Dolores Claiborne (first post in series)

“Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.”– said with slight variations by Dolores, Selena and Vera.

Dolores Claiborne is Taylor Hackford’s faithful adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a woman who may have murdered her husband and gotten away with it. That summary hardly touches this complex story, though.

This is one of the few perfect movies to show to someone who wonders why women stay in abusive relationships or why women don’t stand up to their abusers, or who assumes there’s always a lawful solution to dealing with abuse.

This is a story about what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world: a world that is literally owned and designed by and for men. Throughout the story, Dolores is advised to keep her voice down, to stop smarting off to the men in charge, to control her temper. The irony is that perhaps if anyone had ever said anything like that to her husband, none of this would have happened.

This post is the first installment in a series on what I consider to be the best motion picture ever made. The more I analyze it, the more I find to talk about, like one of those nested Russian matryoshka dolls, the outer figure resembling Dolores, the final inner figure representing her daughter, Selena. In order to dig down from Dolores’ story to Selena’s, I have to begin with a chronological synopsis of the events below the More tag.

Spoilers follow. Triggers: mentions of domestic abuse and child molestation.

The Events

(Setting: the 1970s in a small isolated town island off the coast of Maine. This all happens over the course of a year or so.)

  • Dolores is married to Joe St. George. Their daughter, Selena, is about thirteen.
  • Joe is a “drunk”. He verbally abuses Dolores when Selena’s not around to hear it. Dolores tolerates this not because she’s weak, but because she’s too strong for it to bother her. What I call abuse Dolores would have seen as simple marital discord, and in the 70s, most people believed you kept the kids ignorant of problems and maintained the illusion of a stable home life. It works: Selena adores her father and seems to be happy.
  • One day, Joe finally hits Dolores in one of the most powerful scenes of domestic abuse on film*. Once she recovers from the blow, she hits him back and threatens him with an axe. He’s completely cowed and never hits her again.
  • During this time, Dolores is housekeeping for a rich, demanding, difficult “bitch”: Vera Donovan. Dolores puts all her wages into a savings account for Selena’s college – one Joe cannot legally touch, since he would just spend it all on booze and poker. It’s around this time Vera’s husband dies and she inherits all his money.
  • Selena’s grades slip; she stops washing her hair and dressing well. Dolores thinks it’s drugs until she realizes Joe is molesting Selena.
  • Dolores goes to cash out Selena’s college account ($3,000) so they can run away from Joe. But the bank manager has casually broken the law to give Joe the money after Joe fed him a lie about having lost the passbook. Dolores points out that if it had been Joe’s name on the account and Dolores “telling a fairy story”, the man would have called Joe to confirm – but because she’s a woman she doesn’t get the same consideration. Guilt-tripped, the bank manager gives Dolores back what’s left of the money, which Joe had put into another account.
  • Dolores breaks down at work on the day of the eclipse for which Vera’s throwing a big party. Vera is curious to know what could make a strong woman like Dolores cry. Once she hears the story, she asks Dolores where she thinks $3,000 would take them that Joe couldn’t easily find them. “It’s a depressingly masculine world,” she says, but “husbands die every day.” She intimates that she caused her husband’s fatal car accident in retribution for his continuous infidelities and complete lack of love for her.
    • In Technicolor subtext, Vera gives Dolores the rest of the day off to “enjoy the eclipse” with Joe. Dolores goes home to Joe, makes nice, gets him drunk, then pisses him off. He chases her through the yard, trying to strangle her. She leads him to an old well, boarded over with wood she recently noticed is rotting through. She leaps the boards, but Joe falls through them to his death.**
  • Detective Mackey is certain Dolores killed her husband, but can’t prove it. Joe’s death is ruled misadventure.
  • Soon after, Selena has what she calls a “nervous breakdown” and Dolores calls a “bad patch”. Details are sketchy, but it’s clear Selena needed help that Dolores didn’t know how to provide or attain for her.
  • Selena eventually grows up, gets a scholarship to Vassar and becomes a successful New York investigative journalist. Unfortunately, she’s blocked the memories of her molestation and patched together a personal history some part of her mind knows is a lie, and this has taken its toll on her psychologically.
  • Eighteen years after Joe’s death, Dolores is (wrongly) accused of killing Vera, who’s now an elderly and incapacitated woman Dolores looks after 24/7, 365 days a year. Mackey shows up again, determined to convict Dolores this time. He faxes Selena anonymously, and she shows up to half-heartedly help her mother.
  • Gradually, Selena learns the truth about her father’s death. She doesn’t believe her father molested her until she’s on the ferry, leaving the island, and suddenly independently recalls an incident in which, despite her frantic protests, he aggressively cajoles her into touching his penis “like I showed you, remember?” She returns to the island for the inquest and argues her mother’s case. The two of them leave together, finally reconciled.
  • As Selena is leaving on the ferry, she says to Dolores, “I still don’t know how to feel about what you did. But I know you did it for me.”

