At one point Wes Craven was scheduled to direct the film, and he even completed a screenplay draft. Producers were disturbed by his approach to the incest-laden story, however, and Jeffrey Bloom ended up with writing and directing duties.
After the sudden death of their father, four children — teenagers Chris and Cathy and 5-year-old twins Cory and Carrie — find themselves penniless and forced to travel with their mother Corrine to live with her wealthy parents (whom the children had neither met nor been told about before). Corrine informs her children that there has been tension between herself and her parents for many years, but does not elaborate and simply says they had cut her out of their lives for something she had done of which they disapproved. The children trust her, though Cathy is skeptical as she wonders what happened that caused the rift between her mother and her parents.
Corrine's mother, Olivia, a religious fanatic, takes her daughter and her children into her home, though with the harsh condition that the children must be sequestered away in a locked room so that her husband Malcolm (who is dying) will never know of their existence. To that end, the children are shut inside one bedroom of the mansion, only with access to the mansion's attic via a secret stairway. It is on their first day there that their grandmother reveals the shocking truth of what caused Corrine to be disowned and stricken from her father's will years ago: Corrine's husband was really her uncle, her father's brother, making their love incestuous and their children the product of incest. When Corrine finally returns to the children that night, she is forced to show the children that she had been savagely bullwhipped by her mother as punishment for her marrying her uncle and having children from the union. Corrine confesses to the children that she and their father were niece and uncle, and her parents were livid as they believed Corrine disgraced the family; the children do not say anything but seem to accept it. Corrine tells the children that her parents made it clear that if she had any children by her uncle she would be disinherited, but because her father doesn't know about them she still has a chance to get the money when he passes away. She says that their confinement will only be for a short time: her father is deathly ill, and once she is able to convince him to secure her inheritance, they will be free and they will leave.
The plot focuses on the children's ordeal as shut-ins and their clashes with the ultra-religious grandmother, who loathes the children due to their incestuous conception. The children struggle to survive, even as their mother's visits quickly taper off. In particular, Olivia becomes obsessed with Chris and Cathy, out of the warped belief that they have become lovers and are repeating the same incestuous acts like Corrine and her uncle did. Discovering them sleeping in the same bed one morning, the grandmother smashes Cathy's ballerina music box, given to her by her deceased father. After Olivia later discovers the two innocently talking while Cathy is bathing, she calls them sinners. Chris manages to chase her out, but Olivia later ambushes Cathy in the bedroom, locks Chris in the closet preceding the attic, and hacks off Cathy's hair with a pair of scissors. She then starves them for a week, and Chris is forced to feed Cory his own blood so he doesn't die of starvation.
As time goes on, the children are often sick, especially Cory and Carrie. Chris and Cathy manage to secretly remove the hinges from their locked door on a few occasions to sneak out of their room, and discover that their mother has been living a life of luxury as well as dating a young lawyer, Bart Winslow. She does eventually come to visit them again, and they confront her about not visiting them anymore and leaving them to suffer at the hands of their grandmother. Corrine is very defensive and acts insulted, cries that they are cruel to think that she is deliberately neglecting them or enjoying life while they are locked up, then storms out. Shortly after, Cory becomes deathly ill. The children ask Olivia and Corrine to take Cory to the hospital, which they do, but later Corrine returns to inform them Cory has died. The children are devastated, but not long after they discover their pet mouse is found dead after eating part of a cookie Cory didn't finish, arousing suspicion in Chris and he investigates the cookie. Chris researches and discovers that Cory and their mouse were killed via arsenic poisoning, mixed in the sugar on the cookies they are served with breakfast, and they believe it's their grandmother who's been poisoning them. The remaining siblings decide to leave the attic once and for all.
