Patricia Highsmith’s “Carol”: film and book

In 2015, “Carol” grabbed the headlines for a while. It was not because of the acting, screenplay, music, props, nor the film’s subject matter. Even though the subject is worse than controversial, according to some. No, a few journalists were not so much interested in all this, but very much into speculating about the private life of one of the film’s stars.

This only showed, that a large chunk of the world – or at least a few journalists and some deeply religious people – still have a problem accepting that sexual identities and preferences are not always as simple as black and white. Though a majority of beings prefer heterosexual relationships, it does not automatically mean Nature solely allows such relationships. Many different shades of grey and colours are totally natural.

The journalists – or their papers and magazines – also showed, they had a problem distinguishing between what actors and actresses excel in, versus their presumed, imagined, or actual private lives. It should never be forgotten, that actors and actresses excel in making the rest of us believe in the roles they play and the fictional characters they portray on stage or screen. Convincing role-playing does not mean there is no gap between screen or stage and real life.

The short storm certainly showed Patricia Highsmith was wise to publish her novel “The Price of Salt” under a different pen-name. She also ended up using a different publisher, but that had everything to do with her novel’s topic. In the fifties – as now – some publishers did not wish to publish her novel which was used for the screenplay of “Carol”.

The film

Film director Todd Haynes created a beautiful and very moving film. The screenplay follows Patricia Highsmith’s novel quite closely. It is not just the screenplay which deserves praise. The historic background, setting, details like clothes and cars, all are perfect.

Carol 2The acting is simply brilliant. One feels deeply for both fictional characters. Had the film been about a heterosexual affair, praise would have been unanimous and no rumours about sexual preferences of the stars would have reached papers or magazines. This film would have been treated for what it actually is: a beautiful tracing of a love affair between two people. It deals with feelings like falling in love, betrayal, pain, as well as all the damage love can cause.

The acting is so excellent, one not only feels for both women. One understands Carol’s husband, despite his behaviour and sympathizes with Abby, Carol’s friend. They are just a few of the people caught up in this drama.

The film starts with two women sitting at a table in a large hotel in New York during the fifties. The conversation seems to be a difficult one, but is broken up by the arrival of a man. He barges up to their table, shouting a name across the room. He invites the girl he recognised, Therese (Rooney Mara) to a party and she accepts. The other woman, Carol (Cate Blanchett), tells them she has other obligations and all leave the building.

The rest of the film is a flashback, explaining what happened between the women. Therese, a young girl dreaming of a career as a photographer at a paper, supports herself by working at a toy-department during Christmas. While working, she meets Carol, who is buying Christmas presents. They are drawn to each other and there is already some kind of tension, even before Therese helps Carol.

After completing her purchases, Carol forgets her gloves – accidentally or on purpose. Therese has her address and sends the gloves back to their owner. The affair starts, when the two meet over coffee and start meeting again and again. An acquaintance develops into friendship with smouldering possibilities.

This friendship is unequal. For Carol is clearly wealthy and older, experienced and married with a young daughter. She comes across more self-assured than she is. Therese on the other hand, is uncertain, gauge, poor and doubts her talents. She is supposed to go to Europe with her fiancé, but keeps delaying their trip. She even goes out with other men, though she keeps them at a distance and is more interested in their friendship and useful contacts.

Carol is married to Harge (Kyle Chandler) but their marriage is breaking up. She intensely dislikes his family. It is clear Carol’s friendship with Abby (Sarah Paulson) has caused and is still causing problems. Later in the film, it becomes clear Abby and Carol are one-time lovers and Harge knows about their affair.

Carol invites Therese home. Harge turns up and makes nasty remarks about Therese’s poverty and labour-class background. Therese will witness more scenes, while she and Carol grow more attracted to each other.

When Harge takes his daughter to his family for what is supposed to be a short Christmas stay, he already breaks arrangements and promises about shared parenting. But the absence of him and Carol’s daughter does enable Carol and Therese to embark on a trip together. Abby will keep an eye on developments in New York.

Harge keeping his daughter with him, is one of several danger signs Carol and her lawyer ignore or underestimate. Nobody on Carol’s side realises or foresees the moves Harge and his family are capable of. As in practically all divorce cases, control over the child will be a means to punish and nearly break a partner.

When it becomes clear what Harge has managed to do, Abby tries to warn Carol. Carol flips, but when it is clear nothing can be done, she abandons Therese. Abby is told to drive Therese back to New York. The relationship between Carol and Therese is ruptured and all contact broken off.

Much later, the two women meet again and sit at a table in the dining room of a New York hotel. They are having a difficult conversation, when a man barges in and disrupts everything. He takes Therese off to a party, while Carol goes to another one. Though the women split up again, it will not be the end of the affair. The film closes with a promise that perhaps, there will be a happy end after all.

Haynes’ film portrays brilliantly the attraction, the development of the affair, the love triangle, the bitter feuding, the meddling of others and the break-ups. The only difference is, the affair is between two women.

A few in the audience of which I was a member, clearly had problems with this lesbian aspect. Nevertheless, the superb filming and acting caused all of us to gasp with shock, when what happened at Waterloo became clear. It remains a feat of director, film crew and actors, to ensure a film audience accepts a controversial, fictional relationship and becomes totally immersed in a moving drama. This is one of those films which leave a deep impression and will not easily be forgotten.

The book

“The Price of Salt”, or “Carol” as the novel is now also titled, is as impressive as the film based on it. However, there are differences. Some things are clearer in the film, while others are made clearer in the novel.

There is for instance, a difference between film-Abby and book-Abby. Carol and Abby’s history is far better and clearer described in the novel. Their friendship was forged during a shared childhood or adolescence. What happened between them in the novel, is a one-night-stand and not an affair or relationship like the one between Therese and Carol.

When Carol abandons Therese to hurry back, it is not Abby who drives Therese back to the jungle of New York. In the novel, Therese stops at a village, rents a place, finds a temp job and sort herself out during a few weeks in the “wilderness of the countryside”.

The novel also stresses Therese being far more sexually interested in women, than in the film. What film and novel certainly share, is the positive ending. There had been previous stories and novels about lesbian affairs, but in most cases the authors felt compelled to “punish” characters for their behaviour. It seems quite a few readers wrote Patricia Highsmith to thank her for not falling into that trap and promising a possible happy end instead.

As mentioned above, Patricia Highsmith published her second novel under a different name. One of the reasons is undoubtedly because it describes a lesbian relationship. However, as this novel does contain autobiographical elements, one also wonders if this ploy was not used to ensure a greater distance between reality and fiction.

Patricia Highsmith had relationships with men and women, but none ended happily. Before she became a successful author, she worked at a toy department of a large shop in New York during one Christmas period. “The Price of Salt” may therefore contain far more autobiographical elements and personally experienced feelings, then critics and readers presume. If fictional Therese and real Patricia are closely “related”, but Patricia’s affairs ended in tears, then using a different fictional pen-name to create a kind of double barrier between fiction and real life, becomes even more understandable.

Quite a few critics mention how Highsmith ensured there is a difference between the relationship between Carol and Therese, and Ripley in the first Ripley novel. The suggestion seems to be that Ripley came first. This is not the case: Highsmith’s first novel was “Stranger on a Train”, followed by “The Price of Salt” published under the name Claire Morgan. Ripley appears for the first time in Highsmith’s fourth novel.

“The Price of Salt” is highly readable and as impressive as the film “Carol”. A note of warning for Highsmith and Ripley-fans though. “The Price of Salt” does not contain the violence which became Patricia Highsmith’s trademark.

Youtube trailer Carol

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