Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King (1990)
Dolores Claiborne directed by Taylor Hackford (1995)
Dolores has worked for Vera for over 30 years, and the last ten years or so, has been in a live in caretaker as Vera has aged. The story begins with Vera’s death, and Dolores is suspected to have killed her.
While giving her inquest to the police, she goes over the details of her time working for Vera, as well as the details of her marriage to a man named Joe who died decades before. She was a suspect in his death as well, but it was decided it was an accident. Through her story, we learn that she did not kill Vera, but we find out she did kill her husband and her reason for doing so.
I love the way the book was written and I loved the story itself. I read this book, but I wish I would have had the audiobook because the way it is written would be perfect for audio! It is all just Dolores as she gives her report. We do get a newspaper article at the end which ties things up. When she talks to the people who are present, we only hear her side of the conversation.
It has some classic King elements-crass humor (the whole bit about cleaning Vera’s poop), some scenes that really creep you out and have you on the edge of your seat, and moments where he makes something so normal into something scary-the dust bunnies! Having said that, I wouldn’t say this is a horror novel. Psychological thriller would be more fitting.
I loved how we go back and forth in time, I love the humanity of Dolores, despite people thinking of her as a cold person. I love the ending, and in general this was a great book I didn’t want to put down! I saw a someone on instagram talking about this book, saying that Dolores was “so crazy” but I didn’t think she was crazy at all and am honestly confused why anyone who has read the book would describe her like that.
The movie definitely focuses more on Dolores’s relationship with her daughter Selena and it isn’t filmed as Dolores giving her report to the police but more like explaining herself to her daughter throughout the course of the movie.
We get great performances by Kathy Bates as Dolores, Jennifer Jason Leigh as the daughter Selena, and David Straithairn as her husband/Selena’s father, Joe. I did think there were times where the chemistry seemed off, however they do not have conventional family dynamics, so maybe it was on purpose. Judy Parfitt plays Vera and honestly, her performance is the one I was most impressed by. But that could have been partly due to me never having heard of her before and so I didn’t have any expectations with her.
I also thought some of the shots with green screen were too obvious and distracting.
Stephen King wrote the book with Kathy Bates in mind after he was so impressed with her portrayal of Anne Wilkes in Misery. Misery is one of his top three favorite adaptations, and Dolores is in King’s top ten.
Since the book begins and ends with Vera, that is where I will start. In the movie we see Vera has a husband but he seems to ignore her and be annoyed by her. We hear that he dies in a car crash at some point, and later in book and movie Vera insinuates very heavily, that she caused the accident that led to his death because he was having an affair (I’m sure there were other reasons as well).
The movie leaves out that Vera had two children. They come with her after the dad’s death, but then stop showing up. Dolores assumes they have an estranged relationship, and Vera at one point confirms this. At the end, when Dolores hears that Vera left all her money to her, she asks why her kids didn’t get any of it. It is revealed that Vera’s children died about a year after the husband’s death. She was seen getting in an argument with them about the son and daughter wanting a car, and the daughter was upset because Vera told her she wasn’t old enough to get a license and therefore couldn’t have a car. This was the top of the argument, but the bottom, what was really being argued about, was the fact that the teens knew the mom caused his death and were now trying to manipulate her into getting what they wanted.
She gets them the car and while the daughter is driving, it crashes truly on accident, and they die. But Vera tried to keep them alive in a way, but not letting people find out, such as Dolores.
The book begins with us hearing what Vera was like to work for through the years, then we go to Dolores and Joe, then the book returns to Vera and we learn the truth of her death. In the movie, we learn first about the truth of Vera, and Joe’s death is revealed at the end, being the climax of the movie.
The movie also begins with it seeming like Dolores pushes her on the stairs, and then we see her rummaging for a rolling pin and about to hit Vera with it before she is walked in on by the mailman who assumes she was trying to kill Vera (who by this time was dead by the fall).
When the book starts, we don’t know any details of Vera’s death.
