When I first sat down to watch the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, I hadn't read the book. It's hard to come to that film completely fresh, though, as "Stepford Wives" is very much a part of our cultural dialect in North America. I knew it was a movie about creepily perfect wives, but not much else. I may even have been conflating it with The Midwich Cuckoos in my head. What I'm saying is, I was not expecting to have my mind blown.
The film follows a young wife and photographer named Joanna, as she moves to the small gated community of Stepford with her husband and children. She finds herself suddenly surrounded by wives with perfect TV hair, who talk like the women in appliance commercials. They only seem interested in cooking and cleaning and staying busy, busy, busy. Joanna finds it first shocking, and then disgusting, the way these women cater to their every whim and need of their husbands. More frustratingly, her own husband doesn't seem to find it troubling at all, and he joins with the local men's club.
She finally makes friends with a couple other women who seem normal, by which I mean flawed. Lazy, selfish, sloppy, and interested in the world around them, these are women that Joanna can relate to. A lot of the film is dedicated to building these characters, and letting us get to know them before suddenly taking them away. And when one of Joanna's new friends suddenly has perfect hair and a perfect smile, suddenly wants to talk only about being a good wife, it DOES feel like they have been taken away.
This was a measured and very effectively uneasy film, and I liked it right up until the ending. The ending changed things for me, it took a creepy film and made it downright chilling. Joanna figures out very late in the game that her friends, and all the women of Stepford, have been replaced by robots. The husbands have been duplicating their wives physically, but replacing them with robots that feature more "agreeable" personalities. Joanna stumbles upon her own robot, not quite finished, and the robot strangles her to death. In the end, we see Joanna once more, hair perfect, smiling a greeting as she passes another wife in the grocery store.
It was an uncompromisingly bleak and sarcastic ending, making it clear that recognizing a power imbalance and being morally in the right aren't enough to change things. It is still one of the most effective feminist films I've seen.
And then, in 2004, they remade it.
Joanna discovers that the wives are being brainwashed (also, confusingly, she seems to find evidence that the wives are being replaced by robots?) and then begins a whole mess of confusing twists. Joanna's husband pretends to go along with brainwashing his wife, but has secretly been convinced by her argument not to? Oh, and the head of the men's club is a robot that was created by his wife because she was frustrated with her earlier career woman life (!?) which drove her actual husband to have an affair?! It is a nightmare of meaningless surprises. And the film ends with the husbands of Stepford dressed like perfect husbands, smiling at one another in the aisles of the grocery store.
It was like the people remaking the film did not understand the original at all. "Oh, let's change the ending so that the women win! Ha ha and they'll make the MEN into Stepford Husbands! That will be MUCH more feminist!"
They were wrong.