King's Highway pt. 66: Dolores Claiborne

Published the same year as Gerald's Game (1992) and made into a movie three years later, Dolores Claiborne enjoys a pretty solid reputation among King fans and critics. Even that Vulture piece whose non-sequiter rankings prompted me to start this project has it clocking in at #17 (ahead of books I personally find much more impressive, such as Hearts in Atlantis or Duma Key.

It sums up the plot and approach pretty concisely:

“Impressive as both an exercise in form and voice, this 1993 novel is one long monologue. No chapters. Just one long story as told by the title character, who is being interrogated in the death of the old lady who employed her as a housekeeper.”

Along the way, she confesses to the 1963 murder of her husband, Joe, who was molesting their daughter, Serena.

I only read this for the first time this week. I agree that it is an impressive work, but I enjoyed it somewhat less than I was impressed by it, if only because by this point on the King’s Highway, I had the same kind of “reheated leftovers” feeling I had from Bag of Bones. Not, and this is important, because of the quality of the material itself; both this and Bag deserve all their accolades. Just one of the drawbacks of my scattershot approach to the King chronology: sometimes things seem repetitive or too-immediately-familiar. (If I'd read them in order-of-publication, I suspect I wouldn't have had this reaction to either. Ah well.)

(Whatever else, though, he needs to stop having two characters break into laughter and then start holding on to one another until it subsides. This may well end up being my sole contribution to the study of Stephen King; this appears way too damn often, at least once, book-to-book. I do not suggest it ruins anything, or that this one little thing even deserves mention in discussion for Dolores specifically, just that once you start noticing it, it’s all over the place, like a commercial that follows you from channel to channel.)

From the NY Times review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt: 

“We thoroughly sympathize with Dolores, particularly because of the dramatic skill with which Mr. King builds up her courageous good-heartedness on the one hand and Joe’s unredeemed evil on the other. In fact we sympathize so completely that the novel is thrown subtly out of kilter. By the end, it is no longer a conflict between one good woman and one bad man but an uneven battle of the sexes in general. (Joe, and by extension all men) are supported by a community that (condones) abuse of his wife, and by the bank officer who permits him to steal his wife’s savings… It’s a man’s world, as Dolores might say.”

Much is made of Kings “feminist” phase, both negative and positive. This was the last of the novels typically grouped under that umbrella that I read, and I have to say, now that Ive read all of them, I didnt find any of them as heavy-handed as advertised.
I generally find an approach like this far-too-limited (I’ve complained/ defined my objections elsewhere), but we can all agree King was consciously seeking to brand-reposition himself in the 90s, as this article discusses. Did he succeed? I'd say so. (One wonders how much of that had more to do with switching publishers/ agents, though.)

Back to the Times:

“As Dolores’s crisis mounts there occurs the same total eclipse of the sun that figured so prominently in Gerald’s Game. Dolores even envisions the little girl in the striped dress who in that novel was molested by her father during the eclipse, as if Mr. King were saying that the blotting out of the sun was caused by the universal suffering of the female sex. So pervasive is Mr. King’s message that you pause to think that the novel’s title could very well mean that this woman was not made from Adam's rib but like Adam himself “of the dust of the ground.”

Clay-born. Now that did not occur to me, but now I can’t get it out of mind. Chapeau, Mr. Lehmann-Haupt, chapeau.
I think the forced-connections to Gerald’s Game (during the eclipse, Dolores and Jessie Burlingame share a brief - and pointless - psychic connection) should have been jettisoned once King made the decision to split the two stories into different books. As mentioned last time, both novels were once conceived as two halves of one that was to be titled In the Path of the Eclipse. Perhaps he felt publishing two stories set during the same eclipse needed some kind of connecting-thread, but if so, I wish he’d tried something else. (I don’t think they do need one, anyway - given the number of re-appearing settings and motifs in King’s work, would anyone have minded?)

Still, as Kev says:

“Dolores herself is a complex character, far more developed than either Jessie Burlingame or Rose Daniels (from Rose Madder,) and more able to carry her own novel. Beyond character, Dolores Claiborne is an incredible blend of voice, dialect, pacing, and tone.”

