Dolores Claiborne is one of the more unusual Stephen King adaptations of the 90s, partly because the novel was a little anomalous in King’s body of work at this time. It’s pretty much a straight-up melodrama, with almost no supernatural content – a two-hander that could be a play if it weren’t for the lurid and inspired visual style of director Taylor Hackford and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. Kathy Bates plays the title character, a woman in her 60s who has been accused of murder – twice. The first occurred thirty years ago, when Dolores’ abusive husband Joe (David Strathairn) was found dead in an abandoned well on their property. The second has just occurred, in the present. Since her husband’s death, Dolores has worked for Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). In the opening scene Dolores seems to wrestle Vera down her staircase, before holding a rolling pin over her head as the mailman walks in.
However, neither of these deaths are quite what they seem – as Dolores daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) discovers when she’s called back to her family home to take care of her mother during the police investigation. Through a series of flashbacks, Selena gradually learns the full truth about Dolores – that she suffered in an abusive marriage, that Vera rescued her by employing her as a housekeeper, and then left her everything, and that Dolores was somehow involved in Joe’s death. Along the way, the two women try to restore a broken relationship, and come to terms with the years they have missed together, although they’re both too brittle to ever achieve total closure. In any case, the focus of the film is squarely on Dolores, with Selena operating mainly as a surrogate for the audience as we shift between her mother in the present and her mother in the past – a testament to Kathy Bates’ uncanny ability to play women of vastly different ages, or women who seem to be two ages at once.
From the beginning, this is a clear companion piece to Misery, both in terms of the focus on hermetically cloistered femininity, and by virtue of Bates’ presence as a potentially murderous recluse. Yet that very similarity induces Hackford to chart out a profound departure from Misery, which was the peak of the classical era of King adaptations. Most of these films had a sharply defined and contained atmosphere, and typically focused on a single space or trajectory – or both at once, as occurred in The Shining and The Shawshank Redemption, two films that might be taken to bookend the high point of Misery, where this horror style reached a new crossover appeal. In fact, Rob Reiner might be thought of as the classicist King adapter par excellence, using Stand By Me and Misery to bring his works to a wider audience than, say, The Shining, without sacrificing any of their authorial authenticity.
By contrast, Dolores Claiborne now feels like the origin point of the late period of King adaptations – the films and television series that populate our present. In that sense, it’s very ahead of its time, since it feels so familiar now, moving away from the straight horror of earlier King adaptations for the more elusive fusions of horror with other genres that are more common with contemporary King texts. In particular, Dolores Claiborne captures the mood of eclipse and equinox of later King adaptations – the sense that the sun is always low in the sky, and that a golden age (presumably King’s own) has muted into a more autumnal melancholy. From that perspective, it’s especially prescient of Gerald’s Game, Lisey’s Story and Mike Flanagan’s vision of King more generally. All these adaptations traffic in a luminous darkness, an opaque brilliance, that could probably be traced back to the lighting of Dolores Claiborne.
In the early parts of the film, this manifests itself as a particularly bleak iteration of Maine – King’s recurring backdrop. While Misery wasn’t set in Maine, it did traffic in a particular kind of horror cosiness that King built through his Maine works, epitomised by the impossibly snug poster art, which suggested a whole world of cushioned home video viewing. We see this cosiness in the Maine of It, Pet Sematary and Salem’s Lot, where it functions as a canvas to make the horror resonate more vividly. By contrast, Dolores Claiborne takes place on an island off the coast of Maine – Little Tall Island – where Dolores has lived her entire life. While we glimpse this island in the opening scenes, Hackford only really establishes it when Selena arrives on a giant industrial ferry. Looking out over the sullen sea, she’s greeted by a series of barren, wind-blaster landscapes, cloaked in the sombre blue-grey filter of deep winter light.
Once we get on shore, Hackford pointedly refrains from the normal textures of King’s Maine. Instead, he focuses on connective tissue – pointed shots of the awkward makeshift spaces between houses and the street, or between the road and other parts of the build environment. Since the town of Little Tall refuses to cohere into a cosy whole, it can never quite differentiate itself from the ocean either, and barely feels reclaimed from the sea and wind, as Hackford fuses land, sea and sky into a single grey mass that pre-empts the deep blues of Mike Flanagan’s horror palette. We don’t even get an opportunity to attach to the concrete particulars of the town before Dolores whisks Selena away to their decrepit home.
