bad seed

The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed is a 1954 novel by William March, nominated for the 1955 National Book Award for Fiction. It was the last major work written by March, and, although published in his lifetime, its enormous critical and commercial success was largely realized after his death, one month after publication. The novel was adapted into a successful and long-running Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson and an Academy Award-nominated film directed by Mervyn Leroy.

Plot summary

The central character of the story is Christine Penmark, a young mother who finds out that her eight-year-old daughter, Rhoda, is a murderer. Prompted by strange dreams and her landlady's dalliance in psychiatric theories, Christine begins to wonder if she's an adopted child. She eventually figures out that she is actually the sole surviving daughter of "The Incomparable Bessie Denker," a well-known (fictional) serial killer. Bessie Denker's career is based very roughly on the real-life careers of Belle Gunness and other such black widows. The description of her execution in the electric chair is based on that of Ruth Snyder.

Rhoda is portrayed as a sociopath, although the term was not widely used at the time. Like her grandmother, she has no conscience and will kill if necessary to get whatever she wants, whether that be a penmanship medal she felt she should have won, the silence of a janitor who knows more than she wants him to or the desire to possess an opal pendant. By the time Christine puts the truth together, Rhoda has already killed three people (the old lady who was going to leave her a snowglobe, Claude Daigle, and Leroy the janitor) and one puppy. An adept manipulator, she can easily charm adults while eliciting fear and repulsion from other children, who can sense something wrong with her.

Once her mother has come to the correct conclusions, she has to wrestle with a terrible dilemma. As young as Rhoda is, there are no guarantees that any arrangements made to confine her will prove permanent, and there would be a huge glare of publicity. At the same time, Christine knows full well that Rhoda will certainly kill again and again. Christine decides to give Rhoda a lethal dose of sleeping pills and then commits suicide with a revolver. However, Rhoda is rescued by a neighbor in time to get to the hospital; at the end of the book, she is alive and well, with no one the wiser as to her true nature.

Film versions

The play was adapted by John Lee Mahin for the screenplay of a 1956 movie directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Paul Wendkos directed the 1985 television adaptation of The Bad Seed. The ending of the 1956 film was changed from the novel in order to comply with the Hays Code; Rhoda is struck and killed abruptly by lightning when she goes back to the scene of her crime to retrieve the medal, while Christine survives her suicide attempt. The 1985 television movie kept the novel's original ending.

Plans to do a second remake, with Eli Roth as director, were scrapped.

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