Some notes on important visuals in the film

The present scenes are filmed in a cool blue tone while the flashbacks are in vivid warm color. Perhaps because the lurid past is more alive than the present, which never quite recovered from it.

* The scene in which Joe hits Dolores for the first time: they’re joking around at his expense (his pants have split) but he seems to be rolling with it. Suddenly he grabs a board and hits Dolores hard across the spine, startling the viewer as much as Dolores. She stiffens where she’s standing, her face contorting into unpretty agony. She barely manages to sit down. Once she does, she’s stuck there for a while. When she can finally get up, her right arm isn’t quite working and she breaks a dish. Hours later, when she’s recovered, the viewer is again startled by a pot suddenly hitting Joe in the head so hard (while he sits watching TV) it bloodies him. Then Dolores is standing over him with an axe. He threatens her. She throws the axe in his lap, then kneels down in his face, aggressively, so close he’d have to hurt her with his bare hands rather than a board or an axe. She informs him that he is never hitting her again, or it will end with one of them in a body bag. There is nothing feminine, pretty or tragic about her in this scene: she is a hero winning a bitter victory, big and bold as Athena. Joe trembles before her like the weakling he is.

The visual cues in this scene are far more effective than the standard “man knocks woman around with punches and kicks and it’s sad.” Joe is gutless without a weapon, and gutless with a weapon when Dolores doesn’t have her back turned. It’s hard to pity Dolores because she has such agency; instead you want to cheer her. And obviously you’re being prepped to cheer later when she kills him.

** Joe’s death: as Joe hangs from the last board above the well, he is completely shocked Dolores won’t pull him up and save him. When he finally falls to his death, Dolores turns away unhappily… just in time to see the full eclipse. For just six minutes, the moon (traditional symbol of feminine forces) blots out the sun (symbol of masculine forces) and Dolores watches as the tears dry on her face.

Aaaaand the analysis will begin in the next post.


  1. Carabosse says

    Thank you for this post, and I look forward to the series it heralds. Few people discuss this film when they talk about Stephen King adaptations, and the people who might otherwise address it for its feminist content often ignore it because it’s a Stephen King adaptation. :-)

  2. Gategrrl says

    It’s no secret that this is one of my favorite King novels. It’s hard to believe, when you read it, that yeah, it’s a man who wrote it.

    It’s really an amazing story. Dolores is an amazing character. There is some difference between the movie and book – mainly having to do with Dolores’ children. She has three in the book, an older son, the daughter, and a younger son who starts taking after the father (but dies in Vietnam, to Dolores’ unspoken bittersweet relief). And in the book, Selena does remember the molestation; her issues are more ambiguous, because Dolores doesn’t quite understand Selena.

    Either way, both are great.

  3. Nenena says

    I’m with Gategrrl. This is one of my absolutely favorite Stephen King books, and I also couldn’t believe that a man had written it, because he “speaks” Dolores’s voice so perfectly. Unfortunately, I’ve never gotten around to seeing the movie! Sometimes I have an aversion to watching movie adaptations of books that I love. (And the movie version of Hearts in Atlantis burned me so bad…) But after this post, I think I have to see this film now.

  4. says

    I’m definitely going to re-read the book as soon as I have time to get hold of a copy. And then review it for the book site. 😀

    I don’t remember some of the details you mention, Gategrrl, so the book and movie may be more dissimilar than I’m recalling. I just remember coming away with the same feeling, being blown away by the same things. Which is satisfactory for me in a movie adaptation.

    Plus the cast: OH MY GOD. Fabulous. I know some people dislike Jennifer Jason Leigh, but IMO she got Selena’s hard edges and masks just right.

    I didn’t want to wax on too much about it being written by a man because male writers should be expected to write women this well. But even if they did, this story would still stand out by a mile because it dare to go There.

  5. sbg says

    I’ve neither seen nor read Dolores Claiborne, but boy do I want to now. I can never seem to find the book in the library.

