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A Natural Little Girl: Reproduction and Naturalism in The Bad Seed as Novel, Play, and Film

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In April 1954, William March's The Bad Seed, a novel about a dysgenic child murderer named Rhoda, was published and became an instant bestseller. The same year, Maxwell Anderson's play version hit Broadway to high acclaim, and, in 1956,
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  © The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org 132  Adaptation  Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 132–154doi: 10.1093/adaptation/apq003 Advance Access publication 18 June 2010  A Natural Little Girl: Reproduction andNaturalism in The Bad Seed  as Novel, Play, andFilm PERIN GUREL*  Abstract In April 1954, William March’s The Bad Seed  , a novel about a dysgenic child murderer named Rhoda, was published and became an instant bestseller. The same year, Maxwell Anderson’splay version hit Broadway to high acclaim, and, in 1956, Warner Brothers released a popular lmadaptation. This article studies the text and reception of  The Bad Seed  as it is transferred and transformed through these media (that of the naturalist novel, Broadway play, and controversialHollywood movie) with a critical focus on stylistic naturalism, sex, and reproduction. It contrastsMarch’s insistence on realism and naturalism, exemplied by his incorporation of real-life storieswithin the ctional work, with Anderson’s and Warner Brothers’ de-naturalizing alterations. Through textual and historical analysis, with special focus on the public discussions generated by  the texts, this article serves as a case study of multiple adaptations and how they were inuencedby underlying anxieties about pronatalism and heredity in early postwar culture. Keywords The Bad Seed, novel, play, horror flm, reproduction, heredity. ‘Meet Rhoda . . . Eight years old . . . beguiling, bewitching, be careful!’ hailed the adfor William March’s The Bad Seed  from the pages of the April 11, 1954  New York Times   (Figure 1). March, an American author best known for his World War I ction CompanyK  (1933), had published a blood-curdling new novel about a murderous pre-pubescentgirl named Rhoda Penmark. Written in a dry journalistic tone, The Bad Seed  blamedRhoda’s murderlust on her biology: the little girl killed because she had inherited amalicious genetic essence (i.e., the bad seed) from a long-forgotten grandmother. De-spite a pronounced intellectual dislike for literary naturalism and a turn away fromhereditary explanations for the world’s ills in the United States, William March’s natu-ralist novel The Bad Seed  immediately became a bestseller. The New Yorker  called it ‘un-doubtedly one of the year’s best’, and a reviewer for  New York Times Book Review  predicted,‘no more satisfactory novel will be written in 1954 or has turned up in recent memory’(Geismar). March died of a heart attack in March 1954, missing the immediate afterlifeof his creation, which proliferated and evolved in American popular culture, very muchlike a bad seed. The celebrated playwright Maxwell Anderson adopted the novel into aTony-award-winning Broadway play before the year was out. In July 1956, WarnerBrothers rushed into cinemas an academy-award-nominated lm adaptation of thetext, featuring most of the srcinal Broadway cast. *American Studies, Yale University. E-mail: perin.gurel@yale.edu    The Bad Seed  as Novel, Play, and Film 133 This article asks what it means for a biologically premised novel casting white repro-duction as a threat to become a bestseller, a popular Broadway play, and an academy-award-winning Hollywood movie in the intellectual environment of the early coldwar—an era popularly associated with the baby boom and the rise of suburban nuclearfamilies. While scholarly studies have long complicated this idyllic picture, white prona-talism, the social promotion of reproduction, did become commonsense in the postwarUnited States (Halberstam 596). The fties saw an aberrant increase in the fertility of  American women: more than four million babies per year were born between 1954 and1964, and ‘the highest jump in fertility occurred among well-educated white womenwith medium to high incomes’ (Kline 152). Accompanying the baby boom and simi-larly a product of World War II was the delegitimisation of negative eugenics, the social Figure 1 The Bad Seed  (Random House 1954), Book Display Ad.  134 PERIN GUREL movement to limit the reproduction of humans deemed hereditarily awed, and a shifttowards environmentalist explanations for human woes (Clarke 174; Degler). WilliamMarch’s The Bad Seed  cut through the heart of these developments, challenging postwarbiopolitics with its vision of a little white girl, whose biology drove her to kill. Why thendid America reproduce it?Between 1954 and 1956, despite persistent pronouncements against the text’s intellec-tual claim (that a murderous tendency can be inherited) and many major transforma-tions, American popular culture churned out three versions of a story on a biologicallydriven child murderess and addressed it to ever larger audiences. Therefore, the text, itsadaptations, and the discourse around them represent an