From Novel to Film pt. 11: The Stepford Wives

"Dave didn't want to move there. Too many WASPs. Well, I'd rather be stung by WASPs than poisoned by whatever's around here."


First published in 1972.

"Ira Levin’s prose is clean, precise, and unfussy specifically in order to be as transparent as possible: he wishes to place no verbal static between the words on the page and the events they depict." - Peter Straub, introduction to the 2002 edition.

Joanna Eberhart is a professional photographer, married to Walter, a lawyer. They live in Manhattan. When Walter proposes that their 2 children will have a better childhood if they move out of the city, she agrees, and the novel opens on the day the move into their new home in Stepford, CT.

Walter is asked to join the mysterious Men's Association, run by "Diz," so-called because he used to head Disneyland's animatronics department prior to moving to Stepford. 

Played by Patrick O'Neal in the film.
Joanna doesn't mind at first, but he soon begins to spend every night there. Joanna tries to make friends, but she finds it difficult to relate to the other women of Stepford.

She does make two friends, however: Bobbie and Charmaine.

They are, outside herself, the most recently-arrived to Stepford.
Played in the film by Paula Prentiss and Tina Louise, respectively.
Both women share Joanna's unease with their fellow Stepford wives. Charmaine doesn't mind the Men's Association so much, though - anything to keep (her husband) from his constant demands for kinky sex. When Charmaine comes back from a weekend away with her husband, though, and suddenly starts spouting the same mantras about serving her husband and floor wax and baking that the women previously associated with the other wives, both Joanna and Bobbie begin to suspect something very weird is happening.

Joanna discovers that years ago there was a Women's Club, formed by the same wives who seem so robotic and submissive now, that even hosted a lecture by Betty Friedman (author of The Feminine Mystique.) What changed the women of Stepford from budding women's libbers into "actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants, big in the bosom but small in the talent (...) too nicey-nice to be real"? 

When Bobbie undergoes the same radical transformation after a weekend away with her husband, Joanna insists they leave town immediately. When asked why, she tells him her theory - that something exists in Stepford that changes all the women into housewife drones. Walter agrees to move if Joanna see a psychiatrist. She reluctantly agrees, and her therapist coaxes her theory from her.

"'It sounds,' Dr. Fancher said, 'like the idea of a woman who, like many women today, and with good reason, feels a deep resentment and suspicion of men. One who's pulled two ways by conflicting demands, perhaps more strongly than she's aware; the old conventions on the one hand, and the new conventions of the liberated woman on the other.'"  

Joanna suspects she will be next and tries to flee, but the men corner her in the woods. They deny the accusation and ask Joanna if she would believe them if she saw one of the other women bleed. ("Robots can't bleed, right?") Joanna agrees to this and they take her to Bobbie's house. Bobbie's husband and son are upstairs, with loud rock music playing—as if to cover screams. We don't see the resolution of this scene, but it ends with Bobbie brandishing a knife.

In the epilogue, Joanna, bustier and dressed to the nines, runs into the most recently arrived wife, Ruthanne, whom she met previously in the novel. Ruthanne later tells her husband how different she seemed from when they first met. Her husband grunts and mentions this Men's Association he's been hearing about... 

The End.
It's a terrific novel. Peter Straub again: "(The reader) gradually recognizes that an inexorable internal timetable lies beneath its action, and that each of the novel’s hints, breakthroughs, and mini-climaxes – the stages of its heroine’s progress toward final knowledge – have been exquisitely timed against the imperatives of that underlying schedule. (...) Wives in Stepford become Stepford wives after the period of time necessary for their husbands to prepare the ground, or four months after arrival."

It's easy to talk about the environment in which the book appeared (the decade of Women's Lib and a cultural shift away from the nuclear family) than the actual book. Understandable but it undermines Levin's accomplishment. Stepford is often called satire rather than sci-fi or horror. It's satirical the way Rosemary's Baby (also by Levin) is satirical. It also shares that novel’s central caustic sensibility: men will sacrifice their wives for the perpetuation of their own power. As Straub put it: "This is a novel that satirizes its oppressors and their desires, not their victims, within a context that satirizes its very status as a thriller."

And like the husband of Rosemary’s, Walter appears on the surface to be supportive. As discussed here: "(He) doesn't complain about her working in the darkroom or look annoyed when she takes photographs. But you realize by the end of the book that he resented it by what we assume he has programmed the Joanna bot to say about her former vacation: 'I was never that good, anyway'."

The superficial gentility of the Stepford Husbands certainly enhances the horror of what they're actually up to and how they've elected to go about it. Rather than speak to their wives, they conspire to upgrade them to a model easier to deal with:

“One of the more subversive aspects of Levin’s premise is that it takes only the mildest acts of rebellion to induce the men of Stepford to slaughter their wives. (...) The women of Stepford don’t burn their bras or write manifestos. They merely neglect to wear lipstick, except at social functions; become indifferent to housework; and pursue private hobbies, such as photography, or writing books for children. But for the men of Stepford, these are crimes punishable by death.”


