(Click here for information on the 2013 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As three of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the September selection, The Stepford Wives.)
Technically, there hasn’t been snow on the ground yet, so let’s finish off this unfinished business known as Imaginary Summer Book Club, 2013.
Along with the better-known Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin can be considered the foremost specialist in domestic horror, that sinking feeling that maybe the man you married is not what he seems.
Published in 1972 and coming in at a breathless 123 pages, The Stepford Wives deals with freelance photographer Joanna Eberhart’s move to the idyllic bedroom community of Stepford, Connecticut with her husband and two young children. Over the four months of the story, Joanna is first unnerved and then alarmed as she discovers that there is something not quite right with the women in Stepford and that their seemingly devoted husbands, including her own, are behind it all.
(The paperback edition of the book was marketed with one of the all-time great taglines, which basically sums it up: “One by one the Stepford Women are becoming Stepford Wives.”)
Three years later, the book was adapted for the screen by William Goldman for British director Bryan Forbes. While novel and film follow basically the same trajectory, there are some notable differences, especially regarding the portrayal of the Stepford men.
The movie is also a rare case of stunt casting paying off. The newest wives in town, in addition to Joanna, are sexy Charmaine and sarcastic loud-mouth Bobbie, played by Tina Louise (Ginger from Gilligan’s Island!) and Paula Prentiss (teen-idol star of Where The Boys Are, among others); Joanna is played by The Graduate’s Elaine Robinson, Katharine Ross. The fact that the men in town are married to three sex symbols of the 1960s and just a few years later are looking to do… what they are doing, adds an additional layer of contextual disgust for the viewer.
Perhaps to balance out that disgust, (or perhaps because the project is helmed by men), pains are taken to make the Stepford men more sympathetic in the film. Joanna’s husband, Walter, is at one point conscience-stricken and tearfully reassures his baffled wife that “I really do love you.” Similarly, Charmaine’s husband has a moment where he is genuinely distraught when he realizes what he has signed up for by moving to Stepford.
(In contrast, in the novel the idea of a perfect robot wife literally gives Walter a boner.)
Much of the real horror in both book and movie comes from how on the surface, the husbands easily acquiesce to their wives wishes: you want to move away from Stepford? Of course we can, you can start looking for a new house right away… but let’s not move until after Christmas, why make the kids change schools mid-semester?
How can you question the motives of a husband who is eager to do whatever it is you want to do? Who wouldn’t start to question if maybe they are in fact being a trifle hysterical?
And that is the other real horror of the novel, the fact that near the end, trapped in “the country” with nothing to occupy her time except Kinder, Küche, Kirche, Joanna is three-quarters of the way to being Stepfordized without the benefit of her husband’s intervention.
The film sets up a marvelous contrast between the dirty, noisy Upper West Side that the Eberharts have fled and the soft-focus, rolling green hills of the suburbs: Stepford is as ethereal as a douche commercial.
A number of made-for-TV sequels were produced to this version of the film, including The Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980), The Stepford Children (1987) and (equality at last?) The Stepford Husbands (1996).
DVD. The sequels were released on VHS and can be found on YouTube.
Thus concludes the 2013 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. We’ll see you next year, which is actually more like 6 months from now.