    Plus the cast: OH MY GOD. Fabulous. I know some people dislike Jennifer Jason Leigh, but IMO she got Selena’s hard edges and masks just right.

    Even if you don’t care for JJL, Kathy Bates is made of enough win and awesome to compensate, I’d think.

  6. says

    Maggie, how very true. I’m particularly fond of tossing this one into the “You can’t expect men to write women well” debate. Of course, this isn’t the only story where he does it; most of his female characters are real and vivid. This is just the story in which he proves not only can he write women; he can project his imagination into a female character and live through her as a woman. Convincingly.

    SBG, Kathy Bates is amazing. So is Judy Parfitt (British actress recommended to director Taylor Hackford by his wife, Helen Mirren), David Strathairn (AWESOME), Christopher Plummer… and even Eric Begosian puts in a little appearance (sorry, I just like him).

    Oh, and the young Selena is Ellen Muth, who later starred in Dead Like Me. She’s really good in this, too.

  7. MaggieCat says

    Sometimes I have an aversion to watching movie adaptations of books that I love. (And the movie version of Hearts in Atlantis burned me so bad…) But after this post, I think I have to see this film now.

    I have the same problem watching movies based on books (and for some reason bad movies based on King books seem to be among some of the worst) and I’d highly recommend it. I actually saw the movie before I read the book, and for me reading it was basically the same thing as watching it because the movie got it so right.

    This is the book my mother recommended to get me reading Stephen King, because I’d liked the movie so much (love Kathy Bates). It’s stayed on as one of my prime examples to refute pretty much every “but you can’t expect better” issue: books adapted into movies perfectly, male writers should be able to write women just fine, and whether or not SK will ever be considered literature by history. (Okay, that last one’s not quite so relevant to this discussion. It just bugs me.)

  8. Gategrrl says

    What I didn’t say in my first post was that I thought in *this case*, the adaptation of the story was just about perfect, even with the changes, which I think were neccessary to focus the story for a two-hour telling.

    Shawshank Redemption is another excellent adaptation of a King story – I’ve read the original and I have to say, the movie does the novella one better because the actors LIVE the roles and the script was awesome. Same with Dolores Claiborne.

    And MaggieCat, I agree with you re: the Stephen King is Lit or not? arguement.

    I have to admit, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the film all the way through – I think I always catch parts of it here and there. They left out the Dust Bunnies in the movie, didn’t they? I don’t remember they really covered a lot of the Rich Widow’s background that was in the book.

  9. MaggieCat says

    I’ve always found it interesting that several of the books by King that have translated the best to other media feature great female characters; Carrie, Misery, Dolores Claiborne. I think it would have been really interesting to see if that held up with The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, but last I heard the film based on that had sort of fizzled.

    Gategrrl: I have a rant based on that argument, and that rant is sponsored by Edgar Allan Poe.

  10. firebird says

    In Re: Steven King writing women, I immediately thought of the only one of his books that I own, a non-fiction, semi-memoir called On Writing. If you’ve never read his non-fiction, you really must pick it up – the acerbic wit is just too fun. I used to subscribe to Entertainment Weekly primarily because he writes a column every other issue or so.

    In any case, I can’t find my copy of the book at the moment, but in it he challenges the reader to role reverse a common gender bias scenario, write it well, and send it to him, and promises to read every one. I remember thinking about how he is clearly thinking about gender and bias and how stereotypes and tropes make writing lazy and uninteresting if they are not challenged and replaced.

    Oh, and he hates adverbs, BTW. Just a funny fact. :-)

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    have you read Gerald’s Game? It’s the companion novel to Dolores, and deals with some of the same issues.

    I haven’t! *adds to reading list*

  12. SunlessNick says

    I haven’t read the original novel – unfortunately, I can’t get into Stephen King’s style, no matter how talented I think he is – but this is a truly truly amazing film.

    That line, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto…”

    “Bitches” are, among other definitions, women who break social rules – particularly rules deemed to apply to women, but not to men (which possibly means that men should be called bitches as a matter of course) – or a woman with the presumption to co-opt actions reserved for men.
    But the rules, choices, rewards of society are set up with those exact things in mind – the rewards are set up to come to those who act in ways limited to men – the rules are set up to limit those actions to men. And the more pervasive such a set up becomes, the more a woman has to be a “bitch” in order to garner those rewards.
    Then of course, she is punished for – well is it really performing actions limited to men – or is it for earning rewards limited to men? Dolores is punished for saving Selena by years of destroyed relationship with her. More attempts are made to punish her for killing the man who was raping her daughter, an action for which a father may well have won praise.

