When it was launched, Carol was honored with just about every major motion picture award. But a brief comparison with the novel is a direttissima to disillusionment.
When Todd Haynes‘ lesbian drama Carol was released at the box office, it was celebrated as a breakthrough of queer cinema. One could not avoid the movie even if one tried. Many did not realize that the box office hit was based on a novel by American author Patricia Highsmith. Those who indulged in the text after consuming the film may well have been abjectly disappointed.
That is because, contrary to Haynes’ film version, The Price of Salt, as Highsmith’s original was actually titled, is no family and marriage drama with lesbian undertones. Rather, it may be viewed as a coming-of- age novel that, in accordance with the American woman author’s psychologizing literature, placed hardly any emphasis on kitsch and drama.
When it comes to comparing it to the novel, the movie’s strengths are also its weaknesses, especially looking at the portrayal of the two protagonists, especially Carol. The text is written from Therese’s perspective, a 19-year- old stage designer who experiences her first great love with a woman and becomes an adult through the complications of their togetherness.
The character of Carol, although it obviously occupies Therese’s thinking, remains largely in the shadows. Only belatedly, the reader learns of her family life from dialogs, and at times, there are even doubts about the narratrix’ credibility. Never until the end of the novel does Carol’s mythical shell suffer any cracks. It is not necessary because the text is not focused on her. Much rather, Highsmith discovers the character of Therese than that of her lover, she is curious how an almost unfeeling young girl starts to develop a will of her own and to evolve her dimensions, not about a bisexual woman with a troubled divorce. Highsmith deserves great credit for never portraying Carol as a lesbian but always as interested in both sexes. That is by no means par for the course in light of widespread marginalizing of bi- and pansexual people even today.
Precisely by concentrating on Therese and intentionally avoidance of delving too deep into Carol’s life, Highsmith prevents the accrual of kitsch. Her text becomes all the more realistic the more she stays away from Therese’s lover. Just the thoughts of the 19-year- old create the urgency the reader senses despite slow development of the relationship between the two women. One can follow young Therese’s coming of age safely without getting bored, despite great romance, and therein precisely lies the novel’s strength. It is only by Therese’s separating from Carol and her independence that the playing field between the two is evened out, that the dependent relationship between them as it occurred in the beginning is busted open and at the point where two free and adult people meet, togetherness becomes workable. This final conclusion is something quite a few contemporary novels would do well to coopt from this book from the 1950s.
By contrast, the movie focuses much more on Carol and her life as a “lesbian“ woman in a marriage that involves as child. The portrayal of Therese almost disappears behind Carol whose problems with divorce, outing and family are the story line’s principal focus. Whenever Therese’s life is shown, it is overfraught with symbolism and a great deal of kitchen table philosophy about “love.” Her side of the story is suddenly painted with a kitschy hue so that the conversations between the two assume an unintended degree of Pathos carefully avoided in the underlying novel. One could argue that Haynes, not a bad director, wanted to emphasize the other side of the story, that is, Carol’s, and this could turn out to be quite an interesting supplement to the text – but not at the price of turning most of the novel’s beneficial properties into their opposite.
This is not to say that the movie per se was not done well, quite the opposite. Blanchett and Rooney Mara give commanding performances, the flick is esthetically interesting, the color scheme applied throughout the film is fascinating. Nevertheless, it tries to hard to be an art – house film without actually rising up to this ambition. Its theme is too commercial (a fact also based on the chosen focus), too direct in its symbolism (think of the use of photography or the importance of the location of “Waterloo” in the movie) and too dramatic in its story line. It does not suffice that Carol breaks up with Therese to be able to see her daughter, no, she also needs to have psychotherapy. Not enough that Therese may not have contact with Carol, there have to be scenes of Carol crying and desperate conversations about their relationship so that even the last viewer understands just HOW sad and tragic things are being done to them.
This exaggeration deprives the movie of the potential it would have had by virtue of the novel, its fundamentally non-commercially oriented director, the actors and many additional factors. It is a pity that not more was made of that, and I happen to believe that playing a bit less on the melodramatic note would not have hurt the movie’s success, even at the box office.