The Stepford Wives: Book vs Movie

You can read the blog, or you can click on one of the icons below to listen to the podcast version! Click HERE for more listening options!

**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

The Stepford Wives directed by Bryan Forbes (1975)

The Stepford Wives directed by Frank Oz (2004)

I just finished reading The Stepford Wives, and then the following day I watched the 1975 movie. I had actually already seen this version back around 2005. My family watched the 2004 version when it was on DVD and enjoyed it. Then a little later we came across the ’75 version at the library or video store and got it. Despite it being so long ago, I still remembered the basic premise and when reading the book different parts of the movie would come back to me.

The 2004 version I might mention in here as well. I need to watch it again though, but I do remember a lot about it and it is very different from the book. The ending being the biggest change. The ’04 version actually had an ending that stayed true to the book, but the test audience ended up hating it. The actors had to leave whatever movie they were now filming and return to reshoot scenes to have a happier ending which audiences would prefer. The movie didn’t do well regardless, so maybe they should have stuck with the downer ending after all.

Synopsis

If you are here, you probably already either read the book, or watched the movie and want to read about the differences. In which case you don’t need a summary, but in the off chance you’re reading this and don’t know, this is for you.

Joana and her husband Walter leave Manhattan in favor of the quite suburban town of Stepford. Once there Walter joins a Men’s Association which women aren’t allowed in. Joanna tried befriending the neighbors, but none of the women are interested in spending time with anyone other than their immediate family and all say how they don’t have time to socialize because they spend all their time cooking and cleaning. However, another woman new to the neighborhood contacts Joanna and they become friends and talk about how odd all the other women are. They also meet another woman who is fairly new to the town-Charmaine-and befriend her as well. Eventually, Joanna sees a change in both Bobbie and Charmaine. Both have become like all the other women, obsessed with cleaning and cooking and talking about how great and hard working their husbands are. Joanna realizes what is going on in the town-the men are killing the wives and replacing them with lifelike robots that embody the perfect, sexy housewife. She finds out too late though, and in the end she herself is killed and is replaced with a robot of her own.

(This is a synopsis of the book and the ’75 version, the 2004 movie doesn’t follow the book as closely as the ‘75 movie did.)

Changes in Movies

1975 cover

Anyway, in regard to the ’75 version, it stays incredibly true to the book. There are some difference of course, but still stays true to the integrity of the novel. Katherine Ross stars as Joanna and does a fine job. I think some scenes are stronger than others, but overall, she gives a solid performance. Paula Prentiss is Bobbie and does a good job capturing the free-spiritedness of the character. Although in the book it’s implied that Bobbie has some meat on her bones, whereas Prentiss is very thin. Both characters never wear a bra, when I was a kid watching this it made me uncomfortable that they made it so obvious. But watching it now I realize it’s done symbolically, showing they’re freedom and not conforming. It also highlights the fact that Joanna has very small breasts. When you see her as a robot, the breasts are shown and are of course are huge.

The Book Ending

The biggest difference is the ending. In both the book and movie Joanna goes to a therapist the morning of her death and in both versions while talking to the therapist she says the women in Stepford are like the life-like robots in Disneyland. In the book, following this realization, on her way home she stops at the library and looks through the archived newspapers to learn more about the president of the Men’s Association, Dale ‘Diz’ Corba.  She already knew he used to work at Disneyland, but in her reading, she finds out he worked on robots while there. She ties two and two together and surmises that the women are indeed being killed and replaced by robots.

She then stops by the pharmacy and see’s the pharmacist, and unattractive bald man with a comb-over, and his wife. She is of course beautiful and young (all the women seem to be in their early 30s) and is repeating the action of wiping a counter and picking up a glass over and over. The closest thing we see to a robot glitching in the book.