    (Anything else I have to say, I’ll wait for more specific posts).

  13. scarlett says

    Sounds like a great movie, I’ll remember to get it out next time I’m at teh video store.

    When is this set? As I was reading the bit about the bank manager, my first reaction was that today (and by ‘today’ I mean 2007 Perth because I have no other point of comparison) the bank/manager could be on on charges of dereliction of duty/negligence/general incompetance and at least be legally required to repay the money out of its/their own funds. It made me sad that it wasn’t that long ago – and there are probably places where it still happens – that the ‘what’s the husband’s is the husband’s and what’s the wife’s is also the husband’s’ mentality existed strongly enough that the bank manager, on some level, felt Joe was entitled to money im Delores’ name.

  14. says

    It’s set in the 70s, Scarlett. Thing is, it was just as illegal then as it is now. What I don’t know is how much the laws were enforced then – or now.

    Now, with ATM cards and options like that, it would probably be even easier for someone to pull a stunt like that, and the bank might have even more plausible deniability.

  15. scarlett says

    From the cases I’ve seen – and I’m not sure if they were legally required to give the money back or they did so they wouldn’t look even worse than they currently do – the money was usually refunded when it had clearly been taken by someone who’s name wasn’t on the account.

    I figured it was still illegal when the story was set. It just struck me as sad that even though it WAS clearly illegal and the manager had to make a CONSCIOUS CHOICE to give Joe the money, he did because on some level he must have felt that Joe was entitled to something that was, without ambiguity, his wife’s. I’m sure that kind of mentality still goes on today.

  16. says

    That’s exactly it. The movie makes it clear that Joe lied to the bank and caused the manager to break the law. But that is what men in a patriarchy do for each other – cut each other slack.

    And Dolores talks him into giving the money back, or what’s left of it, because she knows if she tells the police or whoever what the bank manager did, they will cut him the same slack that he cut Joe. Appealing to him, guilt-tripping him, manipulating him into doing the LEGAL thing according to his own freakin’ patriarchal law, is her only hope.

    It’s sickening.

  17. scarlett says

    I think that’s what bothered me more than anything. Bad enough that he illegally gave Joe the money, but not to have the decency to give back the entirety – only what was left – particularly galled me.

  18. says

    Interestingly, I just re-read the book, and in it the bank manager makes it clear that what he did IS legal. It’s just that there’s no question that, had it been Dolores coming in and asking for a new passbook because she lost the old one, the bank manager would have called Joe to make sure it was kosher. Dolores argues that this was NOT how it was explained to her when they set up the account – I’m thinking this is the sort of “legal” where it’s not a crime, but you could win a lawsuit. If you had the money to sue someone.

    But because, the bank manager explains, women rarely know anything about the family finances, they just don’t bother to call when hubby makes a change. Wouldn’t want to make wifey’s pretty head ‘splode!

    And then Dolores’ only recourse is to, effectively, beg. She does it with dignity, but it still boils down to, “Dear Nice Important Man, please help me get what I deserve that you took away!” In the book, it’s also clear she does NOT get the money back and is lucky to find out from the bank manager what happened to it – I have a feeling that’s true in the movie, too, now that I reconsider a few things in light of it (I suspect they had to edit some useful scenes for time).

  19. sbg says

    But because, the bank manager explains, women rarely know anything about the family finances, they just don’t bother to call when hubby makes a change. Wouldn’t want to make wifey’s pretty head ’splode!

    Wow. Really? My mom has ALWAYS managed the finances, and by always I mean even way back in the 60s and 70s. 😉

  20. says

    Same here with my mom. In the 80’s, it seemed to me the family finances and billpaying were just another household chore for moms. I don’t think I ever heard of anyone’s father doing the bills.

    But the stereotype persists that women just go all “I don’t get it” when they see something as straightforward as numbers. Interestingly, my mom let my dad handle their finances in the late 60’s when they first married. He literally couldn’t grasp the idea that writing checks for more money than you had in the account = overdrawn. I’m not joking. He was not dumb, but I think he chose to be when he didn’t like the answer – which in this case was “you can’t have what you want when you want it”.

  21. scarlett says

    I’m thinking this is the sort of “legal” where it’s not a crime, but you could win a lawsuit. If you had the money to sue someone

    Dunno if this helps, but based on what I know of the Aus legal system, you have criminal law where a crime has been commited and being convicted usually involves some kind of jail time or suspended sentance, and then you have civil law, which usually boils down to people getting screwed over with goods, services or money. You go to the civil courts over that and usually conviction involves some kind of financial resitution, plus court costs.

