One of the most infamous murder cases in American History, Lizzie Borden has since become something of a legend.
Her (alleged) gruesome crime was only the second time in history that photographs of the crime scene were taken for forensic purposes (the first being Jack the Ripper’s crime scenes in London).
We all know the grimly catchy nursery rhyme “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax”, but there’s a lot more to the story.
She’s been portrayed in film and television many times, however when it comes to telling her story in detail, there are three films that come to mind: The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014), and Lizzie (2018). But which one does the best job of telling her story? Let’s take a swing at finding out!
The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975)
Borden had been portrayed on stage and in TV episodes prior, this however was a feature length TV movie that aired on ABC in 1975. It cast Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) as Lizzie and Katherine Helmond (Soap) as her sister Emma.
It plays out more like a courtroom drama/murder mystery, with Mr. and Mrs. Borden only being shown via flashback during testimony. All round, its performances are pretty strong, but fairly theatrical, bordering on melodramatic at times.
Here and there, it feels like we’re watching a play, which isn’t surprising, considering its TV movie budget and setting. That said, it conjures up a great deal of suspense and tension when we finally do see the murders at the end.
It brilliantly uses quick cuts of earlier scenes to show us Lizzie’s building tension that led to this horrific moment. We also see an incredibly supportive Emma, who’s willing to use all of her inheritance on Lizzie’s defense.
While it does have good performances, and a killer ending (no pun intended), we don’t really ever get to know Lizzie the person, or her home life, as it’s only shown here and there in flashback. But still a very solid adaptation that many consider to be the first (in terms of cinema).
Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014)
39 years later, another TV movie attempted to tell Lizzie Borden’s infamous story, only this time the tense drama and mystery was replaced with a lighter tone that almost bordered on satire. Christina Ricci (The Addams Family, Sleepy Hollow) gives us a Lizzie Borden that’s kind of a troublemaker.
We see her steal from her father, shoplift, and antagonize her family, while seeming to enjoy it. Clea DuVall (The Faculty, The Grudge) takes the role of Emma, and their relationship is far more strained that in the 1975 adaptation.
Christina Ricci herself said that this version was meant to be more tongue-in-cheek, and it definitely shows. Ricci’s manic performance is very much the highlight. It does a great job of showing us a home life that was toxic on all ends.
Both Lizzie and her father aren’t portrayed as very likeable people, so when the murders inevitably happen, we’re not really sure who was more deserving. However the one area where this version has issues is in its “music video editing”.
There are random scenes with slow motion and modern rock music in the background that feels very jarring from the time, setting, and tone of the rest of the movie. It tries very hard to be flashy, but just comes off as style over substance most of the time.
Only a few years later, this most recent adaptation was quietly released in limited theaters, and is now a Shudder Exclusive. By far the most dramatic of the three, Lizzie stars Chloë Sevigny (American Horror Story) and Kim Dickens (Hollow Man, Fear the Walking Dead) and Lizzie and Emma respectively.
However, the relationship between the Borden sisters, which is of great significance in the other versions, is pushed to the sidelines here. This adaption runs with a theory some historians have that Lizzie Borden had a relationship with the family maid Bridget Sullivan, here played by Kristen Stewart (Twilight franchise).
The two of them are shown to suffer greatly at the hands of Mr. Borden, who is emotionally/verbally abusive toward Lizzie and even sexually abusive toward Bridget.
Unlike the two previous movies we discussed, this Lizzie is by no means a psychopath out for money, rather she and Bridget commit the murders as a last resort after being abused for too long (which some historians argue is what really happened in that house).
Out of all three, it’s definitely the version that takes itself the most seriously and is the most dramatic, and is even rather depressing.
So Which One is Best?
This may seem like a copout, but there really isn’t one straight answer. It really depends on what you are looking for.
If you’re purely interested in the history of Lizzie Borden and the ins and outs of her trial, The Legend of Lizzie Borden would be perfect for you.
But, if you’re more a fan of lighthearted cinema and campy fun, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax will make for a fun and enjoyable watch.
However, if you’re more sympathetic toward Lizzie Borden, and submit to the theory that she was in fact abused, Lizzie is a great cathartic viewing experience.
If you’re interested, the infamous Borden house in Fall River, MA is now a Bed & Breakfast/Museum. You can take a tour, and even stay overnight! Check out their website!
Which version is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
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