Of all the screen-famous families to know, The Addams Family is one that somehow rings a bell for just about everyone who’s acquainted themselves with prolific television. What first started off as single-panel cartoons by Charles Addams, discovered through the newspapers way back in 1938, has since developed into an ever-evolving concept of a quirky, morbid family characterised by their dark humour. And at every turning point of a decade since the ‘60s, there seemed to be a newfangled adaptation of the bizarre family dynamic; sometimes a satirical conjecture at the heavy-handed image of the perfect American family, and other times a liberating celebration of the most idiosyncratic characters in the series.
But from the newspaper-enclosed cartoons to the multitude of television remakes and even loosely adapted animations, perhaps none are quite as iconic as the two helming screen pictures: the ‘60s family sitcom and the 1991 box office film, both titled The Addams Family. And yet whilst they were both spookily sharp in their portrayals of what the eclectic family was supposed to represent, they both also managed to be wholly different in their own ways. The family sitcom starring John Astin as Gomez and Carolyn Jones as Morticia, was very much focused on undermining the oft-purported facade of what the ideal family unit should look like.
Many ‘perfect American families’ portrayed during television of this post-war era were heavily driven by the patriarchal narrative, clamping down on divisive gender roles that drew a line between the male and female, or the husband and the wife; gendered distinctions that we can still see happening within the domestic space, even till this day. Unlike these portrayals, Gomez and Morticia were hardly ever defined by their genders: the former was always presented to be eternally devoted and openly affectionate to his wife (unlike the otherwise ‘strong’ image that was expected of the masculine figure in a household), and the latter never let her ‘domestic’ role define her. They were perhaps ahead of their time, in this sense.
But whilst the sitcom focused on the relationship between husband and wife, it was the 1991 screen film that shone the spotlight on one other scintillating character we’ve come to know and love: Wednesday Friday Addams. Daughter to Gomez and Morticia, the morbid character was first played by Christina Ricci as a child, and it was her outlandish portrayal that set the precedent to the upcoming eponymous adaptation we are to expect from Netflix this fall.
Enter: Wednesday. From the title alone, it seems like the offbeat episodic adaptation is already announcing its bold departure from the original sentiment of The Addams Family. In the recently released trailer, Wednesday, who’s played by Jenna Ortega, ends off with a sinister sum up of the series: “Little did I know I’d be stepping into a nightmare: full of mystery, mayhem and murder. I think I’m going to love it here,”. Whilst the central plot seems to focus on her admission into Nevermore Academy, a puzzling series of murders begin to take place—and it is Wednesday’s role in the middle of all the mayhem that we can expect to see unfold. From Ricci to Ortega, what seems to follow through for this portrayal of Wednesday, is the former’s morbid and deadpan nature, alongside her eccentric knack for all things macabre.
But what truly makes Wednesday a compelling adaptation-to-be is none other than Tim Burton’s part to play in it all, as executive producer and director over at least four episodes of the series. Having sat in the director’s seat behind a slew of gothic fantasy film classics, Burton is one storyteller who has undeniably defined an entire genre of film on his own. The mastermind behind Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and The Corpse Bride, he has even had an entire film style named after him: ‘Burtonesque’ is often used to describe visually dark and whimsical art styles used in screen pictures.
Burton’s adroit hand has always been in the strange and dark portrayal of an otherwise melancholic narrative at heart. Death hangs in the air, often. The deceased occupy protagonist roles—think the Maitlands in Beetlejuice or Emily, the tragic bride in The Corpse Bride. But there is one sadly charming element that continues to run through most of the stories Burton hopes to tell: that of the marginalised and lost individual. From the man who has scissors for hands to the panda-eyed teenager who feels isolated from her own family, the director’s knack comes in the form of narrativising stories from these alternative points of view, through enigmatic and bizarre visuals.
It is in this glinting, not-so-distant narrative space then, that we find the merging of the two to simply make sense. At the crux of The Addams Family, after all, is an exposition of individuals who find their joy in the weird, even if it were curiously told through a liking for all things black, butcher knives and boroughs of blood. Both Burton and the comic turned satirical screen picture demonstrate their common trait for questioning why we question the weird, when each of us are all so peculiar and different in our own idiosyncratic ways.
In more ways than one, Burton is the perfect person to try his hand at a portrayal of what The Addams Family might stand for today. In some not-so-strange coincidence, it’s perhaps of note that when Christina Ricci auditioned for her role of Wednesday in the ‘90s film, it was Winona Ryder’s rendition of Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice that she was trying to channel. The intersections between Burton’s filmography and the world of The Addams Family are undeniably uncanny, but the stage has finally been set. All that’s left to see then, is what the puppet master himself decides to unveil.
Wednesday will air on Netflix in fall 2022.