This house is quite distinct from the town, but it’s out on a big promontory, so it’s easy to see the town from a distance. That doesn’t create any synergy with the town, however, or allow Hackford to position the town as a twinkling beacon on the horizon. Just the opposite – it captures how desperately Dolores has managed to keep the town at arm’s length, apart from the occasional hostile envoys from local hooligans or police, both of whom terrorise her at regular intervals. Since the land is flat and the vegetation is low-lying, you can see a long way from most vantage points, which prevents any residual cosiness or comfort. Add to that the fact that it’s the off-season – and that this town has a particularly pronounced off-season – and every frame exudes a vacancy that no amount of residual King atmosphere can assuage.
Within this bleak landscape, we only see King’s mythic Maine in the past, by way of a series of summer flashbacks that fill in Dolores’ story. When we cut back to the past, the vegetation is much thicker and taller – the house is so bunched in with trees that it’s impossible to see the town. Over the years, all that intervening texture between houses and sea has eroded, to the point where it feels as if space itself has been impoverished in the present tense. This is especially prescient of later iterations of King’s work, which struggle with how to adapt his precise sense of time and place for a digital era where those embodied experiences ramify less and less. In that sense, you might say that Dolores Claiborne (the novel) anticipates the way that King will become more difficult to adapt – it is, in its own way, pre-emptive late work.
These highly telegraphed flashbacks form part of a broader and balder melodramatic structure that revels in sudden shifts in affect, tone and perspective. These pivots have their genesis in an early scene when Joe cracks a joke with Dolores, only to savagely beat her a moment later. That schism between intimacy and violence fractures the whole field of the film, producing drastic cusps between foreground and background, a recourse to soap opera framing in which characters stand front on to the camera, and a palpably artificial sense of space. Even when the action is clearly shot on location, Hackford positions the characters and objects as if there’s a green screen in the background, preventing the spaces ever naturalising.
This means that the past never operates as a mere “naturalistic” corrective to the present. If anything, the past feels less naturalistic than the present, even though its colour palette is (ostensibly) more realistic. At first, they operate precisely as flashbacks – flashes back in time that reiterate the bizarre blue-grey of the present just as our eyes are acclimatising to it, but without offering an especially stable reality field of their own. They exhaust the mise-en-scene of the present, leaving its spaces curiously sparse and underdetermined, until Dolores and Selena seem to be occupying the mere fissures of an older mise-en-scene. Perhaps that’s why the scenes in the present are nearly always set in drab connective or transitional spaces – again, the kinds of spaces that Flanagan explores so vividly in his contemporary horror style.
This dissolution of mise-en-scene shapes Dolores’ two main relationships in the past – with her husband and with her employer, both of whom are fixated, in their different ways, with mise-en-scene. When Joe first beats her, it’s as a very deliberate disruption of their mise-en-scene, and a riposte to her for not managing that scene better. Similarly, Vera is obsessive about the presentation of her house – she insists that all her windows are open for two hours per day, and makes Dolores hang her bedsheets on a remote clothesline so that she can bring the smell of the south wind into her house. These two relationships cement mise-en-scene, but quickly turn it into a cloistered constraint, reflected in the noirish change in Dolores’ monologue when she describes them, which starts to evoke William Holden’s in Sunset Blvd.
This partially formulated mise-en-scene – or this inability to formulate a satisfactory mise-en-scene – is one of the anxieties of recent King adaptations. Here, as there, this frustration is figured in terms of light – specifically, the sudden shifts in the tenor and quality of light that signal our movement from past to present, or vice versa. Since both lighting schemes are so lurid, and since we shift between them so rapidly, neither is ever entirely naturalised, casting the entire film in an emergent glow – a pearly iridescence that escalates as the story develops.
This lurid alternation between bright and dark colour schemes crystallises around the eclipse that occurs on the day (or night) that Joe dies. Not only is the island the “epicentre” of this “total eclipse,” but it’s a record eclipse, lasting six and a half minutes. It’s also a summer eclipse, meaning that there’s more light (and brighter light) to occlude and distort. We hear about this eclipse from the start of the film, but the characters also look forward to another eclipse that is predicted to strike the island in 1996. As a result, the entire film feels set in the lurid light between eclipses, while this light becomes a line of flight from the “depressingly masculine world we live in.” Dolores, we learn, is planning to leave the island with the eclipse.
