"Sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hold on
to" states Vera Donovan in Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne.
This quote became quite popular and a aphorism for many readers
of the novel. Displayed in ads and delivered in the commercial
previews across the country, this maxim astonished many and piqued the curiosity of King's readers as well as the few who are unfamiliar or dispassionate towards King's works. So intense was the response to this quote, utilized as a marketing dynamic for
both novel and movie ticket sales (Gaylart, p.83). Still, another famous quip from the rich-bitch Vera goes, "An accident can be an unhappy woman's best friend."
While these two quips from the novel are dramatic and attention-grabbing, the more obvious reasons for the novel's and motion picture's sales and success are its author and his incredible popularity. Stephen King, known by many as the "King," or father
of modern fiction and horror is well aware that his reputation precedes him (Baynon, p. 12). He has written 44 books in 35 years, 18 of them best sellers.
The all star cast for the film production of Dolores Claiborne included academy award winner Kathy Bates (who won for Stephen King's screen adaptation of his novel Misery) and Jennifer Jason Leigh, considered "a virtuoso and in a league beyond any other
prime time actress of the 90's (Cagle, p.28)." Because Kathy Bates also starred in Misery, prior to Dolores Claiborne, the two films received much criticism in comparison of one to another.
Yet, the two characters Bates portrays are very distinct, one being an obsessed, deranged woman (Annie-Misery) and the other being a loyal and loving mother/friend (Dolores-Dolores Claiborne). In examining the novel, one can see the many similarities it
shares with another novel of King's entitled Gerald's Game (Darduo, p.111). The novel's (Gerald's Game) publishing shortly preceded Dolores Claiborne. Both novels are short on supernatural horror and long on psychological study. In both novels, the t
otal eclipse of the sun on July 20, 1963 is of importance. Finally, the theme of sexual abuse links the two novels and in both, there is a struggle with the repercussions of cruelty.
Because Dolores Claiborne does not contain the standard elements found in a Stephen King creation, it was prone to many surprised and disgruntled receptions from King's fans. Reviews ranged from praiseworthy to disastrous and many were inconclusive in t
heir rating of the novel. Jeff Jensen of Magill Book Reviews declared the book to be "fantastic" and found King to be "in fine form here, working more closely to mainstream of American fiction." He added that the novel effectively accounts a woman's s
truggle and anguish, "sustained by love, loyalty and sheer determination" (Jensen, p.1). Many of King's ardent fans shared Jensen's affirmative reception of Dolores Claiborne: "Not only is it very well written but the characters seem so real I s
wear I've known them somewhere before. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard or felt so deeply connected to a character. It grabs you right from the beginning and doesn't let you go until the last page is turned. I wish I could meet Dolores Claiborne
" (Masterson, amazon.com). Another fan wrote, "This novel extends the storytelling dexterity of King, because it wanders away from his usual supernatural themes, and unfolds the journey of life and tragedy of a real-like character very solidly" (Jivaw,
Then, there were the mixed reviews. Wrote Jennifer Veerson of The Boston Globe, "The thing I find myself repeatedly saying about Stephen King is that his writing could benefit from a ruthless editor who isn't afraid to just chop out whole chunks of his
manuscripts. Dolores Claiborne is an excellent example of why this is so. The book would have made a truly excellent novel, one with great emotional impact and a lot to say about the things people have to do to survive, and the price one must pay for s
urvival. That content is still there?but one has to wade through an awful lot of tangents and unnecessary details to get to it" (Veerson, p.44). Another mixed review was given by Raleigh Johnson of The Washington Post Magazine: "Dolores Claiborne is di
fferent than many of King's other works, but it still works. As a die-hard King fan, I can appreciate the way King integrated Gerald's Game into this book and vice versa. Okay, it won't knock your socks off but give it a whirl-the dialogue is worth the
effort" (Johnson, p.32).
Finally, there were the blatant thumbs-down reviews: "King really fails in this novel and in doing so, fails his fans. This sappy, trite, predictable tale lacks strong dialogue, pace, coherence and everything else that King is renowned for. What a disa
ppointment." John Micheals, an eleventh grade student and long time fan of Stephen King gave this critique of the novel in his school newspaper, The Hawk Talk (Micheals, amazon.com).