Once arriving home Walter tells her that the kids are at a friend’s house. She asks where they are because she is going to take them with her and drive to stay at a friend’s house in the city. She and Walter argue, and he tells her to go rest in the bedroom, which she begrudgingly does. After being up there a short while, she sneaks downstairs and hears Walter in the den talking on the phone. He has taken her purse and keys, so she escapes outside and runs around town trying to figure out where to go.

It is nighttime and snowing so she is cold. She realizes that literally every man in town will be out looking for her and that in this weather is will be impossible to escape. Eventually a car of three men find her. They tell her she’s imagining everything, and that Walter is worried. They tell her they can take her to the association and she can look around for herself and see that there is nothing weird going on there. She instead says that what would convince her would be seeing a Stepford wife bleed (because if they are robots, they wouldn’t have blood). She says she wants to go to Bobbie’s house since Bobbie is her friend and would be willing to cut her finger for her. A couple of the guys aren’t crazy about the idea, but that’s what they end up deciding.  

Paula Prentiss as robot Bobbie

One man runs ahead to let Bobbie know, while the others walk over with Joanna. Joanna then goes inside on her own while the men wait outside. Upon entering, she hears loud rock music playing upstairs and finds it odd. Bobbie is there, holding a large knife and says that she would be happy to help Joanna and show that she bleeds. Joanna finds it also odd that Bobbie has chosen such a large knife. As Bobbie calmly gets closer and closer you can sense the impending doom and although it cuts away to the men standing outside, you know that Bobbie killed Joanna with the knife.

The Movie Ending

In the movie, she goes to the therapist and makes the Disneyland comment, but that’s as far as it goes. She never does research into Diz Corba. Once again, she returns home (no pharmacy visit) and Walter has been drinking and tells her the kids aren’t there. They argue and Walter gets forceful. She pushes him, and he falls on the stairs and then runs to her room and locks the door.

A short while later she again sneaks out the room and hears Walter on the phone in the den. She runs out in the rain (not snow) and runs to Bobbie’s house. She assumed her kids would be there but turns out they aren’t. Bobbie offers to make coffee, meanwhile Joanna is telling Bobbie how everything is wrong and this isn’t who Bobbie is. She takes a large knife and says that she bleeds and cuts her finger to show it. She then stabs Bobbie in the stomach, and of course no blood comes out. She steps back in shock and fear, while Bobbie removes the knife and starts to glitch. She repeats actions and words in a very robotic way. I really liked this part and think it was a good addition from the original story.

After this Joanna runs back home, sneaks up on Walter and hits him in the head with a fireplace poker. She asks where the kids are, and he says the association. She goes there and of course it’s a trap. She meets Corba there, where he admits to what they are doing, though doesn’t go into detail. This is a big difference though because in the book none of the men ever admit anything, even when they know she is about to die anyway.

She then tries to escape and while running through the association, opens a door which is a room that has been replicated to look like her bedroom. Not sure why they needed to replicate part of the house-they want to give the robot a place to “live” and want it to be similar to where it’ll eventually be? Anyway, she is obviously taken aback. The camera then does an amazing slow pan across the room before finally landing on robot Joanna brushing her hair. She turns around and has black eyes (along with the giant breasts). The robot Joanna stands and is holding a stocking in her hands and approaches Joanna. It isn’t shown, but it is obvious that the robot strangles her with said stocking. I actually like this change as wel. It’s much more shocking and creepy seeing Joanna’s robotic self, rather than just seeing Bobbie creepily approach with a knife

promotional photo for the movie-Kathrine Ross front and enter

The last scene in both movie and book are almost exactly the same, which shoes Joanna shopping in the grocery store, looking beautiful and perfect along with the other wives. The biggest difference here, is that in the book, it’s told from the perspective of the latest women who movies in, Ruthanne. She sees Joanna and thinks to herself how pretty Joanna looks. She asks about her photography and Joanna pleasantly tells her that photography was just a waste of time and she has stopped taking pictures. The woman then goes home and in a conversation with her husband, talks about their upcoming weekend away, which of course means she will be soon killed then the book ends.