Chris sneaks out to steal money before they escape and discovers that their mother is planning to marry Bart Winslow at the mansion the next morning. Though upset, he suggests to Cathy they dress in fancy clothes from the attic, and use the wedding as a cover to sneak out of the house. When Olivia secretly enters their bedroom the next day, hoping to catch them once more doing something "evil", Chris takes her by surprise and beats her unconscious with a bedpost. As they are leaving, Cathy, not wanting her mother to get away with what she did to them and leaving them to suffer by their grandmother's hands, tells Chris they need to find their grandfather and tell him the truth so Corrine would lose her inheritance; they had come across him sleeping in his room once before while out and investigating their mother's absence. However, when they enter his room, they find it empty, with the bed dismantled: their grandfather has been dead for months. They also find a copy of his will that was two months old, which reveals a clause that states that if it is ever revealed Corrine had children from her first marriage, even after his death, she will be disinherited and lose all of her money. They realize that Corrine was the one poisoning the cookies, not their grandmother, and their mother was trying to kill them all so no one would know of their existence and secure her inheritance.
The children crash the wedding ceremony and expose their mother to the guests and the groom; Corrine refuses to acknowledge the children as her own, and Cathy and Chris scold their mother for saying that she would come get them after her father died but breaking the promise when he did pass away, and Chris reveals they found the recent will and told her she knew no one could find out about them or she would lose everything, even after her father's death. Corrine denies it, then Chris shows everyone the dead mouse that died from eating the same cookies Cory ate that their mother made for them, proving that she tried killing them all, succeeding with Cory, when the new will was made. Cathy demands to know why her mother did those horrible things to them when they trusted her and had faith in her. Then Cathy offers her an arsenic-coated cookie as a wedding present to further prove her crime, and in fury tries to force her mother to eat it, chasing her out to a balcony. After a brief struggle, Corrine accidentally falls and dies when her veil is caught on a trellis, strangling her to death. Afterward, the children leave the mansion as their grandmother looks on with scorn; the narrator (an older Cathy's voiceover) explains that the children did manage to survive all by themselves, Chris went to medical school and became a doctor, Cathy got a job and started dancing again, although Carrie was "never truly healthy". She wonders aloud if her grandmother is still alive, anticipating Cathy's eventual return to claim the family's fortune.
V. C. Andrews herself demanded and, eventually, got script approval when she sold the film rights to producers Thomas Fries and Sy Levin. She turned down five scripts (the violent and graphic screenplay by Wes Craven was rejected by the producers, though), before choosing the script by Jeffrey Bloom, who would also direct. Obviously, Bloom's script was the one that was the closest to the novel, but, as he did not have full control over the matter of the film, the numerous producers and the two studios forcefully made changes in the script, thus stripping from it many plot points and themes of the novel, including the incestuous relationship between the oldest siblings. Bloom said there was a lot of conflict in production but could do nothing to talk the producers out of the many drastic changes made in the script.
Originally, Bloom wanted David Shire to score the film, but Christopher Young was chosen by the producers instead.
Veteran actresses Louise Fletcher and Victoria Tennant were cast as the Grandmother and Mother, respectively, while the four children were played by newcomers Kristy Swanson, Jeb Stuart Adams, Ben Ryan Ganger, and Lindsay Parker. Swanson once claimed when V.C. Andrews met her, she said Swanson was just like she pictured Cathy.
Being a fairly low-budget production, Bloom said, big names were not considered for any role in the film. Jeffrey Bloom had a young Sharon Stone audition for the film, but he could not convince the producers to give her the part of Corrine, the mother.
Louise Fletcher wanted to get deep inside her role, so she called Andrews one night to ask about the motivation of her character in the film. She was also so into the part, that she stayed strictly within the character of the Grandmother all the time, even when she wasn't shooting. "I couldn't let myself think about distractions like what a beautiful day or what are we going to have for lunch?" she said in an interview.
Andrews was also given a cameo as a maid in Foxworth Hall, scrubbing the glass of a window after Chris and Cathy attempt to escape from the rooftop. Anne Patty, present at the filming of Andrews' scene, said that her part is metaphorical. "The writer is a person who wipes the window clean so that the reader can clearly see into the lives of the characters".