excellent case for tracing notonly the meanings of white middle-class heredity and female sexuality in early postwar American culture but also the anxieties triggered by the artistic and commercial adapta-tion of an anti-natalist text in different media, each with different perceived socialpowers. Historian Elaine Tyler May has inuentially proposed ‘containment’ to be ‘thedominant social style’ of middle and upper classes during the early postwar years(12–16). Containment  does make a good metaphor for the adaptations of  The Bad Seed  , butso does a certain lack of containment: critics railed against the text’s central premise andconsecutive adaptations weakened it, even as the culture industries raced to reproduce it.Rhoda Penmark, a monster by nature as opposed to nurture, had gained her power fromthe medium of the naturalist novel in which she was rst conceived. The adaptation of  The Bad Seed  into increasingly popular forms of media between 1954 and 1956, however,was accompanied by the piecemeal de-naturalisation of the text both thematically andstylistically. Comparing the novel to its stage and screen adaptations and considering thereception of each variant illuminates the complex cultural mechanisms involved in themanagement of the so-called postwar reproductive consensus.In his inuential ‘Monster Culture (Seven Theses)’, cultural critic Jeffrey Cohen re-minds us, ‘monsters must be examined within the intricate matrix of relations (social,cultural, and literary-historical) that generate them’ (5). The Bad Seed  and its many versionsmust be considered through the ideological complexities of one of the most readily cari-caturized eras in US history. Rhoda was born into the era of baby boomers, when womenwere expected to be pregnant throughout most of their childbearing years; yet, the word‘pregnant’ seemed too repugnant to be uttered on TV and representations of childbirthwere banned alongside prostitution and venereal disease in the movies (Gardner xxi). Rhodacame into a world that gloried motherhood as natural and good, and a world that sawmenstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth as polluting illnesses, a world that highly encour-aged big families as well as millions of unnecessary hysterectomies (Daly; Kaledin174–76). By the end of World War II, most experts argued that white middle-class womennaturally possessed sexual drives, over which the women themselves had no consciouscontrol, and became preoccupied with the containment of excessive female desirethrough marriage and childbearing (D’Emilio and Freedman 265–72; Dorr 223; Weiss142–52). Popular glorication of suburban monogamy existed alongside fears of ‘she-tyranny’ and ‘momism’ (Chudacoff; Gilbert 211). The controversies surrounding theadaptation of  The Bad Seed  in mid-century US culture, like the contradictions listed above,illuminate how worries about female sexuality and heredity lurked dangerously close tothe surface of the pronatalist zeitgeist of the baby boom years.    The Bad Seed  as Novel, Play, and Film 135 March’s The Bad Seed  became popular partially because it spoke to deep-seated anxi-eties wrought by a heterosexist culture that encouraged white middle-class reproductioneven as it fanned fears of female biology as volatile, messy, and uncontrollable (Cuordil-eone). This ‘simultaneous repulsion and attraction’ to female sexual biology and repro-duction is central to understanding the controversies surrounding the text’s reproductionin popular visual media (Cohen 17; Creed). The absence of  The Bad Seed  (as novel, play,or lm) from every extensive study of mid-century American sexuality and reproduction,therefore, is surprising. A lack of attention to the novel and the process of adaptation canbe blamed for this lapse. Works on the postwar baby boom, works on American eugenics,and works on postwar sexuality do not even mention the text (cf. Kline; Reumann; TylerMay; Weiss). Studies of mid-century horror movies and juvenile delinquency generallyfocus on the lm and underplay Rhoda’s biology (cf. Doherty; C. Jackson; Paul). WilliamPaul, for example, dismisses the tool of heredity in the lm altogether as pure ‘fantasy’,akin to the plot of satanic possession in The Exorcist  (269). In a  Journal of American Culture   article, Stephanie Woodson describes Rhoda as ‘completely asexual’; in The Journal of Popular Film and Television , Chuck Jackson chooses to emphasise the character’s Southernroots. Even a cursory study of  The Bad Seed  ’s author William March, whose works persis-tently biologise his all-pervading misogyny, would have prevented these glaring omis-sions. However, no critic or scholar has yet thoroughly traced the text all the way fromMarch, through Anderson, and into Hollywood. 