  22. scarlett says

    Yep, here the burden of proof in criminal law is ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ whereas in civil law the basic concept is ‘odds on, they’re guilty/innocent’ (can’t think of the legal term :p)

    From what I understand, the reason Goldman won the case was because the purden of proof is lighter in civil cases. So he could sue for what I assume was emotional distress and win on the grounds that odds-on, Simpson was guilty (as interpreted by a civil court) even though Simpson was acquitted in criminal court because there’s that extra burden of proof between ‘odds-on guilt’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

  23. MaggieCat says

    The US legal system is very similar- which makes sense, since both are based on the English common law system. (Excluding Louisiana, which is based on the French Napoleonic Code system.) The burden of proof is very different in criminal vs. civil cases. The most notable example of that would probably be Fred Goldman, who won a civil suit finding OJ Simpson liable for the death of his son, even though the criminal case obviously lost.

  24. says

    I believe at the time legal experts said in a criminal trial it’s reasonable doubt, but in a civil trial “probably guilty” is good enough for the jury or judge.

    Not that they’ve recovered much of what they were awarded in that case.

  25. A Very Bad Girl says

    I know some people dislike Jennifer Jason Leigh

    Oh wow, who? She’s one of my all-time favorite actresses. I’ve thought she was awesome ever since Single White Female.

    And, of course, enough cannot be said of Kathy Bates. She was great in this movie, but I especially enjoyed her roles in A Home of Our Own & Diabolique.

  26. says

    Oh wow, who? She’s one of my all-time favorite actresses. I’ve thought she was awesome ever since Single White Female.

    Some people have called her “wooden” or said she has a style which is grating (the two are sort of contradictory). Whatever – I think she’s not only good, but unique and interesting. SWF was crap, IMO, but she stood out in it for me.

    Kathy Bates is absolutely one of the best, IMO. As is Judy Parfitt (Vera), who can play sweet, insecure, and hard-as-nails all with equal credibility. Even a fairly small role like the one she had in “Ever After”, and she makes it memorable.

    Top notch casting all the way around.

  27. MaggieCat says

    Some people have called her “wooden” or said she has a style which is grating (the two are sort of contradictory).

    I don’t think they’re necessarily contradictory, I’ve seen cases where an actor easily turned in a performance that was highly mannered or stylized without conveying any believable emotion. I’m not saying that’s what Leigh does, but it’s very possible. (Although I think it might be easier for it to become a problem in live theatre, since you have to play for distance and subtlety can often get lost or missed.)

    Oh wow, who? She’s one of my all-time favorite actresses. I’ve thought she was awesome ever since Single White Female.

    And um, over here. Although after a trip to IMDB, I think it may be due to the fact that she has never been in a movie I liked at all with the exception of Claiborne, and she never stood out to me enough to be memorable beyond being in a bunch of movies I didn’t like.

  28. A Very Bad Girl says

    @Jennifer: Kathy is definitely one of the best. One of the main reasons I loved this movie so much was because of her & JJL; they are my two of my favorite actresses. I don’t know if you saw Diabolique or not, but I loved Kathy’s hard-assed detective character in that film. There was this one line where she said something like “They should use testosterone to build bombs”. God, that made me laugh so hard.

    @MaggieCat: Well, everyone has their preferences. I think I like JJL a lot because she reminds me so much of myself… especially in Dolores Claiborne. In Single White Female, she really nailed the whole obsessive, psychotic nature of her character. Her performance was good enough to make me a confirmed JJL junky, that’s for sure. 😀

  29. Eric_RoM says

    Excellent (yeah, I’m late to the party) post.

    DC was indeed a neglected movie. For me, the color changes between the flashbacks and present day were absolutely one of the most compelling things about the movie. I still don’t know exactly how the cinematographer accomplished that particular effect, as it would have been a lab effect at the time (i.e., not digital).

    I haven’t read the follow-on posts, but I’m sure you must praise Kathy Bates– phenomenal in this film (and almost always, eh?).

  30. says

    Eric_RoM, I don’t think I did praise, this being a story analysis rather than a film review. She and Judy Parfitt as both phenomenal actresses in every role I’ve seen either one of them play.

    As for the color difference, I don’t know much about cinematography, but I assumed it was just a blue filter for the up-to-date scenes and some other kind of filter or difference in processing for the flashbacks?

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