While Dolores Claiborne topped the best seller charts (surprise, surprise), its sales were no where near the numbers that King's other bestsellers including Misery, It, or Pet Sematary produced (Manwaring, p.212). Obviously, this is due to the drastic
change in its contents and style in which it is presented. There are no creatures, the pace is slower and the suspense is subtle; unlike the malevolent clowns, dual personality torturers, and morbid existences prevalent in his more popular novels. Howev
er, when the movie version produced by Paramount Pictures came out in 1995, book sales rose (Manwaring, p. 212). The movie did fairly well at the box office and received, on the whole, an affirmative response from critics. "Bates' scenes with Leigh ar
e particularly chewy. Confrontations between "crude" parent and "sophisticated" child have long been a dramatic commonplace, but both actresses seem hell-bent to get to the core of their characters, and their interaction has all the tension and pleasur
e of a great pitchers' duel" Cagle, p. 20). I would add that the two are aided by a pithy script. Inquiring about Selena's love life, Dolores (Kathy Bates) asks, "You're telling me there's nobody?" and Selena drawls back, "I'm telling you there's a lot
of nobodies"?as neat a summation of some career women's lot as you're likely to find. As for Bates, King's visions have afforded her the opportunity to make somebodies out of characters that Hollywood, more often than not, likes to pass over. Th
e cast included Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kathy Bates, all of whom I find deliver extraordinary performances, particularly Kathy Bates in the starring role. Jennifer landed "Georgia" after doing this film when director Tim Bates s
aw her performance as Selena the sexually abused girl in Dolores Claiborne, he immediately cast her. The film went on to win many awards, including the Sundance Film Festival award. Kathy Bates reconstituted her acting prowess image after Fried Green To
matoes failed and Christopher Plummer, an actor who had long been in hiding, was grateful for an opportunity for employment once again.
In forming these characters and their complexities, King proves that thrillers are not the only domain he has mastered. Through Dolores's meandering monologue, the reader comes to know a woman who has been tormented by events in her past that would have
crushed any normal individual. Dolores may be crude and irritating, but she has an inner strength that has seen her through tough times. At no point in Dolores Claiborne is its eponymous protagonist tied to a railroad track or strapped down in the
path of a rapidly impending train or buzz saw. And a good thing too, for this adaptation of Stephen King's best seller (does he write anything else?) also lacks a hero, or indeed any remotely admirable masculine figure, eager to race to her rescue.
These omissions are not careless, King is a storyteller who boldly uses the most primitive and melodramatic forms to explore very basic emotional issues, and this is his fantasia on feminist themes. Dolores (Kathy Bates) in some ways resembles the heroin
e of a gaslit theatrical enterprise of the 19th century. She is haunted by an ancient crime, stands falsely accused of a new one and is bedeviled by a policeman (Christopher Plummer) who could give Les' Miserables Inspector Javert lessons in sneering imp
But she is also tough minded, coarse tongued woman who is supporting herself by taking care of Mrs. Donovan (Judy Parfitt), a rich bitch invalid, and mourning her estrangement from Selena, her deeply disturbed daughter, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. P
recisely because of the absence of decent men in her life, Dolores is obliged to combine traditional masculine and feminine roles in a surprising, ultimately endearing persona.
Dolores's love for her daughter is vivid in the agonizing work she attends to each day for several years-Vera Donovan. Vera, an old, rich, widow demands nothing less than everything from Dolores and she (Dolores) takes it all with her chin up as she save
s up her money for Selena's future. Despite Selena's cold and ungrateful behavior towards her mother, she (Selena) receives nothing but the utmost affection and patience in return. Selena's character is clearly depicted as well. Her mannerisms are
particularly emphasized, including her bouts of hallucinations, delusions, anxiety attacks and general nervous habits. These behavioral patterns serve as clues, a foreshadowing of the ominous childhood that will be disclosed later in the novel. When she
argues with her mother as an adult, it's always Selena who gets the last word in, but not without stuttering or being flustered.
And the villain? Why, he's as broadly written (by Tony Gilroy) and played (by David Strathairn) as anyone who ever twirled a wickedly waxed mustache. A drunk and wife-beater, Joe St. George is Dolores's husband and Selena's father-so suspiciously swee
t with the latter that we know long before we're told that he lusted unnaturally for her when she was a child and is the source of her repressed memories?and more than deserves the bad end Dolores arranges for him.
