BOOTLEG FILES 539: “The Lottery” (1969 short film based on the Shirley Jackson story).
LAST SEEN: The film can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is part of a film series that was never made available for home release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe someday.
From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, American schools were flooded with a seemingly endless stream of short films made exclusively for classroom viewing. The vast majority of these films were not special, and some of them were so peculiar that they inspired unintentional laughter when viewed in later years. However, there was one educational film that deserved to be called a mini-masterpiece: a 1969 adaptation of the Shirley Jackson short story “The Lottery.”
(For those who are unfamiliar with “The Lottery,” I would strongly recommend reading that story first – you can find it here – and then come back to read this review.)
“The Lottery” was first published in The New Yorker on June 26, 1948, and the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Readers were confused and appalled by Jackson’s description of a seemingly benign small town engaged in an annual lottery that results in a prize that no one would ever desire. Both Jackson and her publishers were inundated with hate mail – many of the magazine’s readers cancelled their subscriptions in protest and Jackson later recalled that her mother was displeased with the story.
But then, just as quickly, opinions changed dramatically about Jackson’s tale. During the 1950s, the story was adapted for radio and television, albeit with minor changes involving new characters and back stories involving the townspeople involved in “The Lottery.” In concept, the tone of “The Lottery” would have made it a perfect addition to Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone,” but that series bypassed Jackson’s grim tale.
However, “The Lottery” was picked up for a film adaptation, but not for theatrical release. Instead, it was acquired as part of Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation’s “Short-Story Showcase,” a series of 16mm films based on classic tales. Films were created under the “Short-Story Showcase” banner between 1969 and 1977, and 14 of the films in this series were fourteen were written, directed, and edited by Larry Yust,
Yust’s father Walter was an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica, and the younger Yust joined the company in 1957 as the producer and director of educational films. The bulk of his work was professional, but not particularly remarkable, and his earlier films focused on science subjects. In 1965, Yust directed three short films inspired by Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” These were popular with schools, and Yust was assigned to bring more examples of classic literature to the classroom screens in “Short-Story Showcase.” Perhaps in a bit of overkill, Encyclopedia Britannica also commissioned follow-up films that offered student viewers an academic analysis of the dramatizations created by Yust.
The film version of “The Lottery” opens with an on-screen statement that tells us “The following is fiction.” Yust brilliantly captures the calm conformity of a tiny rural town where shopkeepers wear aprons and farmers in overalls complain about taxes. One character is given a new line in which she confides in a friend about her husband’s distaste for TV dinners – clearly, Yust wanted to make the film seem relevant and contemporary to its viewers.
When the townspeople gather in the village square for the lottery ritual, the last to join them is Tessie Hutchinson. She is the rarity in the town – a good-natured woman who enjoys a joke. She explains her tardiness by saying she didn’t want to leave her dishes in the sink, which raises a chuckle among her otherwise dour neighbors. Tessie is played by Olive Dunbar, a character actress who specialized in playing prim authority types – this was her only starring role, and the emotional intensity that she brings to the film (especially when Tessie begins to panic about her fate) is stunning.
For his part, Yust is mostly faithful to Jackson’s story: the methodical manner in which the people are called to the lottery box to select their slips of paper, the grouchy running commentary of Old Man Warner (played by B-movie veteran William Fawcett) on the sanctity of the lottery, and even the harsh dialogue when Tessie’s husband tells her to “shut up” when she protests her family being picked for the final lottery round. Also in keeping with Jackson’s writing is the absence of back stories among the characters – while their clothing and ages may suggest different stations of life, we are not given any clue as to who these people are and why they persist in carrying out the lottery. One bit of business added for the film was having a nervous teenager clumsily bump against the stool holding the lottery box as he fished out his slip of paper – the youth was played by Ed Begley Jr. in his first film role.
As for the story’s now-legendary conclusion, Yust did not stage Tessie’s death in the center of the square, as Jackson envisioned the stoning. Instead, Tessie is backed by the crowd against the wall of a building, and Yust keeps his camera at a distance, thus sparing the student viewers from the close-up brutality of Tessie’s demise. Instead, the sound of the stones banging against the wall offers audio evidence of what is taking place. The executives of Encyclopedia Britannica initially expressed concern on whether Yust’s film would be appropriate for classroom exhibition if Tessie’s death was shown in graphic detail – and considering that this film came out in an era when violence on campuses was a major concern, this apprehension was more than justified.
The brilliance of the film, as with its literary source, is that it does not attempt to explain what is taking place. The character of Old Man Warner remarks, “Used to be a saying about lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” which may suggest the lottery was originally tied to a ceremony seeking to ensure a strong harvest. Also conspicuous in this film is the absence of any police or sheriff to oversee the lottery – the village appears to be a self-policing location, where everybody knows his place and no one would sneak away when their communal duty bounds them to the ghastly ceremony.
I first saw “The Lottery” in high school in the early 1980s, and my classmates (who were not familiar with the story) were left in a state of shock and disbelief over what they witnessed. That reaction appears to have taken place in classes all over the country. “The Lottery” was exported to other countries, making it one of the most widely seen and well regarded educational films of all time.
Sadly, “The Lottery” and the other films of the “Short-Story Showcase” have yet to be made available for home entertainment viewing. Encyclopedia Britannica still controls the rights to the film, and it has not announced any plans to make this series available on DVD and Blu-ray. An unauthorized posting of “The Lottery” is on YouTube – the visual quality is a bit muddy (it was obviously taken from a well-worn 16mm print), but at the moment it is good enough for anyone who wants to experience this disturbing little film.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!