I agree. (Though I did get irritated with reading “warsh” and “idear” so many times.) As one of King’s one-character-relays-a-long-story-verbally stories, it works better here than anywhere else in his catalog except for “Blockade Billy.” I think I may prefer the latter, but would I, had I read this first? Tough to tell. But perhaps not.

Now, for the movie...
Ive seen this pop up on a few best-of King-adaptations lists but never occupying the top spot. Thats too bad. I dont think its my personal favorite, but it should be someone’s, as its quite good. (Hell, Sleepwalkers makes the list on this AMC site but not Dolores? It seems inconceivable. I wouldn't be surprised if their rankings were determined by which ones they have the rights to air.)

The visual design alone deserves special mention.
As it is fantastic.
Perhaps it doesn’t because of what Janet Maslin wrote upon its release:

“Only after the film has carefully laid the groundwork for a story of old wounds and violent mishaps does the anticlimactic truth become apparent. In terms of solving a mystery, there’s no rabbit to pull out of this hat.”

While somewhat true, the film may be more successful than the novel in this regard. While the book unfolds as one confession that jumps around in time but never changes point of view, the film adds a bit more suspense. It also takes the County Medical Examiner McAuliffe (who only appears in the flashback to Joe
’s inquest in the novel) and turns him into:

John Mackey (Christopher Plummer) seen here trying to pin Veras murder on Dolores in the present
and here trying (and failing) to pin Joes murder on her in the past.
Note the color composition. This is one of the film’s strengths:

Little Tall Island (present)
Everything is washed in a gray or blue filter.
As if once the eclipse happened, all the color went out of the world
Little Tall Island (past)
It was filmed in Nova Scotia, actually. (Southwest Harbor, ME got the honors for Little Tall Island in Storm of the Century. If they ever film “Home Delivery” from Nightmares & Dreamscapes, i.e. the other story set on Little Tall, I hope they choose one of those locales, for continuitys sake. Both are gorgeous.)
The change of the novels confessional structure also necessitates bringing Serena back to the island and fleshing out her character.

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Serena (present)
While Im here, the above shot of JJL is immediately preceded by a very nice slow zoom-in to the ferry, ultimately ending on JJL lighting a cigarette. (But not the close-up from above.) Admirably executed.
In the novel, we only get to know Serena in the past; there is a mention of her as a fragmented, haunted adult, but we don’t get to see her interact with the story in the present in any way.

In addition to looking like a believable younger version of JJL, Ellen Muth deserves special mention; she handles difficult material very well. As Taylor Hackford says on the commentary track,  “she utilized a tactic she learned after spending time with victims of familial molestation: that every time it happened, they pretended to be a bird, or a stone, or a cloud - something that allowed them to leave their body and become this other thing.”
As Roger Ebert notes in his review:

“It’s sometimes distracting to tell a story in flashbacks and memories; the story line gets sidetracked. (Dolores) is successful, however, in making the present seem to flow into and out of the past… More than this I dare not say. (It’s) is the kind of movie where every corner of the house and lawn contains its own flashback, to long-ago events that look differently, depending on your angle.”

The lighting of the eclipse is the proverbial jewel in the crown of the visual design.

As Janet Maslin also noted, “Theres a big range of emotions within Dolores, from fear, resentment and then fury toward her neer-do-well husband to sardonic indignation over the way the world treats her. Ms. Bates finds them all.”
Definitely one of her best performances. She brings Dolores to life in a way that makes it all but impossible to imagine anyone else.
Though Frances “frequently referred to in these pages as Cliff Clavens Mom” Sternhagen narrates this for the audiobook, and she gives no less of a great performance. So, perhaps she should be mentioned right alongside Kathy Bates, here.
Back to the eclipse: as the event that transforms the world from the bright and golden colors of the past to the bleak and depressed look of the present, its pivotal event (i.e. luring Joe to his doom) is linked with it masterfully:

These images don’t convey the accompanying score, of course, but here it is at the tail end of this clip:

Just really, really well-done, all around. Taylor Hackford hasn’t done anything this visually striking and well-composed since. (I guess we'll see if Parker (2013) upsets that trend. I won't keep my fingers crossed.) And neither has Gabriel Beristain, for that matter. But the stars (or at least the sun and moon) came together for this one, and thank the heavens (no pun intended) for it.