This eclipse takes up the third act of the film, which bridges the gap between flashback and present, leaving us in a heightened present tense illuminated by the eerie light that has become the hallmark of late King adaptations. It’s one of the best ever third acts in a King adaptation too, as well as one of the most beautiful sequences in any film based on his works. Hackford pre-empts it earlier in the film, always shooting the sun close to the horizon, or placing characters in front of the sun, as occurs in Lisey’s Story, evoking a darkness that just reiterates light, or a light that just reiterates darkness. After a while, this starts to rupture the fabric of the film, switching the negative at key moments, as it fills the characters with a weird paradox that they can only inchoately articulate: “Even when it’s warm here, it’s cold.” Hackford also regularly recurs to pillow shots of clouds that grow more lurid and iridescent.
The tipping-point, narratively, comes when Dolores realises that Joe has been abusing Selena. She immediately confides in Vera, who reveals that she murdered her own husband, and recommends that Selena does the same, intimating that poison may be the best strategy. There’s a clear connection here to Gerald’s Game, which revolves around abuse that occurs during an eclipse, and the resonances between these two novels – both outliers at this point in King’s oeuvre – is so pronounced that they feel like two versions of the same story, part of the same shared universe. Even though Flanagan’s adaptation was released twenty years later, then, it takes all of its cues from Hackford, and the two films are organic companions.
None of that actually describes the third act itself, which is perhaps best described as a sublime light show. It all takes place outside Dolores’ house, with the town in the background, and fuses the two ways we have experienced this vista so far in the film. Like the scenes shot in the present, the vegetation is low enough for us to see all the way to the town and harbour. However, like the scenes shot in the past, the town and harbour brim with a luridly nostalgic cosiness. In fact, we only get a cohesive sense of the townsfolk – we only see a crowd for the first time – as the eclipse draws near, and everyone heads out on the water to watch it. As the lighting becomes more stylised, and the backdrop grows baroque in its Technicolor irreality, past and present converge, and dark and light converge into a luminous darkness, a light so sculptural that it just seems to reify the shadows between different planes of space.
Up until this point, Dolores Claiborne has been a film in search of a backdrop, an atmosphere, a convincing sense of space and mise-en-scene. Hackford fully restores it here, but as a delightful contrivance, a beautiful artificiality, a palpable plasticity – not unlike the giant backdrop in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. This is a step beyond day-for-night – it’s day-as-night, day and night at the same time, as stars begin to appear in the sky, and the boats launch fireworks in the deep red of the impending eclipse, which falls to the water like so many pieces of the sun. Finally, Dolores chases her husband across the heath, relying on him to fall into a wall that functions like a heightened version of the eclipse viewers that everyone is obsessively buying. As Joe looks up the well at Dolores, the eclipse reaches its zenith, and the film is cast in a confounding fusion of light and darkness, day and night, past and present, that totally ruptures the spatiotemporal coordinates that normally contour horror in King’s world.
This, then, is the palette and conundrum that has percolated its way into contemporary King adaptations, just as the eclipse is the main antagonist in the film, the problem that the film can’t solve. We never find out whether Dolores poisoned Joe, and caused him to stumble manically across the heath, or whether he was just drunk, but in the end it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the strange calm that passes over Dolores’ face as she washes the dishes just before the death, and just before the eclipse starts to occur. Bathed in the pre-ecliptical light, she exudes an odd resignation, a willingness to just let the eclipse dictate her from here.
This sequence is so ahead of its time that the conclusion of the film doesn’t really know what to do with it. Since the eclipse is the main antagonist, the film is resolved once it occurs, or once Dolores survives it, but there still has to be some resolution, so we cut to an unbearably expository scene in which Selena spends fifteen minutes defending her mother to the local police. I know that this kind of exposition is an important element of melodrama, but I found it a real buzzkill after that incredible third act. What is interesting is that Selena, a journalist, never quite solves her writer’s block, which is going on in the background, by the end of the film – not even with this epic final delivery. Not only does the eclipse eclipse a normal ending but it throws the whole process of writing into question with a new kind of crisis in space and time. That crisis is the crisis of most contemporary King adaptations, and the brilliance of Dolores Claiborne – both novel and film – lies in how acutely and sensitively they prefigure it.