Hearing about Lifetime's new movie, I rushed out to read the book. By the time the movie aired, I was halfway through the second book. So my advice is to read the books as well, if you can. They are powerful and heart-wrenching.
Sadly, the movie is less so. Mild spoilers ahead as well.
This is not to say the movie isn't enjoyable but after reading the book, a lot was lost. In the book, you can feel the children wilting in that attic as they wait for their mother to come save them. In the movie? It was rushed. You blink and a year has gone by. Certain instances like the tar in Cathy's hair and the first kiss between her and her brother, Christopher but getting there was jarring; like hopping through the book.
The movie also paints the Grandmother as a much more sympathetic figure. In the book; she's an imposing, emotionless statue, delighting in squashing any hint of impropriety and barely thinking of these children as even human. Ellen Burstyn (holy crap, this woman is amazing here) gives the Grandmother more emotion. For example, when the children work on a beautiful Christmas gift for her and she snubs it, in the book Grandmother is stone-faced and walks out. In the movie, Burstyn shows a flash of emotion, as if she wants to take the gift, is touched by it, but refuses to allow herself to take the children's peace offering. In addition, when the infamous powdered doughnuts appear with the children's daily rations, she says "I wouldn't eat them if I were you." A warning. The kids never got such a warning in the book.
The movie does it's job. It's so sad to watch these children struggle to survive and make the best of their situation while their mother just gallivants off and forgets them. But to me, the book had the chance to really take its time so you feel the days drag on and hope fade in that tiny little room. It's hard to cram that into two hours (I wouldn't have minded if it took longer) but the movie did the book as much justice as time allowed. The kids did a great job in their roles and whenever Burstyn was on the screen, I flinched in fear.
I sincerely hope Lifetime plans to do the other novels because as I read the second and gear up for the third, I would be interested in seeing how the actors handle the change in the characters as they try so desperately to rise above their traumatic past. But the movies should also take their time. Surely Lifetime can clear maybe two and a half hours, right?
In this instance, I have to come down on the side of the book being better, even though the movie was good enough for me to have no problem watching twice in a row. Burstyn as the grandmother is worth the whole darn thing, so Lenni recommends watching AND reading.