The Addams family would gladly feast on those who would subdue them. But over the years, it seems they’ve only thrived.
Since originating as a regular satirical cartoon in The New Yorker in 1938, the macabre family has seen itself in many iterations. In the 1960s, there was the sitcom on ABC, which popularized the now-iconic snapping theme song. Then in 1991, “The Addams Family” film released to mixed reviews and was soon followed by the 1993 “Addams Family Values.” The first film was followed by a video game in 1993, in which players take the role of Gomez Addams rescuing various family members. The 2010 musical, which follows Wednesday Addams in the throws of new love, was nominated for two Tony Awards.
This month, the family has once again made its way to the big screen in an animated iteration of the film. And even outside of franchised creations, the Addams family continues to seep into pop culture. Halloween 2018, actress Sophie Turner and her husband Joe Jonas donned the iconic outfits of Morticia and Gomez Addams. Countless people imitate the spooky family for the holiday and continue to analyze how the family’s deep love for each other could inspire others.
The sheer number of adaptations makes it safe to say “The Addams Family” has withstood the test of time. But according to UCLA Extension instructor Larry Wilson, who co-wrote the screenplay for the 1991 film, the initial drafts of the script were a struggle to write. Wilson said that after having been paired with Caroline Thompson, they began by discussing their mutual taste for the bizarre over burgers. But he added their shared sensibilities did not make the creative process easy.
“The problems with the Addams family was that everything we as people would think were terrible, the Addams family would love,” Wilson said. “The only thing that the Addams family has that everyone can relate to is that, if it’s attacked, people will understand why it’s such a dramatic problem; … what needs to happen is that the family has to be separated.”
But Thompson said it took the pair 18 months to finally reach this breakthrough. Films require a conflict to have a compelling story, and Wilson said they brought script after script to producer Scott Rudin, who kept sending them back to the drawing board – the pair even went as far as to imagine the Addams family on the Titanic, desperate for a compelling plot.
Nevertheless, Thompson said they spent the time passing the keyboard back and forth, laughing and trying to keep in mind the original comics’ tongue-in-cheek tone and dark sensibility. But it was difficult to balance their creative process with the demand to make a movie that would sell, Thompson said.
“We twisted and contorted every which way to make the powers that be happy,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to keep your eye on any other ball than that after a certain point. But I think we took so long to write our first draft so we could have some unadulterated and unsullied time with the material.”
Outside of identifying the main conflict, Wilson said they primarily drew from the original cartoons. The film’s opening scene – in which the camera pans up from Christmas carolers to reveal the Addams family preparing to drop a cauldron of hot oil on the festive group – was directly inspired by one of Charles Addams’ cartoons.
Though they mostly stuck to the cartoons, Wilson said he did take some inspiration from the 1960s show. For instance, he took Thing – which originally appeared in the cartoons as an ominous, unseen figure – and gave it more life. Wilson used the show’s transformed version of Thing as a hand confined to a box. However, he said he wanted to make it a more fleshed out character, envisioning a personality similar to a loyal family dog who would try to rescue the family.
But Wilson said his primary goal in the script was to add emotional depth to the characters. For him, the key was in threatening their family, provoking an emotional arc, particularly in Gomez. Whereas the father figure is happy and unflappable in the cartoons and show, Wilson said Gomez’s family being threatened pushed him to an emotional breakdown.
“What we had to do was within the context of what the movie is and the bizarreness and the comedy of it, was to just deepen the characters a bit and give them some emotional range,” Wilson said.
Even details like the background noises helped deepen the characters, said supervising sound editor Cecelia Hall. The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television lecturer utilized off-camera noises to create a creepy atmosphere for the house – the basement cauldron bubbles, falling items crash through floorboards, and the house constantly creaks. Each character interacted with the space in different ways, she said. Because Morticia steps lightly on her feet, Hall added a delicate, wispy sound to highlight her elegance. Gomez, on the other hand, is larger than life and boisterous, so Hall produced heavy, strong footsteps.
Hall said she aimed to further emphasize the family’s bizarre quirks by researching them beforehand and highlighting small details such as the iconic theme song to draw attention to the franchise’s past.
“‘The Addams Family’ has such a long history, and in a way you had to be representing … many versions of it over time,” Hall said. “The audience was very aware, and they knew the history of this family. You had to meet those expectations and give them something they’re familiar with.”
Building such iconic characters was also reliant on their clothes, Wilson said. Viewers are familiar with Wednesday’s black dress and side braids, as well as Morticia’s sleek, rigid silhouette and dramatic makeup.
Costume designer Ruth Myers said since she had not seen the TV series, she came to the project with fresh eyes to create a history for the characters with their clothing.
“(The cartoons) are line drawings; they give you the silhouette, that’s it,” Myers said. “There is something about silhouette that falls sometime between the end of the Edwardian (era) – late 1890s, 1900s – and the 1940s and ’50s. You’re taking on board all the most elegant fashions.”
Myers first created a backstory for them, envisioning the Addams family as wealthy, Eastern European aristocrats accustomed to a high level of living. This shines through in Morticia’s costumes; Myers designed one main dress as a base, creating looks ranging from a breakfast robe to a day dress to an evening gown.
The stark silhouette Morticia is known for was especially difficult for actress Anjelica Huston to wear, who Myers said had to be transported to the set on a leaning board on the back of a pickup truck, unable to walk normally due to her corset’s tightness. At the wrap party, Myers said Huston ceremonially burned both her corset and her wig.
But Myers said she found the most joy in designing Gomez’s costumes for actor Raul Julia, who had no shame in embracing his characters’ lavish looks. From red velvet jackets to striped suits to bright red tunics, she said Gomez would never be seen in casual day wear.
“Women are beautiful props all the time,” Myers said. “Quirky teenagers, all the time. But to have men … with that sort of male elegance, it was a very fun job.”
And the looks Myers designed remain iconic – a fan of the films even tracked her down and asked her to design a Morticia-style wedding dress. But according to Wilson, it is the focus on the family that continues to draw people to the films. While people may focus on the zany plots and quirky characters, the film’s emotional resonance lies within watching a family fall apart and then come together.
For those dealing with familial woes of their own, Wilson said watching such strange circumstances bring the Addams family back together can be cathartic. Their characters’ intense love and appreciation for one another’s quirks allow the film to endure the test of time, Hall said.
The Addams family’s innocence and playfulness in juxtaposition to its seemingly morbid exterior highlights the fact that the family members are inherently good people audiences can root for. Myers said the focus on the family helps normalize such eccentricities. People who watch it and see themselves in the characters, she said, can feel slightly less out of place in their own lives.
“I think it’s a very affectionate look at a very peculiar life,” Myers said. “And I think that quite a lot of us see ourselves like that – we see ourselves as out of the normal. To see a family take the abnormal into something completely normal and relish it is quite reassuring to people like me.