But the details are pretty much the same as in the movie. In the book, Dolores tells us how Vera would get in these moods where she thought she saw things and would freak out and scream and was scared of dust bunnies. She was having one of those moments, but it was especially bad. She had even gotten up out of her wheelchair because it had gotten stuck in the door and she wanted out. She then fell down the stairs and when Dolores went to her, Vera asked her not to call the hospital because there she would have a slow death but if Dolores would help her right now, she could have a quick death.
Dolores goes and grabs the rolling pin and when she returns, Vera is already dead. She sits down and holds Vera’s hand and sits like so until the doorbell rings. It is the mailman, and he sees in the house that Vera is on the stairs and sees the rolling pin beside her which he finds odd. We also learn that the mailman’s dad was one of the guys who had found Joe and had believed Dolores killed him. So, this mailman grew up believing she had gotten away with murder once before.
In the movie, we find out about halfway that Vera had left her money to Dolores. She is told this by the detective who thinks Dolores killed her because of that money.
In the book, Dolores goes home after the police show up with Vera and everything. She is harassed by various townspeople which the movie shows. Then the next morning she gets a phone call from Vera’s lawyer telling her she had left her money to her. This is when Dolores learns that Vera’s children had long since died and Dolores is scared because once people find out the money was left to her-they will have all the more reason to think she killed her.
She thinks briefly of committing suicide but hears Vera’s voice and decides to go to the police and tell them her whole story, which is the story we are reading.
In the book, Dolores has three kids, Peter, Selena and Joe Junior. In the movie we just have Selena.
In the movie, Selena returns to Little Tall (the island this is set on) when she finds out her mom is being questioned for Vera’s murder. They have an estranged relationship and this is the first time in 15 years Selena has been back home. The movie really focuses on their relationship as they both confront the past and what happened to Joe.
Selena has become an alcoholic, workaholic and is taking various pills. We also find out that she has suppressed part of her childhood and not facing what happened and instead burying it down deep is part of why she struggles as an adult.
In the book, Selena calls twice a month like clockwork, and writes once a week. However, Dolores feels that it is just out of duty and that their relationship was ruined when Joe died. She can also tell that Selena drinks too much and she has never married, which we see in the movie as well. Her other son is successful in politics, and Joe Jr died in war.
Joe and Dolores
There are a lot of tough subjects addressed in this book. To start we have marital abuse. Dolores says how Joe would hit her, and initially Dolores thought it was to be expected to some extent, because her own father whom she loved, would hit her mom on occasion. At one point though, when Selena is about 13, Joe hits her hard in the back with a piece of wood. Dolores decides that enough is enough. That night, when the kids are in bed, she hits the side of Joe’s head with a cream pitcher while he is watching tv. She is holding a hatchet and tells him that he won’t touch her again, and if he does, one of them is going to die. Selena hears the ruckus, and comes out. She sees her mom standing over her dad with a hatchet, and her dad holding the side of his head while bleeding. They tell her to go to bed and everything is fine. We find out later, that Selena went to her room and prayed that Dolores wouldn’t kill Joe, and promised that if God let Joe live, Selena would make up to him the meanness that Dolores treats him with. She never saw Joe abuse Dolores, so to her, Dolores is the evil mean one.
After this, in the book, we also learn that Joe is unable to perform sexually with Dolores. But life keeps on, and Joe doesn’t hit Dolores anymore.
Joe and Selena in the book
In the book, Dolores notices how well Selena and Joe have been getting along, she hangs out with him while he is working on cars and helps him out. They watch tv together, and in general just seem like two peas in a pod.
Then Dolores starts to notice that Selena doesn’t come home right after school and claims she stays in study hall to do her homework. She also has stopped showering, wears baggy clothes and just doesn’t look like her pretty self.
Dolores decides to go to the school and suspects she will find Selena hanging with a bad crowd, drinking and smoking. She checks study hall first, and to her surprise, Selena is there, right where she told her she was.
