Well I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I decided to bring this series out when I learned one of the most critically lauded and beloved movies of 2015, Todd Haynes’ Carol, was based on a novel. And not just any novel, one written by a truly wonderful author, Patricia Highsmith, whose work I quite enjoy. So I went to see Carol, and just finished then novel it was based on, the Price of Salt, and now it’s time to talk about them.
Written by Phyllis Nagy
Directed by Todd Haynes
I first started hearing about Carol back when it premiered at Cannes, and pretty much every film critic on the internet lost their minds. I began hearing about Carol, as this staggering work of genius that would change cinema forever for months, waiting for it to finally be released to us commoners who don’t get to go to film festivals. And the hype just grew and grew. I’ve already talked on the site about how much I adore Haynes’ last movie, I’m Not There, but that had been the only one that I’ve seen before, and from what I understand it’s not very emblematic of the rest of his work. Haynes appears to be a trailblazer in the Queer Cinema movement, and has spent a lot of his career making films that attempt to normalize LGBTQ characters and lifestyles for the average person. It’s a very important thing, as I discussed when I wrote about Tangerine, and it looks like he’s making some very high-quality films that are looking at very important social issues, and Carol fits right in with the rest of his oeuvre. It became clear from the reviews and the couple trailers that got released throughout the year that Carol focused on a love affair between two women in the 1950’s, one a naïve young woman trying to find herself, and the other a captivating older woman. The cinematography looked gorgeous, Haynes’ direction appeared solid, and the two leads are wonderful actresses, so this looked like a sure-fire thing. And when I learned it was based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, I got really excited, because that implied to me it would have an interesting, dark twist.
And it’s pretty good. I didn’t love the movie as much as so many other people did, but I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out exactly why. The most obvious explanation for why Carol didn’t blow me away in the way I was expecting would be to blame the hype. Which is probably a big part of it. When you get assaulted with nothing but positive praise for a movie, and people are telling you that it’s the greatest thing of the year, yeah, you’re probably going to be a little let down. And that’s not to say I didn’t like Carol, I actually did like it quite a bit, but it definitely wasn’t my favorite movie of the year, and I really don’t think it’ll be kept in my memory forever as a masterpiece. So it’s easy to blame the praise for kind of knocking this movie down a couple pegs for me, but I think the main reason is the fact that I heard it was based on Patricia Highsmith. Now, I’ll get to this later in the book section, but I will say that when you hear something is based on Highsmith, you kind of assume that there’s going to be a certain psychological bend to the story, which wasn’t really there. But let’s talk about the movie.
The story is set in New York in 1952, and follows a young woman named Therese Belivet (played by the great Rooney Mara) as she tries to figure out who she is. She’s temporarily working at a Manhattan department store during the Christmas season while trying to work as a professional photographer. Like any coming-of-age character she’s drifting through life, with nothing really good happening. She’s in a lackluster relationship with a faux-artist who is trying to stick her into a traditional 50s relationship, and she’s approaching 90’s-teenager levels of existential ennui. She works at this department store, selling dolls during the holiday rush, and just seems sad. That is until one day she meets a glamorous woman named Carol (the always amazing Cate Blanchett), who is there buying a present for her daughter. She and Therese talk, and Therese basically falls in love instantly, and convinces Carol that her daughter would love this enormous train-set that she covets. The two chat, and when she leaves Therese sees she left her gloves behind. So she sends Carol the gloves in the mail along with a nice note.