(Speaking of Beristan, a quick look at his imdb references this Avengers “Marvel one-shot.” Was this filmed for the DVD Special Features or something? This is the first I
’ve heard of it. Sounds like fun.)

One last change worth mentioning and perhaps the only one that is to the film’s detriment: I’m not sure if the parallels between Vera and Dolores come across as well as they do in the book. Vera Donovan orchestrates the death of her husband and as a result, loses her children, both metaphorically and literally. By adding a more fully-developed Serena story (as well as excising the other two children Dolores and Joe have in the book) the note of tragedy is softened somewhat. In the novel, Dolores’s actions are done for the sake of her child, but her relationship with her daughter is never the same. Vera's actions are not done for the sake of her children, but she ends up losing them just the same. Vera and Dolores end up together (not romantically), each a mirror reflection of the other, and when Vera dies, she leaves Dolores the remainder of her fortune. This, too, happens in the film, but it adds an element of repairing-the-relationship between mother-and-daughter that is only (slightly) suggested by the epilogue. 

I don’t mind the change at all, but the sad parallel between Dolores and Vera that I enjoy in the book is changed ever-so-slightly by this, so it’s worth a mention.

Before I go, let me give a tip of the cap to David Strathairn, who plays Joe.

I always feel badly for actors who have to play child molesters. Its got to be uniquely unpleasant. If you do your job too well, you run the risk of creeping people out for the rest of your life, and not in a fun Hannibal-Lecter sort of way.
Here he is, looking Duuuu-uh. I tried to get a good freeze-frame of the cream-dish smashing upside his face, but no luck. (I was going to caption that one “One for the Ladies...”)
Hes been in his share of high-profile flicks:

Academy-Award-nominated for his role as Edward Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck (2005). While I didnt enjoy the film, his performance is top notch.
And in Spielbergs Lincoln (2012)
Not to mention as Eddie Cicotte in John Sayless Eight Men Out (1988)
as well as a whole slew of smaller-profile ones. One of those Oh yeah hes in everything; what the hell is his name, though? sort of actors. Which actually is kind of ideal, for an actor. You’re constantly employed, check, you have face-recognition, check, but you’re not instantly “typed” so you can play a wider variety of roles than someone who is.



  1. I love the novel; it's definitely the most successful of the "feminist" novels, in my opinion. I'm not particularly sure the label applies, but that's for other people to worry about.

    As for the movie, I'm with you; I think it's pretty darn great. Where has THAT Taylor Hackford been hiding ever since? In this one movie, he seemed to be channeling Hitchcock; otherwise, his career has been determinedly middle-of-the-road.

    1. I'm not sure if that stretch of books from Gerald's Game to Rose Madder is accurately summarized by the term "feminist," either. I've seen it referred to as his "feminine consciousness" phase, but that seems even more awkwardly-termed. On this one, I'll defer to experts.

  2. Uh-oh, you're not going to like my opinions about Desperation, then. For starters, in order to get Desperation I think you should really start with Regulators, as I view both books as part 1 (Regs) and 2 (Des) of a two part story.

    This is something I've said on Truth inside Lie. It makes sense to me that the character of Tak is the same character in both novels, and that reading Regulators first provides a necesarry character motivation. Basically, Tak is out for revenge in Desperation.


    1. I'm not sure to what you're responding... my "Next" blurb?

      I have read The Regulators, yep - it was covered in my "Bachman Bowl" post.

      If I'd planned out the order of these blogs a little better, I'd probably have done Dolores Claiborne (no jokes, internet!) after Gerald's, and Regulators (as a separate post) immediately before or after Desperation. But that's not how it played out, alas.

    2. Note to self: one of these daysI really have to check the archives on site instead of sticking to the latest.

      Further note to self: Find Looney Tunes image where character head turns into sign marked sucker.

      The only thing I'd clarify is something should have brought up in my last comment but forgot. What I meant was you might not like my reaction to Garris's Desperation.

      Note to self: insert maniacal laughter here.


    3. "Note to self: insert maniacal laughter here."

      ha - I should remind myself to do this more, myself.

      No worries on all counts. (I should really put up a table of contents or something, or some way to organize by-label. One of these days! If Blogger cooperates.)

      Almost done with Desperation now and am gathering "weapons and ammo" for that blog.