Selena is standoff ish but then is glad to ride the ferry home with Dolores. On the ride home, Dolores asks what is going on and why is Selena changing. Selena tries to get away from her, and almost falls off the ferry but Dolores catches her. Selena says Dolores should have let her go so she could drown.
Dolores is so kind and tells her to please open up, and there is nothing Selena is doing that could make Dolores love her less. She also says she wants to help but can’t unless she knows what is going on.
Selena tells Dolores that Joe has been after her, and he told her that if she ever told anyone, they would hate her for it basically. Causing her to feel so much shame and guilt and disgust with herself.
Dolores later confronts Joe and tells him if he continues to bother Selena, he is going to go to prison. He takes the threat seriously, as Dolores can be very threatening. He makes a remark though about how Dolores isn’t as clever as she thinks.
But from then on, Joe leaves Selena alone, though Dolores sees the way he still looks at her.
Joe and Selena in the movie
Selena was much more resistant I would say in the movie, about telling Dolores what was going on. And she doesn’t even say anything when Dolores realizes about Joe. I thought she jumped to this conclusion a bit too quick in the movie.
From there, we don’t see her say anything to Joe like she does in the book.
In the movie, adult Selena doesn’t remember being abused by her dad and so when Dolores tells her, Selena leaves, refusing to believe that is the truth as to why Dolores ended up killing Joe.
She is on the ferry, when she has a flashback to being with her dad there, and him getting her to touch him. This scene is so upsetting and Strathairn is so believable and Ellen Muth who plays young Selena is also incredible. It isn’t a graphic scene, but it doesn’t need to be. Enough is shown, and the way he talks to her and the way she cries is just such a heartbreaking scene on her end, and such a gross scene on his end.
We don’t get anything from Selena’s view in the book though and the thing with her suppressing the memory isn’t in the book.
After finding out, and after talking to Joe (in the book), Dolores goes to the bank to withdraw the money she has been putting in her kid’s college funds. She is told that Joe came by a while back and took the money out and it is later discovered he made an account only in his name where the money was transferred to. Dolores and Joe were both on the original account, but even so, in order to access it, you need the passbooks, which Joe didn’t have. All he had to do though, was lie and say he lost them and even though Dolores is the only one that ever made a deposit, the bank nonetheless let him take the money and never made a call to Dolores about it.
In book and movie Dolores says how sexist that was. If she were the one to show up, claiming to have lost the passbooks, they 100% would have called up Joe. But since the husband was the one, they didn’t think it was worth it to call the wife.
In book and movie, she is working at Vera’s when she breaks down crying. When she is done, Vera asks what is going on. Dolores tells her everything. Vera points out that even if she had the money and left, it would only be a matter of time before Joe found them.
She then says that husbands die every day, and sometimes an accident can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.
In the movie, things happen fast. Dolores finding out, going to the bank, Vera telling her that, and the day of the eclipse almost seem to happen within the same week.
In the book it was dragged out. The eclipse was about a year after first finding out about Selena. She wanted to give it time though because she knew if Joe died too soon after Dolores found out, Selena would without a doubt believe that Dolores killed him for her, and Selena would therefore feel responsible. Dolores hopes that one year is long enough to think it was truly an accident.
Also, even after telling Dolores, Selena is still withdrawn. Whereas in the book, her relationship with Selena was back to good again.
In the book Dolores also talks about how Selena is the main reason she wants to be rid of Joe, but he also bullies Pete and then Joe Jr, who is like 4, tries to be like Joe and when he gets in trouble for bullying other kids Joe will praise him. So she is worried about what his influence is doing to all the kids.
Joe’s death in the movie
The day of the eclipse, Dolores gets off work early. In the movie, Vera tells her to go home and is really encouraging her to go kill her husband, in so many words.