Bloom claims that, after the filming was completed, the producers approached him to refilm a new ending, and one of the many ideas was that the siblings accidentally kill Corinne during their escape. Bloom tried to talk them out of it and when he was unable to convince them otherwise, he eventually quit. The new ending, partly inspired by the ending of Wes Craven's own screenplay, was eventually filmed by someone else.
Castle Hill, a Tudor Revival mansion in Ipswich, Massachusetts served as Foxworth Hall and was the main location at which nearly all interior and exterior scenes were filmed. The beginning scene shows the children walking towards the front of the house after being dropped off by the bus. In reality the bus stop is at the end of the rolling green where the lawn ends and the ocean begins. The final scene of the film where Cathy pushes her mother Corrine off of the balcony and her bridal veil gets caught in the trellis, strangling her to death, was filmed at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, California.
Jeffrey Bloom had no involvement in the final edit of the film, as he had walked off the set, and the new ending was inserted. He also claimed, regarding scenes involving the incest between Chris and Cathy, scenes were indeed cut.
Bloom's original early cut of the movie was screened to a test audience in December 1986 in San Fernando Valley and it was met with negative reactions, mostly because of the scenes of incest between Cathy and Chris. The test audience, mostly consisting of female adolescents (the same demographic the book series was targeted towards), reported in test cards that they were revolted by the scenes and another where Corrine disrobes in front of her father to be whipped by her mother. They also disliked the original ending where Louise Fletcher's character tries to kill the children with a butcher knife because they found it to be "too horrific".
The producers insisted on a new ending because they thought that the audience for the film would want to see the children take revenge on Corrine, so an unknown director was brought in to film the new ending where Corrine dies (despite the fact that her character lives in the first three books in the series), but the scene was filmed with Victoria Tennant's stunt double since the actress refused to film the scene and walked off set. While rest of the movie was filmed in Massachusetts, new ending was filmed in California. Following severe re-cutting of the film, which was done not just to remove "sensitive content" but also to make it shorter to secure more theatrical screenings, as well as the addition of the infamous new ending that writer and director Jeffrey Bloom hated and refused to film, the film was again screened to a test audience in January 1987. This version was met with more positive feedback and was the version that ended up being released in theaters. Due to drastic re-editing, the film was pushed back to November from its original release in March, almost an entire year later after Bloom's original cut was completed and test screened.
One of the scenes deleted from the final cut of the film was shown in a TV program covering the behind-the-scenes production of the film. It's an extended scene from when Chris and Cathy enter Corrine's bedroom. It shows Cathy going about the room wondering why there are no pictures of Corrine's children or her husband in the room. Another deleted scene was shown being filmed where Corrine and the grandmother confront each other after Cory's death and the grandmother is shown smiling, indicating that she was involved in Cory's funeral.
According to Bloom in a 2010 interview, nudity and scenes of incest being cut out wasn't done solely because of negative feedback from test audiences but also because the studio and the producers wanted to secure a lower rating. It got to the point where even the "small shots and small suggestive stuff" were cut out to make sure that the film got a PG-13 rating from the MPAA.
