Sometime this year I picked up a copy of The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin at the fantastic Building 19 (one of the best things about New England, as I’ve talked about before). I’m a slow reader but the book was pretty short, so it didn’t take me too long to get through it. And it was a good read. I was impressed with how much Levin was able to fit into (I think) less than 120 pages. Not really knowing more than the basic “something’s weird about the women of Stepford, they’re TOO good at being house wives” idea, I was pleasantly surprised as I read through and found a building sense of dread as Joanna loses friends and a little bit of her mind as all the women around her either are or are turned into the “perfect housewife.”
It also hit on one of the themes that I personally find to be the scariest in fiction/life, which is the main person telling the truth, but no one believes them (as I mentioned in the my riveting review of Dying to Belong). You really get a sense of that as Joanna’s liberated female friends start joining the clean house club.
Since it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, I’ll talk more about the movie which watched yesterday, though the movie follows along pretty closely. In the movie version, which was written by the insanely brilliant screenwriter William Goldman, Joanna and her family move from New York City to Stepford, CT. Everything’s fine at first, though you start to see some cracks in Joanna’s relationship with her husband. It seems like he’s been making a lot of big decisions without really consulting with her, like moving and joining up with a men only men’s club in Stepford. As she meets the other women of Stepford, Joanna comes to realize that they’re all the poster children for good housekeeping, worried more about the appearance of their homes and children than any real social issues. This doesn’t sit well with Joanna or her new friend Bobbie who also recently moved to Stepford. Both women try to find other like-minded women in town, but come up short with one exception, Charmaine (played by Ginger from Gilligan’s Island!). As time goes on, Charmaine goes from free wheeling to kitchen cleaning, which completely freaks Bobby out. Both Bobbie and Joanna try to get their husbands to move out of Stepford because they’re genuinely scared about what’s going to happen. Then Bobbie “goes away for the weekend” with her husband and comes back Stepford-ized. Now Joanna’s really freaked out. She goes to an out-of-town shrink who tells her to go home, get her kids and get the hell out of Stepford. When Joanna does, she’s met with hostility and her kids are missing. From there she’s making a mad dash around town to find her kids, but comes face to face with the real reason why the women of Stepford seem so perfect. SPOILER, they’re robots.
It’s actually cooler than that might sound. The set-up is that a bunch of the men in the men’s club are genius scientist type guys. One is an animatronics expert from Disney World, one’s a famous artist, one studies voices and tricks the women into recording a list of words for his “private study.” There’s also a number of companies like General Electric and other computer companies. It’s actually kind of a brilliant plot element, as dreamed up by Levin in the book and put on screen by Goldman. The men even go so far as to steal Joanna’s dog and keeping it in their clubhouse (a huge old mansion), presumably to get the dog to become familiar with the Joanna-bot. There’s some really great touches in there that you can thank both Levin and Goldman for.
I can’t remember the exact ending of the book, but in the movie SPOILER Joanna comes face to face with her robot replacement and the robot (presumably) kills her. The robot then takes her place and you end on the bleakest shot of beautiful women walking around the supermarket you’ll ever see. It’s just so hopeless, which is the real gut punch for me. There’s also such a sense of betrayal that feel towards Joanna’s husband. He seems like an okay dude in the beginning, but then he signs up with these dudes who want to kill his wife and replace her with “the perfect wife.” Jeez, man, you’ve gotta be stone cold to do something like that. The whole point, from the men’s perspective, is that you work hard, you might as well have the perfect woman who will have awesome sex with you, clean up after you and never give you any problems. Or have independent thought. I think it’s a cool commentary on the time that it was written but can still be read and watched with an eye towards today.
The movie was longer than I expected, almost two hours, but it does a great job of doing the slow build. I can see how it might be boring for some people, but, even though I hadn’t seen it before, I knew what to look for because I had read the book (like when the men are meeting at Joanna’s house and one of them draws her, the drawing is like the kiss of death, once you’ve got it and have finished the word recordings after living there for four months, your donezo). So it was kind of like I had seen the movie. All the major beats are still there. I think the main differences are the seasons, I remember there being snow in the book, but it’s rain in the movie. And like I said, I can’t remember the specifics of the book’s ending, though Joanna does end up getting replaced.
The big question for me is, what do they do with the original wife. Do they get flat out killed? Do their memories get erased? These dudes are basically mad scientists who run a small town, so they’ve got a good amount of options. I’d also like to see someone like Dirty Harry roll into town and offer up some justice. Maybe I’ll start writing my script treatment…
Oh, one last thing, I forgot to mention initially. According to IMDB Goldman’s original intent for the movie adaptation would be that all the women would be walking around looking like Playboy Playmates, wearing short shorts and what not. So how did the movie end up feature what look like Southern belles in big floppy hats and long dresses? Well one of the producers agreed to finance the film only if his wife could get a role in it. And, while she was pretty, she wasn’t the type that Hef would put on the cover of his mag, so they had to switch the WHOLE look that they were going for because this woman looked homely. I know they just remade this move with Nicole Kidman a few years ago (haven’t seen it), but I’d like to see a remake that’s more of a period piece, set in the 70s with this look. Mostly because 70s Playmates were super hot! Who’s with me?!