(Click here for information on the 2015 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the September selection, William March’s The Bad Seed.)
The Bad Seed is March’s best-known novel, published just weeks before his death in 1954. In light of the popularity of the 1956 film version (itself an adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s hit Broadway play) it has acquired something of a camp reputation. Modern readers might be surprised to find the book is both deadly serious and fairly cumbersome in its storytelling.
The story unfolds across multiple points of view, as the seemingly idealistic life of wealthy housewife Christine Penmark begins to unravel as her preternaturally perfect 8 year old daughter, Rhoda, is repeatedly in the right place at the wrong time when several friends and neighbors meet with fatal accidents.
As the novel opens, the Penmarks have relocated from Baltimore to suburban North Carolina, and Mr. Penmark has left for South America on business. Having decided to design and build their home upon his return, the family has taken up residence in an upscale apartment building, shared with the widowed Mrs. Forsythe the first floor, and middle-aged socialite Monica Breedlove and her bachelor brother in the penthouse.
Rhoda is particular in her tastes, shunning the jeans and rompers of her peers as “unladylike” and methodical in keeping her room tidy. Of course, the two older women in the building dote upon the strangely self-possessed and old fashioned little girl.
The Trouble begins when Rhoda is passed over for a penmanship award in favor of a classmate, the anemic mama’s boy Claude Daigle. Rhoda covets the gold medal, and when Claude mysteriously drowns at the school picnic on the last day of school, all sorts strange subconscious feelings are aroused in Christine. Could Rhoda somehow be involved?
March is greatly concerned with the psychology of nature versus nurture and, as the title suggests, the theory that evil can be passed on genetically. Under the guise of writing a mystery novel to fill the empty hours until her husband’s return, Christine begins researching serial killers, and through a writer-friend of Monica’s, is introduced to the case of Bessie Denker, a woman who murdered more than 20 family members for insurance money before being caught and executed in the electric chair. It is an awkward plot device (mostly discarded in the subsequent adaptations), but one that leads an increasingly socially isolated Christine to begin to suspect that sweet little Rhoda is a cold blooded-killer.
While March is preoccupied with “psychology” (Monica is famous for having been analyzed by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, and freely discusses her theories regarding her brother’s “larval homosexuality”), Christine’s advanced case of The Problem That Has No Name goes uncommented upon, despite the fact that it drives much of the plot. As Christine becomes more anxious and depressed, her life takes on a surreal quality, to the point where she can only watch helplessly as her daughter murders the (equally malicious) janitor who has inadvertently stumbled upon the truth about Claude Daigle’s death. She literally can’t believe her eyes.
Christine eventually learns the truth about her childhood, that she was the daughter of (and sole survivor of) Bessie Denker’s murder spree, adopted at the age of 2 by the celebrated reporter who covered the trial. Her adopted parents went to their graves without passing this information on to Christine.
After forcing a confession from Rhoda, Christine spends the rest of the summer paralyzed with guilt and uneasily cohabitating with a killer. Ultimately, she decides upon a course of action, and decides to administer a fatal dose of sleeping pills to her daughter, then shoot herself. She shares this plan with half the town as the decided upon ending to her “novel”, which sort of leaves a major plot hole: wouldn’t somebody notice the similarities between their deaths and book she has been yammering about all summer?
Christine’s plan only half-works, as the sound of the gunshot summons the neighbors in time to revive Rhoda; the book ends with the oblivious Mr. Penmark’s return to the tender mercies of his murderous offspring.
Maxwell Anderson’s play opened on Broadway about 8 months after the book’s publication, and a film featuring the play’s cast was released two years later.
11 year old Patty McCormack takes a slightly different approach to Rhoda: while in the novel the little girl is coldly manipulative and calculating, the film’s Rhoda actively loves messing with adults, especially her mother. Her Rhoda Penmark is chilling, but also very funny.
The dark comedy works in its favor for most of the film’s running time (it leavens an adaptation that is stubbornly stage-bound); not until the last act does it cross over into campiness, as Christine and Monica watch the janitor’s off-screen death while Rhoda’s mechanical piano playing bangs away on the soundtrack.
There are a number of plot changes in the film, some to expedite the storytelling and some to appease the Production Code. Overall, it waters down the horror: Mr. Penmark has only gone as far as Washington D.C. in the movie, and he regularly checks in with his beloved wife; Christine’s father is also resurrected from the dead to pay a visit to his daughter (although he refuses to offer any information to the authorities about Rhoda’s potential Bad Seediness). With Christine so much less isolated than in the novel, her way of dealing with her suspicions regarding Rhoda seem slightly ludicrous.
And finally, the ending is changed entirely: Christine survives her suicide attempt, and in a truly jaw-dropping scene, Rhoda sneaks out of the house one dark and stormy night to return to the scene of the crime and retrieve that precious penmanship medal. The sky opens and the little monster is struck by lightning.
The films concludes with a very Mercury Theater closing credit sequence, as each cast member takes a bow. Patty McCormack curtsies sweetly, before her film-mother, Nancy Kelly, takes her across the knee and dramatically spanks her, both actresses giggling all the while.
So, it is unclear how seriously we’re supposed to take all of this after all. Happy Halloween!
HarperCollins has a nice paperback edition in print, with a new introduction by Elaine Showalter
The 1956 film is available on DVD and through various streaming services
A made-for-TV remake aired in 1985, with a cast that included Lynn Redgrave and David Carradine. This version sticks closer to the novel (although it updated the antiquated “Rhoda” to “Rachel”) and is available as a DVD-R from Warner Archive.