I was shopping at Half Price Books when I came across a hardcover 1st printing of “The Stepford Wives” published in 1972. Ira Levin’s follow-up to his hugely successful “Rosemary’s Baby” (p. 1967) may not have shared the same level of achievement as its predecessor but made its own cultural impact nonetheless. “The Stepford Wives” is a 145-page, satirical novella touching on the rise of feminism, a woman’s role in the home, as well as their husbands’ fear of losing control. It would inspire two films of the same name: a serious adaptation in 1975 and a more comedic rendering in 2004 starring Nicole Kidman. The first movie even inspired three indirect made-for-TV sequels – Revenge of The Stepford Wives (1980), The Stepford Children (1987), and The Stepford Husbands (1996). Despite receiving mixed reviews, the word “Stepford” has since entered our pop culture lexicon to describe someone acting perfect, phony, or subservient. Having seen both screen versions, I was interested in reading the book and did so in the span of one chilly, Chicago afternoon.
So how does it compare to the 1975 film? Anyone not worried about SPOLIERS can read on and find out…
The tension between Joanna and Walter – One big difference between the book and the film is the depiction of Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson). Almost immediately in the film, there are obvious tensions between him and his wife, Joanna (Katherine Ross). It’s even revealed that he has a tendency to make decisions for her, including putting a down payment on their new home without her consent. In contrast, the book shows a much slower progression with the only discord relegated to the bedroom; chiefly, Walter’s having lost interest in sex with his wife in favor of masturbation. Other than that, the book version of Walter appears an ideal match for his progressive wife. In my opinion, this was more effective as the reader is as caught off guard by Walter’s betrayal as Joanna.
Carol Van Sant – Joanna’s hausfrau neighbor, Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman), has a much larger role in the film than she does in the book. In the novella, she seems to avoid Joanna in favor of excessive housework while, in the film, she’s a steady fixture almost from the moment they move in – even bringing over a welcome casserole. None of her memorable scenes from the movie are in the book. Such as…
Carol gets groped – While Joanna is outside observing Carol pruning the hedges, she is shocked to see Mr. Van Sant (Josef Sommer) interrupting her yard work and squeezing her breasts in broad daylight. This scene is not in the book.
Carol’s car accident – Carol’s fender bender in the grocery store parking lot was not in the book either. This is the first indication that Carol is a robot as she keeps repeating, “This is all so silly…it’s just my head” before Joanna notices the ambulance driving her in the opposite direction of the hospital.
The Carol robot can’t handle its liquor – The entire party scene at Dale Coba’s (Patrick O’Neal) estate was not in the book. This is another clue that Carol isn’t human as her imbibing causes her to glitch again, wandering around the party repeating, “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe,” before her disgusted husband escorts her away. This leads to another film-only scene; her apologizing to Joanna and Bobbie (Paula Prentiss), for her behavior.
Walter feeling guilty? – One interesting scene in the film that’s not in the book is Walter showing remorse. Joanna finds Walter sitting alone by the fireplace with tears in his eyes following his first meeting with the men’s club. The implication is that his acceptance was likely based on his agreeing to have Joanna murdered and having her replaced with a more domesticated automaton. A decision he apparently didn’t take lightly (but still went through with it).
The Disney connection – The sinister Dale Coba is nicknamed “Diz” in both the book and film; a moniker given from his having once worked at Disneyland. At the time this book was being written, Disney had just unveiled its new “Hall of Presidents” exhibit which featured lifelike animatronic replicas of all the Presidents of the United States. In the book, Joanna discovers that Coba not only worked for Disney but was one of the chief engineers on this project.
Frank and Patricia Cornell – In the movie, Joanna and Bobbie enter a home unannounced and hear the owners having sex. Before leaving, they hear the wife screaming, “Oh Frank, you’re the best! You’re the king! You’re the master!” In a later scene, they visit the local pharmacy and Bobbie points out that the pharmacist and his assistant are Frank and Patricia Cornell a.k.a. the couple they heard having sex. Joanna can’t believe that the super attractive Patricia could be so sexually attracted to her far less alluring husband. Neither scene was in the book.
Joanna blackmails the linguist – In both the film and book, Joanna is asked to speak a list of words in an audio recorder as the men start collecting data. In the book, she does so without question while, on screen, she agrees only on the condition of the men sending their wives to her newly-formed women’s club. The ill-fated club meeting where the women are far more interested in domestic chores than substantive issues never happens in the book.
The men’s club compound – In the movie, Joanna accidentally stumbles upon the compound while walking her dog – leading to the inquisitive mutt getting shipped off. In the book, however, she has her camera (with telephoto lens) and actively seeks it out. There is a dog-walking scene in the movie but it serves only as an opportunity for Frank to bring members of the club inside to inspect their bedroom; something that doesn’t happen in print.
Testing the water – In the film version, Joanna seeks out an ex-college boyfriend (who works in a lab) to secretly test a water sample from Stepford. In the book, her friend Bobbie reaches out to the Government directly. In both instances, the water is cleared as a reason for the town’s odd behavior.
An African American family in Stepford – In the book, an African American couple moves in after the Eberharts. The wife is a journalist whom Joanna reaches out to in friendship. There is no diversity in the film version.
Bobbie getting stabbed – This infamous kitchen scene never takes place in the book.
Storming the compound – Joanna’s dramatic attack on Walter and breaking into the compound to find her children never happens in the book.
Joanna’s death – In the film, Joanna is murdered by her unfinished doppelganger while, in the book, the Carol Van Zandt robot is her killer.
Conclusion– The ending of the book and movie are very different. Onscreen we see all the robot Stepford Wives greeting each other in a grocery store; eventually settling on the newly created Joanna Eberhart. In the book, the aforementioned African American couple is having a friendly conversation before the husband mentions going to a club meeting. The implication is that she, too, will soon be murdered and replaced.
While both have their merits, this is one of those rare occasions that I recommend the book over the movie. While the novella is a quick, fun read the film is far more entertaining and Katherine Ross’ performance really sells an otherwise outlandish story.