheer people up?"

Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer—three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse. In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even—in one completely mystifying transformation—made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed. I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.

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Ed Begley Jr rocking out
Amazing. Where have they been hiding this film? Understated and horrifying, like the great short story. Thanks for posting it, Bhob.
Wow. Powerful and horrifying. And great.
A substitute teacher (wife of the dramatics coach) showed this to us in high school English class back in the late-seventies, with a preface saying that this very same film was banned in a nearby district after various students there actually freaked out at the film's climax thus leading to a fairly large school board tussle. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to see it once more.
What "nearby district" was that? In Pennsylvania? It would be interesting to know all the places where Yust's film has been banned. And why!
As far as I can recall from three decades, it was perhaps the West Middlesex school district just south of the Sharon/Hermitage Pennsylvania area. Like I said, some students just couldn't handle the film's climax!
Here's the accompanying commentary film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oq6hsTK5Jig
Thanks for the tip, Kostello. I posted the discussion 9/27.
Holy wow. No less horrifying for all it's been well over thirty years since I first saw it in seventh grade. Now I see subthemes that at the time I was far too young to pick up on, though the professor's comments in the accompanying analysis are rather off the mark.
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