"Daddy? I just saw a man carrying a naked lady."
"Well, that's why we're moving to Stepford."

Bryan Forbes directed and William Goldman adapted the book for its 1975 theatrical release. One of my favorite films of my favorite decade of American film. Like the source material, the film has its own "hints, breakthroughs, and mini-climaxes," some of which are inventions of Goldman's script:

- Bobbie and Joanna attempt to raise interest in a "consciousness raising" session for their fellow wives.

They are politely rebuffed by everyone but Charmaine.

When Joanna is asked by the Men's Association to read a long list of words into a tape recorder, though (red flag! Allegedly it's for a computer program one of the men is writing about accents or somesuch) she agrees, but only if they exert pressure on their wives to attend the get-together. Which they do, but it quickly (and memorably) becomes a frantic conversation about Easy On Spray Starch.

This is suggested in the novel when Bobbie jokingly tries to come up with a radio jingle advertising the Stepford Wives ("They never stop, these Stepford wives. They something something all their lives. Work like robots? Yes, that would fit. They work like robots all their lives.") But it does not otherwise appear.

- Joanna and Bobbie visit "Raymond Chandler," Joanna's former lover, who tests the Stepford water on the theory that it's something in the water that is turning all the women into advertising jingles with libidos.

This is (I think) in the book, but it's developed considerably for the film.

- Walter is depicted somewhat differently. As mentioned in that Feral Homemaking review, "Walter comes across at first as an enlightened ally (in the book,) not a whiny, entitled chump like the Walter in the movie." 

After his first night at the Men's Association, where he learns what's in store for Joanna, he gets drunk and awkwardly tells his wife how much he loves her. 

Whereas in the book, Joanna is awakened by the bed bouncing from his vigorous masturbation.
Slight change.
- The scene where the Bobbie bot malfunctions after Joanna stabs her, smashing kitchenware purposelessly and repeating "I thought we were friends" over and over, does not appear in the book.
"No, you look!"

It's an intriguing repurposing of the end of the novel, though. And speaking of:

- The supermarket scene at the ending of the movie (and Joanna's ultimate fate) is the same as the book:

Bobby and Joanna. "How are you?" I'm fine. "And the children." They're fine.
Incidentally, this is the only appearance in the film of Ruthanne and her husband.
But the scenes leading up to it are changed considerably.

After stunning Walter with a swing of his golf club,
Joanna is lured to the Men's Association, where she thinks her children are being kept.

Keeping the Men's Association a mystery until the very end of the film is the right move. Visually, these scenes are foreshadowed by two shots that call attention to themselves at from earlier in the film:

She follows the sound of her children's voices until she comes to a room with Diz. And:
Someone else.
"Because we can."


In his 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman was critical of the director's casting his wife (Nanette Newman) as Carol Van Sant, one of the robotic spouses. 

"I'll just die if I don't get this recipe."
According to Nanette's wiki: "In Goldman's original script (of which, he claimed, about 75% was re-written by Forbes), the android replacement wives were meant to be like Playboy Playmates come to life, the acme of youth and beauty, dressed in skimpy tennis shorts and t-shirts. Although Goldman conceded that Newman was both a good actress and attractive, she clearly did not fit his conception of the part ("a sex bomb she isn't"), and he objected to Forbes' decision to change the appearance of the wives, making them older, more demure and much more conservatively dressed. (Newman's casting) "destroyed the reality of a story that was only precariously real to begin with".

I disagree. For one thing, the Wives must continue to interact with their in-laws and children and what not - 

something explicitly observed over the end credits -

and while a change in behavior might be remarked upon, a complete regression of physical aging would raise too many questions. Mainly, though, such casting would undermine the true point of all this: it's not about creating the perfect woman, it's about preserving an ideal, born of their own fears and repressions, in amber. Albeit amber that is sexually acquiescent. And what does that say about these men, as well, that they spend every night up at the Men's Association ("no women allowed") tinkering with robot dolls with whom they will ultimately copulate? Replacing the actresses with Playboy models is unnecessary.

The Playboy motif is already present, anyway, in the form of "Ike Mazzard," an Alberto Vargas cypher who illustrates the "blueprint" the Men's Association will use to construct its upgrades.

FINAL VERDICT: Brilliant novel, brilliant film, brilliant adaptation.

