50 years on from the release of this landmark sci-fi satire, it’s time to take another stroll around the quiet streets of Stepford.
Editor-in-Chief, Bandit Fiction
Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, having endured as a cultural phenomenon to this day. So prevalent is the novel that its title entered common usage many years ago, to refer, often disparagingly, to a subservient housewife. Certainly, this past half-century the book’s themes and easily digestible prose have endeared it to successive generations of readers. Equally, its two film adaptations and many television spinoffs have ensured it the widest possible exposure across the decades.
The story follows twenty-something feminist and talented photographer Joanna Eberhart and her family, to the sedate, idyllic, fictional town of Stepford, Connecticut. With a neighbourhood full of submissive housewives with perfect skin, large chests and nothing better to do than scrub the kitchen floor, Joanna finds herself at a loose end. Her husband Walter joins the local Men’s Association with the purported intention of changing their misogynistic ways from within, but as he is drawn into their mysterious inner circle, Joanna soon begins to suspect all may not be as it seems, that maybe the Stepford wives are being replaced by robots, and that she might be next.
While various adaptations have been made of the iconic novel, we will be looking at the very first: Bryan Forbes’ 1975 film, starring Katharine Ross and Peter Masterson, which tacks closely to the novel’s plot and offers a more artistically meaningful comparison than, say, the big-budget 2004 black comedy adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick. As fun as deconstructing that may be…
To first- and long-time readers alike, Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives still feels fresh, timely and engaging; and, at time of publication back in 1972, it was all of these things and more. It spoke directly to the rapid expansion of second-wave feminism, championed by women who sought to broaden gender equality beyond basic rights and bring it into the workplace, the home and the bedroom.
At 35-40,000 words, Levin’s novel (which is widely marketed as such, despite technically being a novella) is short, sharp and to the point. Told in limited third-person with a plain, powerful, anti-lyrical style, not a sentence is wasted in this politically charged story, signalling from page one that Levin is a writer with a clear mission, a bold statement and a salient warning. And that warning is that a backlash against self-actualised women was on the way. But, for all Western society has done to mitigate it, the formidable foothold the incel community, online trolls and genital-grabbing right-wing politicians have enjoyed in recent years suggests a dispiriting inevitability to it all.
At the core of the novel lies the mysterious Men’s Association, of which all of Stepford’s husbands including Walter are active members: a “boys club” that pools the members’ professional expertise in the interest of building and distributing toys for needy children. (Ba-dum tsh.) A male reaction to the popular Women’s Liberation movement, which openly celebrated the female body, sexual autonomy and the breaking down of traditional roles, the very concept of the Men’s Association is unabashedly tongue in cheek.
In this vein, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (the definitive second-wave feminist text) was a serious influence on Levin when writing Stepford, and he obviously drew from this not only his linguistic and sociological specifics, but also the novel’s overarching themes. Thus, the Stepford husbands create male-fantasy robots representing what they – and real men at the time – think they deserve: the child-rearer, the man-pleaser, the domestic goddess; redesigning the “flaws” out of their headstrong wives.
Levin treads a fine line between satire and sincerity, telling what is undeniably an important science-fiction intercut with flashes of parody on both sides of the coin – not just showing the men for what they are, but occasionally straying towards the extremes of the Women’s Lib mentality. While this is designed to throw readers off the scent – and, indeed, Levin never truly reveals whether the Stepford wives are robots or not – some have, over the years, taken this the wrong way. Not least the 2004 film adaptation, in which the wives have computer chips implanted in their brains, the men are really robots and everything is ultimately the fault of a careerist woman.
Regardless of society’s response (or lack thereof) to the novel’s ideas, however, The Stepford Wives retains all of its powers in perpetuity. Underpinned by the trappings of a conventional thriller, but backed by a piercing literary minimalism, the novel is hard to put down and even harder to beat. While many contemporary authors have attempted to capture similarly significant themes in epic, florid doorstoppers, it is Stepford’s very simplicity that makes it endure.
What’s the difference?