In the movie this character is shown briefly in the store, arguing with her husband, once again implying that she will be the next to change, though not in such an obvious way like the book.

Minor Differences

Another change is that the movie shows the men more often. You are shown a scene of Walter talking with Corba, and then you see Charmaine’s husband leaving the association, clearly shaken up (the next time we see Charmaine, she has changed, making it obvious the men were involved). Along with other such scenes that make it undeniably clear that Walter and the other men are the cause for the way their wives are.  Another scene with Walter is in the movie gives us some insight into his past and why he would want a robot for a wife at all. Joanna and he are arguing (something they do more often in the movie than in the book) and their kids see and ask why they are fighting. Walter tries to comfort his kids and tells them everything is fine. When they are out of the room he says how growing up he always heard his parents arguing, and he didn’t want his own kids growing up with that. No such insight is given in the book.

Side note-Walter is played by Peter Masterson, father of actress Mary Stuart Masterson. She actually plays his daughter in this movie and then scene where they ask about why the parents are fighting, you get a clear view of young Mary Stuart Masterson!

The book he mentions a couple times how the Stepford wives place items in their carts in a very organized fashion. In that last scene in the movie, their carts look like a normal cart where things are just places in there any which way. Though it’s a minor detail, I wish they would have stuck to the book and had their carts be organized.

Another detail I feel they didn’t totally capture, is the visible change of Charmain and Bobbie. Charmaine’s outfit changes, but you don’t see her and are shocked at the visible difference. With Bobbie, once again her clothes are different, and unlike Charmaine her hair is done differently, but aside from that her looks are the same. Joanna mentions that she is wearing makeup, and that Bobbie never wore make up before. But as far as I could tell, her make up looked that same way it had throughout the whole movie.

There are other changes, but they are inconsequential and as I said, didn’t change the integrity of the book.

2004 version

Okay, so I decided to revisit the 2004 version and make some comments on that as well. As I said in the top of this, the ’04 version has some big differences. They gave it a more modern twist which is to be expected, and had they stuck more to the original plot I would have enjoyed the modern take. However, they changed just too much and due to the re-shoot, there are some continuity errors.

the Stepford wives

Basic story of this version, we have Joanna (played by Nicole Kidman) who isn’t just a simple photographer like she is in the book, she’s a TV network executive. She creates realty TV shows that embarrass men and show women in charge. However, she ends up getting fired when a man from a TV shows goes a little crazy. Walter (Matthew Broderick), who worked for her, quit in solidarity with her and they up and move to Stepford for a change of scenery.

In the original, it made it seem pretty clear that the men moved into Stepford knowing what it was all about and choosing it because they wanted to change their spouse. In this movie, they moved to Stepford for no specific reason and Walter has no idea the secret being kept there.

While there, Joanna befriends Bobbie (played by Bette Midler). Rather than the two of them befriending Charmaine, they befriend a gay guy names Robert. The three of them are the only normal ones and wonder what the deal is with the others.

In the book the wives have no interest in social gatherings and always keep to themselves. In the ’75 movie, there is one scene where Joanna and Bobbie get a group together, but all that happens is the women share cleaning tips. In this movie, there are multiple women’s groups in place before Joanna even arrives. Granted, the groups show how obsessed with housework and cooking the women are. But nonetheless, a key element of the book was the fact that the women never socialized at all except to say hi in the grocery store.

Stepfordized Joanna

With the Men’s Association, in the book we never get a look into the building or into any meetings or discussions between the men. In ’75 we get a little look into what goes on with them, then in ’04 the men quite a bit of screen time. One of the scenes inside the Association shows the men battling with remote controlled robots. Seeing this definitely brought back memories of the early 2000’s. We would watch a TV show called Robot Wars where people competed with remote control robots they made themselves. Joanna creating game shows and realty TV also reflected what was popular on TV at the time. A few other things that made me reminisce on that time was that Robert was a fan of Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortenson, both of whom were studs at the time and every girl was into them. One of the men also mentions that he works for AOL and she makes a comment, “Is that why the women are so slow?”