Kristy Swanson also confirmed in a 2014 interview that there was a test screening which had all scenes of incest included, but when the audience found them to be uncomfortable, they were cut out. Producer Sy Levin also mentioned that one of the cut scenes had Chris watching Cathy through the crack of the door while she was taking off her clothes and getting into a bathtub. Also, test screenings of the film in San Jose and Ohio, after re-editing, were said to include another alternate ending but no further details were reported. According to an LA Times interview (at the time when the movie was released in theaters) with actor Alex Koba who played butler John Hall, just like in Andrews' novel his character also had much bigger role in the original script and also provided a key surprise plot twist. After several rewrites his character was severely reduced and has only one line of dialogue in all the film, "Good evening Mr. Winthrop", and the butler had become little more than a gloomy figure in black who wheels a serving cart back and forth across the screen. And the plot twist was gone. Koba also said about different versions of the endings for the movie: "They had three different endings for that movie, and they picked the worst one, the one you're seeing now." In another, earlier article it was also mentioned that Bloom's original intended ending was very similar to the ending of the original book, and it included the children simply walking out of their attic prison into the sunshine during the wedding, to symbolize growing up, Bloom said, with "the way to freedom clear." It is not known whether this version of the ending was included only in Bloom's original script, or whether it actually was filmed and is the second alternate ending that was shown in some test screenings. Despite interest from fans, no uncut version of the film was released, nor was Bloom's original director's cut, and it is not known if the deleted footage still exists.
According to Bloom, the original ending went like this:
"Briefly, the surviving children interrupt the wedding ceremony and dramatically confront Corrine. All in attendance are horrified by what the children say about how their mother locked them up and poisoned them. The groom is shocked speechless. The grandmother is outraged. The grandfather is there, in his wheelchair, to hear it all. Corrine denies everything, but it doesn't matter; it's too late. The children's story is bolstered by the fact that they look half dead. They leave the wedding, but before leaving the house the grandmother tries to attack them [with a big knife]. They're saved by John Hall, the butler. The grandmother is subdued by him and the children leave."
The film received mostly negative reviews from critics and fans of the book, who both disliked the film's slow pacing, acting and plot changes.
The movie debuted at No. 3.
The film's reception by fans of the book and critics was mostly negative, but Kristy Swanson won a Young Artist Award in 1989 for her portrayal of Cathy Dollanganger, while in 1988, Louise Fletcher was nominated for a Saturn Award for her performance as the Grandmother.
According to Kristy Swanson herself, a sequel to the film adaptation based on the novel's sequel, Petals on the Wind, was planned but eventually it never reached production. Once again, Fries Entertainment was going to be producing the sequel and the script was written by Mark David Perry. The film would be based on the same plotline of the sequel novel, with the exception of the lack of Corinne Foxworth's character since she was killed off in the original film.
Kristy Swanson agreed to do the part one more time but she was never contacted again about the film after she was sent the script: "I was sent a script of Petals on the Wind and it never took off... I remember running into Louise Fletcher in Santa Barbara about four years ago. She asked me if I had gotten the Petals on the Wind script, which I had, and she wanted to know if I had read it. I told her I had and that they had called me about it. I was interested but then I didn't hear from them anymore. And apparently the same thing happened with her. It's like they wanted to do it but they couldn't get it off the ground... When I read the script, I wasn't too thrilled with it. I know Cathy goes through a lot in the next book, and the script was a real "sexfest." She gets pregnant and has so many affairs. There's her brother, Christopher, and then she has an affair with Julian, the dancer, and there's Paul, the doctor. I was actually kind of wondering if I should even do a sequel, you know? I just didn't know if it should be done."
Another adaptation of Flowers in the Attic aired on the Lifetime network on January 18, 2014, starring Heather Graham as Corrine, Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn as Olivia, and Kiernan Shipka and Mason Dye as Cathy and Christopher. Producer Meredith Finn stated that the remake of the film remained much more true to the book than its predecessor with the controversial incest storyline remaining intact.
A tv movie sequel based on the next book of the series, Petals on the Wind, premiered on the Lifetime network on May 26, 2014 Unlike the book, the film jumped ten years ahead from the events of Flowers. It starred Rose McIver as Cathy, Wyatt Nash as Christopher, replacing Kiernan Shipka and Mason Dye from the previous movie, respectively, and Will Kemp as Julian Marquet, with Heather Graham as Corrine and Ellen Burstyn as Olivia Foxworth. Production for the film began on February 25, 2014, in Los Angeles.
The actor Michael Caine has been rumoured to be working on a new adaptation.