This bit from Chuck Palahniuk's introduction to the 2011 UK edition is worth ending on: 

"It's odd how (in the 21st century) the bookshelves are filling with pretty dolls. Those glazed pretty dolls wearing their stylish designer outfits - Prada and Chanel and Dolce - swilling their martinis and flirting, flirting, flirting in their supreme effort to catch a rich husband. Always a rich husband. Instead of political rights, they're fighting for Jimmy Choos. (And) in this new generation of 'chick lit' novels, men are once more the goal. It's successful women who torment our pretty, painted narrators. (...) This, it seems, is progress: women may choose to be pretty, stylishly dressed, and vapid."

While still true in 2015, we’ve seen a variation of this Sex-and-the-City devolution of feminism Palhnuik describes into more buzzword / trendbait / political consulting firm sort of feminism. If indeed devolution is the right word – I’m not saying it is, merely that feminism is certainly not what it was in the 70s. It has sprouted many branches, some of which seem wholly disconnected from its roots.

Palhniuk offers this about the (loathsome) 2004 remake, which "is, of course, a comedy. Karl Marx said History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." 

"Now everyplace ie Stepford, but it’s okay. It’s fine. This is what the modern politically aware, fully awake, enlightened, assertive woman really, really wants: a manicure.”
This reminded me of a line from the line: "like the good old days, when Playboy still airbrushed." Airbrushing! How quaint. As with so many things from the 70s, what was then discussed as something our culture had transcended didn't stay away for long, and when it came back, it metastasized.


  1. This is another one of those movies that I've heard a lot about (particularly in Danse Macabre) and yet have never seen.

    With that in mind, what little I have to offer is no more than the train of thoughts set going by various descriptions of the flick I've had over the years.

    My first thought is to wonder whether or not modern audiences (perhaps me included) may not be spoiled when it comes to films like this, or perhaps the films message will just leave it fair game to be picked apart by critics of various ideological stripes, while the story itself is all but lost in the noise of battle.

    Here's what all that means. I said once before that I listened in on occasion to the seemingly interminable nerd fights on various comic book media sites about the question of sexism in various superhero stories, sexism in film, sexism in television, I even found out about (though remained outside of) this debacle called Gamer Gate, having to do with the question of sexism in video games.

    All I can say, after all the headache, is that there is very little sign of the psychological maturity that an actual intelligent discussion of sex, and the relations between the sexes, requires. Instead, I kept getting the impression of a kind of cultural arrested development that can no more see real women than the predators these so called cultural guardians (if that's even word) claim to be defending women against.

    That is what I mean when I say I wonder if re-introducing a film like this into a sub-culture like that wouldn't mean it's being picked apart.

    I don't claim I know that would happen for a fact, but it's a misgiving I have. As for the message of the film itself. Well, I'm not about to pretend that there are sickos out there with a compulsive urge to abuse women in any way their warped and twisted little minds are capable of. Where I break from the public square talk however is in pointing out that those same abuser are most likely clinical, and that their behavior may often have it's roots in conflicts that can just as easily be non-sexual, or that their behavior may even be about holding such experiences as sex at bay. It also, I think, that the behavior of a lot of these abusers is a metaphorical mask for their underlying problems.

    These are all facts that I think need to be taken into consideration when it comes to the mistreatment of women, which makes it disheartening to see that no one at the popular level has ever really tried the clinical approach to this problem, which stands to be, if not foolproof, then at least the best chance people have of curtailing these problems when they crop up. The simple fact is relations between the sexes can only be complex and it's to tackle that aspect rather than either finger or useless hand ringing whenever a real case of abuse pops up.

    And I haven't even touched on the question of where, well, the porn industry fits into all this.

    Yeah, that's why I wonder if I'm spoiled on this film.

    Sorry if this was off topic, or not much help.


    1. I agree with much of what you wrote, particularly about the complexities that are unexplored when pursuing easy conclusions about any situation involving particularly the mistreatment of women. The Stepford Wives might be wielded as a blunt object in the "war" as currently waged, rather than appreciated for the artful and entertaining metaphor it is.

      You know, I completely forgot King wrote about this in Danse Macabre. I really should've read his review prior to posting this. I can't even recall his take on it, I need to refresh myself.

  2. Just like Chris, my familiarity with "The Stepford Wives" is based primarily on King's "Danse Macabre." I've been wanting to read/view it for years on the strength of King's recommendation, and this writeup certainly does nothing to change my mind.

    Question: does the Disneyland connection follow the story from the book into the movie? If so, I'm a little surprised Disney didn't manage to squash it. Although maybe this is, in some ways, GOOD publicity for audio-animatronics. (Although they are clearly not even vaguely this advanced even in 2015, nor -- I suspect -- will they be in 2075.)

  3. The Disney connection is in both novel and film, yeah, and it sure is interesting and surprising that Disney didn't mind. This was the 70s, after all, when they were even more ruthless about their copyright than they were in subsequent times.

    (Though... does it seem they are softening on that now? Seems to be the case, but we'll see.)