We see Therese dealing with the two men in her life for a while after that. Richard, her boring boyfriend who wants her to travel to Europe with him and eventually get married, and Dannie, a friend who is trying to get her a job as a photo-editor and tries to kiss her. But it’s clear that while all of this is happening, Therese is still focusing on Carol. And Carol has problems of her own, because she’s going through a stressful divorce that’s focusing around her aloof husband Harge, who wants to get full custody of their daughter. So things aren’t going well for either of these women, and when Carol gets her gloves in the mail, she calls the store to thank Therese, and the two end up creating a lunch date as a thank-you. So they have lunch together, and end up finding each other fascinating, each of them clearly attracted to the other. So they begin spending time together, and Therese starts coming out to Carol’s home in New Jersey to hang out. They just hang out and get to know each other, while Harge begins to get suspicious, since Carol apparently had an affair with her friend Abby in the past, and he thinks Carol may be having another lesbian affair. And that fear makes Harge pull a total dick move by threatening to tell the courts that she’s a lesbian, which would make them give the daughter to him, since it’s the 50s and no one would trust a lesbian mother.
Carol is obviously pissed at this, and makes the weird decision to go on a road-trip with Therese, which really isn’t the thing you would do when you were trying to prove you’re a stable mother, but whatever. The two then head out west, much to the anger of Therese’s dumb boyfriend Richard, causing them to break up. So Carol and Therese start heading aimlessly West, enjoying each other’s company. They just kind of drive around, and run into a travelling salesman a couple of times that they chat up with. But things really turn a corner when they get to Waterloo, Iowa (which is a little on the nose) and they stay the night at a hotel for New Year’s Eve. And while the two celebrate the holiday, they finally kiss and end up making love. Unfortunately they learn that that salesman was actually a private eye who Harge hired to follow them, and he has audio of them, which he’s going to give to Harge as evidence of Carol’s “perversion,” which will make her lose her daughter. Carol freaks out, even threatens the dude at gunpoint, but the tapes had already been sent, which causes Carol to become incredibly depressed.
Carol then flees Iowa, and takes a plane back to New York to deal with the fallout, and Therese ends up having to drive back to New York with Carol’s weird friend Abby, who warns Therese that Carol will always break her heart. So Therese gets back to New York, and finds that things are going bad for Carol and the divorce, and Carol tells her they can’t see each other anymore. So Therese is devastated, but tries her best to get on with her life. She begins working at the New York Times, and has become a professional photographer. While things are not good for Carol. She has to go to a psychotherapist to fix her “condition,” and ends up just calling everything off, letting Harge keep the daughter and give her visitation right, because she doesn’t want to ruin the daughter’s life with a drawn out legal battle. So now that she’s officially given up, she decides to try and make amends with Therese, and invites her out to dinner. Unfortunately Therese is still irritated with Carol for ditching her, and doesn’t really feel like forgiving her, even when Carol offers for the two of them to live together and be in a real relationship. So Therese leaves Carol, heading off for a party that could advance her career, but ends up feeling incredibly drawn to Carol still, and leaves the party to go be with her, diving into the relationship.
This movie was extremely well-made, well-acted, and became a very enjoyable romance. I would say that romance movies are my least favorite types of movie, mainly because they tend to be very boring. They’re either going to be terrible romantic-comedies that are basically exploitation movies that are designed to prey on every stereotype of womanhood, or their like this, very slow films that show what it’s like to be in a relationship. Falling in love is a wonderful thing…to you. It can be very boring to make a movie about a couple realistically falling in love, because so much of it is internal, and it can be extremely hard to translate that to the big screen. And this movie does a pretty good job of that. Although there really doesn’t seem to be that much believable material to show them falling in love. Therese is kind of a blank slate, a character that hasn’t found herself, and has decided that she loves this dynamic, vibrant woman, so she creates her personality as something that Carol would like. In a way, Therese still ends up in a traditional 50s relationship, just between two women. Therese ends up creating her own career, and making something of herself, when she stops seeing Carol, and I kind of get the feeling that she’s completely willing to throw it all away by the end when she goes back to her. She’s so drawn into Carol, and kind of gets swept up in this woman’s life, at the loss of her own.