But in both she goes home, gives him a bottle of whiskey, makes him a sandwich, and when the eclipse starts she tells him about the money. She lies and says she got the money back and he gets upset and grabs her neck. He then tells her to tell him where it is. She says she buried it and he chases after her. She runs towards the well, and when she comes upon it she jumps over it, but Joe falls in. In both, he is holding on the edge and she fears he will be able to pull himself up. However, he does fall directly in. In the movie she says how that was that, and it was easier than she had thought it would be.
Joe’s Death in the book
This was not the case in the book! Once he falls in, he is still alive and is calling up to her. This goes on for a long while, and eventually he realizes she isn’t going to help him and he starts to try climbing up! He gets up a way, but then falls back down. He is still for a while so Dolores goes inside. She tries to sleep, but suddenly feels like she should go check. She sees that he has once again started climbing and is close to the top! She gets a big rock and hits his head with it which causes him to fall back down, but not before he grabs her ankle. She is able to get free though, and that’s the last of it. When she is interrogated, the detective talks about how long Joe’s death must have been due to the autopsy. Later, when we are hearing her current account, she talks about how during the investigation she had a real tear which fell and that tear saved her from the town harassing her. The guy who was there must have told people that she wasn’t heartless after all. But a quote reads, “I was thinkin about how sorry I was that Joe’d suffered the way the little bandbox Scotsman [the investigator] said he had. In spite of everything he’d done and how I’d come to hate him since I’d first found out what he was tryin to do to Selena, I’d never intended for him to suffer. I thought the fall’d kill him, Andy—I swear on the name of God I thought the fall’d kill him outright.”
In the book she is haunted by Joe at times. Like, not literally, but she will have nightmares and such. Even though Joe was not a good person, I like that King didn’t have Dolores kill him easy, then bam she’s fine and over it. Killing a person is a big thing, even if the person was bad and I think anyone with a heart would have some kind of trauma from it.
In the movie, when Selena remembers her past, she returns to Little Tall where they are having an inquest. She stands up for her mom and proves the detective’s evidence is bogus. The detective here is the same one that tried to get her for Joe’s death, and he has held it against her that she got away with it. That is why he is trying too hard to pin Vera on her. This wasn’t the case in the book.
Anyway, Selena saves the day and the two of them have a moment before she goes back to the city.
In the book, it ends once Dolores is finished with her report. One last chapter shows newspaper clippings saying she is no longer suspected and then another talking about how Dolores’s kids will be home for Christmas that year and Dolores is quotes as saying they will have a lot to talk about. We also see that she donated all of the money from Vera to an orphanage.
The movie ending is good, and I didn’t mind that they made Selena a bigger focus. I do prefer the book though.
The little girl
There is a part in the book I wanted to talk about, because I don’t understand it. I assume it is referencing another King book, but I’m not sure. Dolores sees a vision of a girl in a dress and her dad is touching her leg. Later, we see the girl looking under her bed. Then, at the end, Dolores says that she could sense that little girl was now a woman and she was in trouble.
I thought it was Vera she was seeing, like when she was a little girl. But I don’t think that was the case. My other thought is that it was Bev from It. I haven’t read It, but I think Bev is abused by her dad and then when she gets older, she confronts Pennywise again so it could be her. If anyone has any ideas, let me know!
Book vs Movie
This was another time where I was so excited to watch the movie. Even though it’s good, it wasn’t as good as I hoped. It is a faithful adaptation, there was just something missing. The acting is amazing but like I said, sometimes the chemistry seemed off and the vibe of the movie felt weird too. The scene when he hits her back, I thought the music was way too dramatic and it caused for too sudden a mood shift. I get that’s probably the point, because Joe was being funny, trying to catch Dolores unawares. I don’t know though, some scenes just felt off. But then there were other scenes that were so powerful, and the woman who plays Vera was so amazing!
My biggest complaint is probably that Joe’s death was so easy. This was also a creepy, suspenseful scene in the book and the movie really could have explored that!
All in all, the movie gets 3.5, but the book is a strong 5 stars and therefore, the book wins!