1 THE BAD SEED  (1954): A NATURALIST NOVEL The Bad Seed  was published three years before the US debut of a more famous novelabout a bewitching young girl, Nabokov’s Lolita  (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958),which critics would celebrate for killing ‘ctional naturalism, already moribund,with one merciful blow’ (Moynahan 31). March’s uninching commitment to an old-fashioned, biologized literary naturalism that had been controversial even at the heightof its popularity in the nineteenth-century Europe, however, contributed to the novel’ssuccess in the postwar United States, all odds to the contrary. As Raymond Williamsobserved in Keywords  , naturalist authors’ blatant rejection of the romantic and the su-pernatural and their often uncritical embrace of natural selection as literary theme andhereditary fate as motif had generated negative reactions since the emergence of theliterary school in mid-nineteenth-century France. ‘Describing and interpreting humanbehavior in strictly natural terms’, focusing on hereditary lineages with a dispassionateprose style marked by detailed observation, European naturalist authors sought to ex-pose social ills, eschewing supernatural explanations in favour of a social Darwinist,deterministic worldview (218). To anti-naturalists, such authors seemed to be mon-strous and amoral surgeons, bringing the sickest sides of humanity into view withbloody details, but refusing to suggest a cure. Criticism of naturalism as morally cor-rupting seems to have been transcultural, transpolitical, and uninterrupted, from Frenchconservative critic Max Nordeau’s famous 1892 dismissal of Henrik Ibsen (‘there is nota single trait in his personages, a single peculiarity of character, a single disease that hedoes not trace to heredity’) to Marxist critic Georg Lukacs’s depiction of naturalism as‘alienated realism’, devoid of historical specicity and formulated by a politically disen-gaged author.  136 PERIN GUREL In the United States, the denouncement of literary naturalism took on patriotic hues. At the turn of the century, naturalist American writers such as Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser shocked readers by questioning human will and ratio-nality. Like their European counterparts, American naturalists adapted a crisp dispas-sionate style of writing and explored the social world through analogies to nature. American naturalists, however, tended to place more emphasis on the environment asopposed to heredity in determining human fate and, therefore, often implied the possi-bility of reform (Pizer 40). Despite this ‘soft’ determinism, American naturalism wasquick to make enemies, and by the beginning of World War I, inuential social criticswere prematurely, and somewhat wishfully, hailing the movement’s death (Whited). Ac-cording to Don Graham, naturalism died many imagined deaths in American litera-ture: ‘The subject died of natural causes around 1914, 1939 or 1945, depending onwhich authority one cites’ (1). Due to its biological determinism and fatalism, natu-ralism seemed especially anti-American in the mid-twentieth century and highly atodds with the Emersonian rhetoric of self-reliance. That most American naturalistswere committed socialists and either mocked or completely ignored religion did nothelp the school’s reputation. As naturalism as a literary style lost currency in the UnitedStates, it came to signify a sinister ideological bent, entirely at odds with Americanism.Postwar pundits often used the term outside its literary context to criticise what they sawas the contemporary enthusiasm for fervently secular biological explanations as opposedto moral and spiritual ones. Alfred Kinsey, for example, was accused of using ‘anextreme form of naturalism’ in his 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male  (Reumann 26). The Bad Seed  by William March was published on April 8, 1954, in an era widely ac-knowledged as the nadir for American literary naturalism. In the 1951  American Novelists of Today , Herry Warfel had placed March in ‘the school of ction called naturalism, forhe presents the harsh facts of life’, and in the summer of 1954, a  New York Times  edito-rial noted that March ‘had been entirely out of the mainstream of American literatureof the last three decades or so’ (278; Millstein 15). In 1957, a professor of RomanceLanguages at Harvard University listed The Bad Seed  among the several ‘pessimistic’naturalist texts that have damaged America’s reputation in cold war Europe (Cook 231–32). The Bad Seed  , William March’s last novel, was also his most fervently natural-istic, in theme as well as style. However, it became a bestseller, garnering praise from The New Yorker  as ‘one of the year’s best’ and from  New York Times Book Review  as the most‘satisfactory’ novel ‘in recent memory’. The National Book Awards committee declaredthe book one of the twelve best novels of the year. Despite a pronounced Americansuspicion of literary naturalism, the unpopularity of genetic explanations for juvenilecrime, and, most importantly, despite its direct assault on the white, middle-class babyboom, The Bad Seed  had bloomed in the intellectual and emotional climate of the mid-twentieth-century United States.The novel’s notoriety had much to do with its thrilling and unusual plot. The centralcharacter of  The Bad Seed  , Rhoda Penmark, is a seemingly charming eight-year-old girl,with neat braids, perfect manners, and excellent handwriting. She also happens to be amerciless murderer. During the annual school picnic, Rhoda harasses and drownsClaude Daigle, a classmate, for having won a penmanship medal she believes she de-served. She acquires the medal and hides it inside the lining of her ‘treasure box’.
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