30 September 2012
When a film is released that was adapted from a Stephen King short story, novella, or novel, moviegoers’ first thought might be they are in for a thriller, likely of the supernatural persuasion. King, as storyteller, often explores the bizarre and unexplainable when seeking his scares. However, Stephen King does not only write in the horror genre, and many of these fear-free and deeply poignant works have been adapted for the silver screen; Stand by Me (1986) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) are two leading examples.
King’s novel Dolores Claiborne was adapted for cinema in 1995, three years after King released the novel of the same title. Critical reviews of Dolores Claiborne place this film in the same category as The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me, meaning Dolores Claiborne lacks the supernatural element King is known for. This is inaccurate. Without questions, Dolores Claiborne is a supernatural thriller.
To summarize, Dolores Claiborne, directed by Taylor Hackford, begins with the death of Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). Vera, an elderly, handicapped woman, plummets down a flight of stairs at her home, and Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), a trusted employee of Vera’s for over twenty years, stands at the top of the stairs looking down at Vera’s body. The police arrest Dolores for what they presume to be Vera’s murder, which brings Dolores’ estranged, thirty-something daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), back to the small, coastal Maine town of her childhood, where Dolores is being detained. Pending an inquest, Dolores is released, and she and her daughter return to their family home, which is full of painful memories and unresolved conflicts. One of the most painful memories is of Joe (David Strathairn), Dolores’ husband and Selena’s alcoholic father. Joe physically abused Dolores and sexually abused Selena. One summer afternoon when Selena was a teenager—and also the day of a solar eclipse—Dolores lured Joe to his death by enraging his drunken temper and leading him outside through some brush to a carefully covered well’s hole which he fell through. Joe’s death was ruled and accident, but one of the detectives, a friend of Joe’s, John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), always felt Dolores was involved. His suspicion lingered through the years, and when Vera Donovan was found dead in front of Dolores, Detective Mackey became determined to finally arrest her for murder. As difficult memories plague Dolores’ mind, and Selena struggles with her own traumatic recollections and complicated emotions toward her mother, this impromptu mother-daughter reunion boils over as the inquest into Vera’s death arrives.
Today, a solar eclipse in known as a natural phenomenon, but, historically speaking, that is not always how people understood eclipses. Long before astrological advancements in science, little was known about eclipses, be they lunar or solar. Thousands of years ago people from all over the world created myths, legends, folklore, and rituals surrounding eclipses. For example, in China a legend began that an eclipse was actually a dragon consuming the Sun or the Moon (depending on whether the eclipse was solar or lunar), and people of China would bang drums, yell, and generate loud noise to scare the dragon off. Moving through history, religious groups began experiencing eclipses as dark moments, during which negative energy fell upon the Earth and its people; eclipses become an omen. Until the last few hundred years, eclipses were not understood to be a natural phenomenon; eclipses were a supernatural event.
This supernatural history of eclipses seems to be why King pulls a solar eclipse into Dolores Claiborne, and why screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who adapted King’s novel, also highlighted this solar eclipse as the crux of the Dolores Claiborne film.
The film’s solar eclipse happens when Dolores carries out the plan for Joe’s death. After giving him enough liquor to drink himself into barely standing belligerence, Dolores confronts Joe on their front porch. By this time, the solar eclipse has begun; the light is changing as the Moon slowly moves in front of the Sun for a total eclipse. The bright fusion of pinks, yellows, blues, and oranges makes the sky look artificial—intentionally artificial, not just cinematically artificial because the scene was shot against a green-screen. This curious lighting is beautiful, but unnerving because it is not normal, and therefore unknown. The vibrant colors appear to be the bright before the dark, and, as Dolores reveals she has taken back the money Joe stole out of Selena’s bank account, and also reveals she knows he has molested Selena, Joe chases Dolores through the brush. Simultaneously, this beautiful, mysterious light fades, and the total solar eclipse quietly befalls this picturesque coastal community. Dolores leads Joe to the hidden well, which she jumps over, but he falls through. Hanging on for life, Joe pleads with Dolores for help, but, although upset, she does not rescue him from falling. Dolores stands firmly underneath the darkness of the solar eclipse as Joe loses his struggle and plummets to death.
The pairing of this solar eclipse with Dolores’ ability to carry out such a life-changing, traumatic event is no coincidence. These two events are connected because Dolores’ plan would not have worked if not for the solar eclipse. This is evident by the film’s other death.
By this time in the film, the audience already knows Dolores did not kill Vera; Vera committed suicide. Yet, when her initial fall down the stairs did not kill her, Vera begged Dolores to finish the job. Dolores ran to the kitchen and retrieved a marble rolling-pin, returned to Vera, and raised it up, as though she would strike Vera with a fatal, merciful blow. However, Dolores could not do it; she was unable to kill Vera, and Vera died of injuries sustained for her fall. The fact that Dolores could not commit an act that would end Vera’s life, but could commit an act that would end Joe’s life, suggests the supernatural power of the eclipse.
Arguably, Dolores had already taken part in death, with Joe, so why was she not able help Vera with death? Yes, the two situations are entirely different, and that is a consideration. But, the circumstantial differences, much like the circumstantial evidence that does not hold up in Detective Mackey’s case against Dolores, should not berate the effects a global event that causes a complete, uncontrollable physical change in an environment has on a person. The eclipse had an effect on Joe’s death, and the lack of eclipse an equaled effected Vera’s.
Stemming from legend, and evident by how differently Dolores handled the two deaths she witnessed, the supernatural effect of an eclipse is a significant part in Dolores Claiborne. Literal and figurative darkness fell upon Dolores under that solar eclipse, and she was able to commit an act she would not commit under any other circumstance. Perhaps it was strength the eclipse gave Dolores, or perhaps it was clarity, but the eclipse undoubtedly affected Dolores, in the same sort of bizarre and unexplainable ways people have made legend of, in regards to eclipses as a supernatural event, from the beginning of time.