Now, I will say, this movie is really good, but there was something major missing for me. I kept expecting, through the whole movie, for this to become much darker. The tone, and especially the knowledge that Patricia Highsmith wrote the novel, made me assume that things were going to get very dark by the end of the movie. That or it was going to get very depressing, and honestly, my thoughts about Therese being subsumed by Carol’s life may be part of that still. Who knows, if someone is completely unaware of Patricia Highsmith, and wasn’t anticipating this to get dark at all, maybe they’ll see the movie as a very positive and uplifting romance, and it’s just my lens of darkness that’s muddling it. I’ll get more into the darkness I was expecting in the book section, so for now I’ll just say that without the darkness I do see this as a very important movie. In 2015, the year that the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the United States I think it’s very nice to see what’s essentially a traditional romance movie, but with two women in it. It wasn’t covered in melodrama or strife, and really has a happy ending, which is something that you just don’t normally see from Hollywood.
The Price of Salt (1952)
Patricia Highsmith (as Claire Morgan)
Last time when I wrote one of these, about Grapes of Wrath, I talked about how it was kind of hard to write this part of the article, since the book was so similar. But man does that seem like a minor problem this time, because at least Grapes of Wrath the book had some differences in plot. This book had some a very minor plot change, but for the most part it was one of the most shockingly accurate adaptations I’ve ever seen. This novel is essentially a direct adaptation, often with the same dialog, and followed the same plot, beat for beat. Which makes this part a little harder to write.
The plot of the book follows the movie almost exactly for quite a long time. We see Therese and her boring life at the New York department store, but here she dreams of being a set-designer for plays instead of a photographer. She meets Carol working one day, and then gets invited to a lunch-date when she sends her a nice note, and the two almost immediately hit it off. They then begin spending all of their time together while Therese deals with her terrible boyfriend Richard. Now, one big difference at this point is that everything is from Therese’s point of view, we never see things from Carol’s point of view. Around this point in the movie we would cut over to see Carol and Harge’s divorce proceedings, but not here. Harge really only showed up for one small scene in the novel. It was all Therese, all the time. Which gave a very different tint to the novel, because we have no idea if Therese is a reliable narrator, especially as things go on.
Everything follows the same progression as the movie for a while longer, and they head out on their doomed road-trip. The book follows a lot more of their trip and all of the stops they make, but when they finally realize they’ve been busted and have to come to terms with their relationship being in danger. In the movie, Carol flies back to New York in the night and Abby shows up to drive back with Therese. But in the novel, Carol leaves and just kind of strands Therese there. She gets stuck in some mid-Western city, waiting there for an indeterminate time. Carol keeps writing to her, telling her to stay there and wait while she deals with the Harge situation. So Therese just hangs out in this town, staying in a boarding house with a bunch of local weirdos, going through the motions while pretty much going crazy. She slowly goes mad while waiting for Carol, and basically starts to go through withdrawals. Then Carol calls her, tells her they have to end the relationship since she’s under so much scrutiny, and Therese basically starts a new life there, getting a job and a home. But she eventually heads back to New York to try to pick up the shambles of her life, and just like the movie, moves on. Then Carol calls her up, wants to meet, and tries to get her to move in together, and then things play out exactly the way they do in the movie.
So yeah, this book is essentially the exact same as the movie, except for that minor diversion when Therese starts a weird life in the mid-West. Really the only other difference between the novel and the movie is the fact that everything’s in Therese’s head, like I already mentioned. Which does lend some much darker moments. The movie really made Therese a blank slate, as I mentioned, and she just seemed incredibly passive and just so drawn up in Carol’s wake. And the same thing is pretty much the same in the book, but being inside Therese’s mind gives us some glimpses into some darker thoughts. In the novel, Therese really gets obsessed with Carol, and has some crazy thoughts. I mean, look at this from Therese’s inner monologue.
“She Wished the tunnel might cave in and kill them both, that their bodies might be dragged out together.”
What the hell? Who thinks like that? And to make it even worse, when their relationship becomes endangered because Carol wants to keep her daughter in her life, Therese starts to become petulant and resentful of Carol’s damn daughter. She starts to get angry that Carol would dare care more about her daughter than their fabulous love. And to make matters worse, their relationship really takes a weirder turn when Carol starts basically treating Therese like she’s her daughter. She says incredilby motherly things to her, nagging and belittling her, with lines like
“How do you ever expect to create anything if you get all your experiences second hand?” Carol asked, her voice soft and even, and yet merciless.