- Opens in Stepford, with the Eberhart family already moved in
- The family has no pets
- Ruthanne, the only black character, is positioned as Joanna’s last resort, and potentially the town’s next victim
- Escaping from the town is Joanna’s idea
- It remains ambiguous throughout whether Joanna is imagining a conspiracy
- Joanna is brought to Bobbie’s house towards the end, and is encouraged to watch Bobbie cut herself
- The ending skips straight from Bobbie’s house to the supermarket
- Opens in New York City, charting the family’s move to the ‘burbs
- Their dog is abducted
- The only black character is referred to just once – by race – and only appears in passing at the film’s conclusion
- Joanna’s therapist encourages her to flee
- There is no doubt that the men are replacing their wives with robots
- Joanna arrives at Bobbie’s house unannounced and stabs her in the stomach to test if she is real
- An entire scene is added, at the Men’s Association house
The book’s popularity has grown steadily over the years, but it is thanks to the film that The Stepford Wives penetrated pop culture in the way that it has. Generally considered the definitive adaptation, and certainly the one that tacks closest to the source material, Bryan Forbes’ Stepford hit screens back in 1975, a mere three years after the novel’s publication. Given Levin’s novels already had a track record of successful adaptations, including the 1968 Roman Polanski classic Rosemary’s Baby (if you haven’t seen the film, you’ve definitely seen the poster), producers were almost guaranteed a safe bet, and this connective thread is affirmed in Forbes’ use of Polanski-esque neo-gothic tropes and imagery, particularly in Stepford’s final act.
Stretching such a tight and compact literary offering into a feature film was always going to be a challenge, and the jury is out on whether Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman manage it without drifting into aridity. In any case, the main drive of the novel remains in place, accompanied by just the right helping of satire and a slow-burn tension that maintains the thriller’s action beats.
However, where Levin was able to tap into a strong yet natural feminist sentiment, the film muddies its intentions. This becomes especially apparent when Joanna and the few other real women form a women’s group in which they spend the first half of the meeting exclusively discussing their husbands, Bechdel be damned. It is only when the Stepford wives themselves intervene that the conversational trajectory shifts gear – to the efficacy of cleaning products. Such mishandling of the source material is further exacerbated by Walter’s characterisation, which affords him more overt emotions, bringing an inner conflict to the fore, and presenting him as a sympathetic character.
Overall, the film exhibits a failure to fully connect with the book’s core aim, presenting more of an juxtaposition of broadly liberal and conservative values than anything else, best exemplified by Walter’s exasperated rebuke of his mildly independent wife, ‘I work 80 hours a week… and my kids look like they belong on welfare!”
Contrary to the novel, the film also leaves no wiggle room regarding the mystery at its core: It is made clear early on that the women of Stepford are indeed majority silicon, confirmed with a resounding finality doubt when Joanna meets an anatomically-amplified, black-eyed version of herself near the conclusion. On the one hand, this lack of ambiguity puts a firmer focus on the gaslighting of Joanna; but, on the other, it undercuts the subtlety and finesse of the novel, with the Men’s Association all but cosplaying Spectre.
While not a classic of the psychological horror genre in the same sense as Rosemary’s Baby, Stepford nonetheless delivers enough to make it fondly remembered by those who were there at the time, appealing enough to entice those whose only exposure to Stepford is via visual media, and still the best adaptation of the material to date.
And the winner is…
While both versions of The Stepford Wives are largely the same in terms of plot and structure, Ira Levin’s novel takes the biscuit. Bryan Forbes’ film is a worthy effort, but, more than anything, is an undeniably male venture, and would have benefitted greatly from a more feminist approach; a female gaze; a woman’s touch. Excelling everywhere that matters, the book presents a three-dimensional female protagonist, prescient and (unfortunately) evergreen real-world concerns, and a sci-fi story for the ages.
Next Up: Where the Crawdads Sing (delia owens / olivia newman)
About the Contributor
Bandit Fiction’s Editor-in-Chief, Alisdair Hodgson is a film, poetry, entertainment and fiction writer based in Scotland. His short fiction, poetry and non-fiction can be found in a variety of magazines, journals and anthologies, and he is currently seeking representation for his novel Everbloom. Find him @Youthanised.