But that's only half the story, for King is never short when it comes to plotting. Working us toward the fairly easy verdict of justifiable homicide in Joe's death, King must also relieve us of our rather trumped-up suspicions about Dolores's role
in the death of Mrs. Donovan and arrange a just reward for the years of misery Dolores has endured.
Yet many critics felt otherwise about the performances in "Dolores Claiborne." Says Richard Alleva of Commonwealth magazine, "Jennifer Jason Leigh, a frowning face under schoolgirl bangs, jabs a cigarette in and out of her mouth and furtively studies the
ground. Those aren't the salient features of her performance; they are the only features" (Alleva, p.61). "Christopher Plummer, an actor of genius, executes plummy vocal tricks to pick up his paycheck" quips Don Tramont of Variety (Tramont, p. 106).
"The best performance is by Kathy Bates. This actress had inalienable force and dignity, and, in the flashbacks, becomes younger amazingly without much reliance on make-up" (Cagle, p.20). Cagle goes on to speak about the film's production and direction
. The use of narrated flashbacks and histrionic lead ins such as "It was then that I remembered those forever-lost days of horse-drawn carriages and suitors at the door.." are obsolete but even the use of one of the latest devices is cliched. This l
atest artifice of using youthful versions of the characters to share the same shot with their older selves (present tense in the foreground, the past in the back) is just as corny when it's employed as mechanically as the director uses it here.
Enough of other people's opinions, now let's focus on the most important critic-me. In examining the plot and style in which King formulates Dolores Claiborne, King has grappled with the consequences of cruelty, in this case the struggle of a woman who l
ives as a poor but proud housewife, against her physically and sexually abusive husband, Joe. Sometimes it seems the point of this exercise is simply to complicate?mainly by arbitrarily withholding vital information?what is, in its emotional essence, a no
t very complicated matter. But the sensible formality of Taylor Hackford's direction has the effect of cooling the film's narrative frenzies and helping the actors dig some simple, truthful stuff out of the hubbub. There is something great in the soul f
ood of Bates' work, which is at once sweet and fierce, hesitant and determined. She seems always to be surprising herself with her actions, brushing aside the calculations of the story with the sheer force of humanity.
The narrative consists of Dolores's bumpy, uninterrupted first-person confession, told after she is accused of causing the death of Vera Donovan, a cantankerous, wheelchair-bound widow. For most of her adult life, Dolores has been Vera's housekeeper an
d, later on, her nurse. Though separated by social class, the women had something in common: both had cruel, unloving husbands who died as a result of apparent accidents. I say apparent because, as the viewer or reader will soon deduce, the circumstance
s surrounding both of these men's deaths are mysterious and inconclusive.
Not surprisingly, the core of the novel is Dolores's agonizingly suspenseful recollection of the events leading to her husband's death. Mr. King uses vernacular speech to fashion a strong heroine, but he confuses vulgarity with honesty and burden's Dol
ores's dialect with too many obscenities and banalities. In a gimmicky plot twist, Mr. King also unconvincingly implies the existence of a psychic sisterhood of abused women. Also, he needlessly prolongs his unbelievably upbeat conclusion to tie up m
inor plot threads. Nevertheless, Stephen King's compassionate observation of a mother who destroys her family to protect her children proves that King can do more than simply frighten his readers.
Alleva, Richard. "King's Creation is Creatureless." Commonwealth. February
1993, p. 61.
Baynon, Christine. "The Dark Side Part 16." Redbook. August 1995. P.12.
Cagle, Jessica. "Leigh, Bates and Plummer's New Day Job." Entertainment
Weekly. May 1995, pp.20-28.
Darduo, Jack. "King's Mother Figure." Newsweek. January 1993., p. 111.
Gaylart, Jeremy. "King's Quick Fixes." Time. January 1993., p.59.
Jivaw, Masterson, and Micheals. Amazon.com. America On Line-EROLS.
Johnson, Raleigh. "It Take Two To Strangle." The Washington Post Magazine.
May 1995, p.32.
Manwaring, Andrew. "King Size." Consumer's Digest. March 1993., p.212.
Tramont, Don. "Claiborne Strikes." Variety. June 1995., p. 106.
Veerson, Jennifer. "Not the Icing on The Cake." Boston Globe. June 1995, p.44.