So it's no surprise that The Ditchdigger's Daughters, a Family Channel movie (airing at 7 p.m. PT and ET Sunday) which tells the inspiring true story of the six Thornton girls and how they rose from poverty, is highly controversial--within the Thornton family.
The movie is mostly based on the 1995 book of the same title written by Dr. Yvonne Thornton. It focussed on her father, Donald, a black laborer in New Jersey with a dream that all his girls, born in the '50s, would become doctors. Four did become medical professionals: Yvonne, a doctor in charge of a perinatal center, Jeanette, a psychiatrist, Linda, a dentist, and Betty, a nurse. Rita grew up to be a lawyer and Donna, who died in 1993, a court stenographer.
Donald rode his girls hard. They weren't allowed to play with other children in the neighborhood and had to study as a group. Although, he sounds like an obsessive, says Yvonne, he imparted the belief that "education must be taken seriously, because it will be the only commodity that will stand the test of time."
But after the publication of her book, Jeanette and Rita privately published one of their own. They saw their father (who died in 1977) as a manipulative man who divided the sisters against each other--far from the tight-knit group that Yvonne portrayed.
Enter Paris Qualles, a screenwriter (Tuskegee Airmen) who grew up with Rita and got the job to turn the book into a film. He never knew about any conflict among the daughters (nor, for that matter, about the second book) and set out to construct his own version of the family, with Jeanette as a rebel and Yvonne a loyalist to their dad. It was common sense "that there had to be some rebellion, that all the sisters wouldn't go along with the father's dictates," he says.
Yvonne, the only sister who has seen the movie, says she wasn't so "naive" as to think that Qualles woudn't take some dramatic license. She still feels the project is a "tender tribute to her parents." As for the differing memories among the siblings, she says "it's just the usual. I love all my sisters."