Every book adaptation of an existing work has its own set of problems. Not only was Jane Smiley’s 1991 novel a Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller with a large number of devoted fans, but the book A Thousand Acres was in turn self-conscious reworking of King Lear, which is a play with a larger number of more devoted fans. It might not be fair to directly compare Smiley’s text with Shakespeare but the way in which this modernization invokes Lear invites such comparisons. Smiley isn’t just reusing the idea of a father who gives his land to his three daughters, she is retaining so many specifics of Lear that the reader has to view the book as not merely a borrowing of elements but as a direct rewrite of the original text.
For instance, the names are coded equivalents of Shakespeare’s: Lear has been changed to Larry, while Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia have become Ginny, Rose, and Caroline. The political alliances of the play have been reproduced as financial alliances. The storm, at least, is still a storm.
The nature of Smiley’s divergences from Shakespeare suggests a feminist re-evaluation of the tale. She seems to be interested in reclaiming it from the male-controlled cultural tradition, or at least in suggesting an alternative reading, which is a different side of the same story, from the standpoint of daughters rebelling against a grotesque patriarchy rather than through the eyes of the spurned patriarch.
Larry Cook a hard-working, well-to-do Iowa farmer who has built up the thousand-acre spread he inherited from his father and grandfather has three daughters. Ginny the oldest, lives with her husband Ty down the road from Larry; Rose also lives on the grounds with husband Pete and two daughters; and Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines. One day Larry announces that he’s retiring and splitting the farm among the three girls. Ginny is agreeable, and Rose downright
enthusiastic, but Caroline, who has escaped the farm life, isn’t sure she’s interested. Her reaction deeply offends Larry, who disowns her, both materially and emotionally. Ginny tries to reconcile them, to no avail.
Ginny, Rose, Ty, and Pete begin an ambitious expansion of the farm, but Larry, who immediately regrets his retirement, becomes resentful of his self-imposed retirement, sinking into drink and madness. After an ugly confrontation with his eldest daughters, he teams up with Caroline to combat what he sees as his betrayal by a pair of usurpers. Up to this point the plot has been the same an in Lear.
Still, the story is being narrated by Ginny: As the oldest in a motherless family, she has always been the one to smooth over conflicts, but she is knocked over by a revelation that completely changes her. Because of the Lear parallels, this revelation shocks the reader. Had we not been led to expect the blow-by-blow updating of Shakespeare, we would have guessed it much earlier. Suddenly it becomes clear how and why Smiley has deviated from the original. All along we have been getting the equivalent of Goneril’s take on events; but until this point Ginny has been a self-deceived idiot. Her take has been fairly close to the traditional view of the story, but now she realizes what she has always denied: Larry is simply a monster, a depiction of
everything that’s wrong about men and fathers. The logical conclusion is that Shakespeare, being
a male, has inevitably given us either an untrue or horribly one-sided reading of the story. Our sympathies have been aligned primarily with Cordelia and secondarily with Lear, against the conniving Goneril and Regan.
As injustice upon injustice are heaped upon Ginny and Rose, the local townspeople, ignorant of the worst of Larry’s behavior, all side with him. The assumption is that Larry, as a hard working “pillar of the community,” must be in the right. The townspeople are simply stand-ins for the viewers of Lear: They represent the audience that has always taken Goneril and Regan as villains.
Whereas in Shakespeare, Lear considers Cordelia a serpent-toothed child who betrays her father, here Caroline’s betrayal is against her stand-in “mothers” Ginny and Rose. It is her love for Larry that marks her as the thankless child. We never actually see Larry’s most terrible sins; we only have Ginny and Rose’s accounts of them. The option exists that we are deliberately being shown not a revised view of Lear but an equally one-sided perspective, exactly as unfinished and unreliable as Shakespeare’s.