“Do you realize how many times a day you make me ask you that?” she said. “Don’t you think it’s a little inconsiderate?”
Seriously, what kind of relationship is this? The relationship in the movie ends up being a pretty positive one, but the one portrayed in the novel is incredibly strange. By the end of the movie, I felt like Therese and Carol might make it after all, but by the end of the book? Who knows, they might last together, but it would be a pretty damaged and dysfunctional relationship.
The last thing I want to mention about the book is some background. Now, one of the main reasons that the movie fell slightly flat for me was because I assumed the story was going to take a serious dark turn, mainly because it was written by Patricia Highsmith. All of the stories of hers I’ve come across have been so dark and twisted, leading me to think things would take a very odd turn at some point. I spent the whole movie, and novel, assuming that at some point Therese was going to kill Harge. I was convinced that Therese was either going to take it upon herself and remove Harge from the situation, or even have Carol convince her to do it. That’s the kind of story twist that I come to expect from a Patricia Highsmith novel. But it didn’t happen like that, it was just a story about a relationship. Which isn’t either of the stories fault. It doesn’t really make sense for me to complain about the story not being something it wasn’t. And I found an explanation about this discrepancy, when I found out that the novel was published under a pseudonym. The story is apparently semi-autobiographical, and since it was published in the 50s, Patrica Highsmith obviously wasn’t going to release it under her own name, because people in the 50s definitely weren’t going to be cool with a semi-autobiographical story about a woman’s lesbian awakening. This wasn’t a Patricia Highsmith novel, not really, so it doesn’t make sense to judge it with that frame. And the fact that this was a story, especially a positive story, about a lesbian relationship published in the 1950s is much more impressive to me than a movie with the same plot in 2015. Yeah, things for gay couples aren’t perfect in 2015, but they’re a hell of a lot better than 1952.
Well, I’ve pretty much explained this already, and at risk of repeating myself too much, they’re essentially the exact same. The plot is the same, except for a small change, the characters are the same, and the tone is virtually identical. When I talked about Grapes of Wrath I mentioned that the movie was better if you wanted a positive ending, and the book was better if you wanted a negative ending. But there isn’t even that much of a difference in this. Yeah, the novel is darker, and Therese comes off as an obsessive weirdo while Carol is having this weird mothering relationship with her, but in the end it’s not that much different. The novel made me see them more as damaged people, but in the end they still end up together, and I’m really not sure if either pair have any future together. They still end with Therese seemingly abandoning her career to live with Carol, and become the boring, typical 50s wife that she dreaded being with Richard, and they both don’t really make a judgement about that fact. They’re both good stories, and I suppose it boils down to whether you want to watch it or read it. I will say though, I wouldn’t recommend experiencing them both so close together like I did, because the fact that they’re so identical kind of hurts whichever one you’re experiencing second, because it’s just same-old-same-old at that point, which kind of diminishes from the quality of the story.
Categories: Film Library
Interesting read and I agree for the most part. I think that I was drawn more to Therese than you. Her obsession has roots in the book, her tendency to intellectualize things and live in her very introverted head, those things that seem to make the character passive are all the result of her inner life taking control. The roots in the school her experiences, her obsession with Sister Alicia all foretell and help us understand Therese’s motivations.
Strangely enough the cutting short of the trip that happens in the movie makes the whole thing flow better as it is hard to see how the detective could find them, follow them with their constant moving and yes they did leave some crumbs along the way, but they didn’t go to the hotel in Denver and yet there was the Detective in Colorado Springs . . .
And then the ending. In the book (I do not recall as much the movie 5 years on) Therese sees that she could have a meaningless relationship with the actress, but chooses love. I did not see her settling for a 50’s marriage albeit a lesbian one, but that she had finally grown to a point where she could be more of an equal partner.