Anyway, enough going down memory lane. With this movie I wonder is anyone involved even read the book because it seems more like a different take on the ’75 movie. They take a lot of scenes from there, but don’t include anything that had been in the book but removed for the ’75 version. If that makes sense. The popular scene where the walk into a woman’s house and hear the couple having sex was never in the book but was in both movies. Also the scene where Joanna confronts Bobbie and stabs her was never in the book. In the 2004 version they did film Joanna stabbing Bobbie, which causes Bobbie to glitch. However, he glitch was far too cartoony (Tex Avery style) and audiences thought it went too far so the scene was removed.

Joanna trying to fit in

Another change is that after moving in, Joanna decides to try to be more like the other housewives and starts to cook more and wear bright colors. In the book and ’75 version, she never tries to conform. In fact, in the book she makes a point not to be like them.

Another modern addition, is that the “Diz Corba” character is named Mike in this one and rather than having worked at Disney, had worked at Microsoft. Similar to ’75, he admits to Joanna that her suspicions are true when they are inside the Association. But in this one all the other men are there too, including Walter. He gives a little speech about how he’s tired of living in her shadow and all that and explains kind of why he wants her to be a robot.

using his wife as an ATM

In this one though, they don’t turn into total robots, instead chips are placed in their brain that control them. I think the chips were part of the reshoot though, because in other scenes, they make it clear that the women are robotic (someone with a human body can’t use their mouth as an ATM, even if they do have chips in their brain). Plus, they show the robotic body replacement before Robert changes, and again before Joanna changes.

As far as Joanna’s change, that is yet again different and is the biggest difference of all. Turns out Walter can’t go through with it, but they decide to have Joanna pretend that they do. So, she’s pretending to have had the chips inserted and no one is suspicious. Then there is a city gathering, during which Walter sneaks out and messes with all the women’s systems and shuts down the chips turning them back to their normal selves. Then, due to a series of events, we discover that Mike was a robot and his wife was a regular person all along. So rather than Mike being behind it all, it was his wife Claire. She however ends up dying, along with robotic Mike. As punishment, the women put their husband’s on house arrest and make them do all the housework from then on. Which, come on, would you really stay with a guy who was willing to do that to you?? I feel like prison and a divorce would be the appropriate punishment.

I really wish they would have stuck with the ending that was true to the book. Partly because that’s the way the original author wrote it, but on a more personal level, I don’t always like when movies have happy endings. I like the darker tones where in the end the protagonist doesn’t end up winning. Although I suppose this new ending was more fitting with the overall tone of the movie. The book and ’75 movie went with a creepy, eerie tone whereas as this one went the comedic route. So maybe having a dark ending just wouldn’t have fit in.

Book or Movie?

I feel the about the same about both the book as the 1975 movie. Both were interesting and kept my attention and both had that eeriness about them. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best books I’ve read, nor is it one of my favorite movies. If you want a quick, fun read (is fun the right word…?) then I would recommend the book. And the movie is a creepy, thriller so if you’re into that, I would recommend it as well. Though it isn’t edge of your seat thriller till the end, so more of a slow burn throughout. In the end, I actually think it’s a tie.

The fact that the term “stepford” is now a way to describe someone docile and picture-perfect but not quite there is pretty impressive on the authors part. This isn’t the most topical book/movie I could have written about, but it definitely left its mark on the country and is a story that will continue to entertain.

4 thoughts on “The Stepford Wives: Book vs Movie”

  1. Great commentary! I’ve never read the book but remember the older movie- pretty creepy. Looking forward to the next blog!

  2. Steven Armstrong

    Hi Laura! Thank you so much for sharing this on my C4C interview of The Stepford Wives! It was a real treat to come here and read the blog and listen to the podcast! Great work all around! I’ll be following your offerings! 🙂 I hope you and your loved ones are keeping safe and doing well amidst this uncertain time!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *