Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” appeared in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. The response to the fictional piece, which concerns a small-town tradition that ends in horrific violence, was profoundly negative. While many were dumbfounded by Jackson’s story, others were deeply disturbed. Here’s one such response: “I read it while soaking in the tub…and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all.” Readers were shaken and outraged by it—even Jackson’s own parents let her know they didn’t like the piece. In all, the author received over 300 letters about “The Lottery”; only thirteen were positive. But what was the moral of the story? Thoughtless conformity can lead to cold-blooded killing? Ordinary people are capable of committing unspeakable atrocities? Cruelty is random? In July 1948, Jackson explained what she was trying to convey.
I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.
Two decades later, a film adaption of “The Lottery” was produced by the Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation. The 1969 short went on to become one of the bestselling educational films of all time.
I first saw The Lottery in a middle school English class, and was around twelve years old. I was wholly unfamiliar with Shirley Jackson’s story, and as my teacher didn’t introduce the film, I was completely unprepared for what I was about to see. During the final moments, the matter of fact nature of the violence was so shocking…I mean, I was stunned. STUNNED. When the film ended, so did class, and I have no memory of talking to anyone about the film. What I do remember is that I had gym next, and vividly recall sitting on a bench in the boy’s locker room, dazed and shell-shocked, trying to make sense of it all. The Lottery scared the shit out of me, and I’ve never forgotten that moment. Thanks to the Internet, I know now I wasn’t the only one so strongly affected by it.
I never read the short story, so watching this short film was a true shocker for me. Like many other people, I saw this in my English class a long time ago, and since then, I still haven’t seen it. But I still remember that time; it really stays with you. I remember everyone in my class with their jaws dropping, we couldn’t believe it. (IMDb user review)
A young Ed Begley Jr. appears in the film, as does the prolific, but lesser known actor, William Fawcett, who steals the show as “Old Man Warner,” the curmudgeonly elder whose blind faith in the lottery tradition is ripe for analysis.
In addition to the film, the Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation also produced a nine minute examination of The Lottery, and it’s totally worth watching (it immediately follows the eighteen minute short, embedded below). I wish my English teacher would’ve made time for that, too! If, like the twelve-year-old me, you’ve never read Shirley Jackson’s controversial allegory, do yourself a favor and feast your eyes on it here. A fine collection of the author’s novels and short stories, which, of course, includes “The Lottery,” is for sale on Amazon.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘The Finishing Line’: The grisly British educational film that scared kids and shocked parents