"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
“She had the idea that he had…come from nowhere…and belonged nowhere.”
- Joyce Carol Oates, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
I first read Joyce Carol Oates’ unsettling short story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, in college where we analyzed teenage protagonist, Connie’s, sexual awakening and the strange and foreboding encounter she has with a predatory man at her door named Arnold Friend. Oates mixes fiction and reality with a small dose of the supernatural in this narrative about a fifteen-year-old girl whose natural curiosity about boys and sex captures the unwanted attention of a much older stranger. Often described as an allegory for a young girl’s initiation into womanhood, the loss of innocence, or an encounter with death or the devil, it may seem simplistic on the surface, but the conversation between Connie and Arnold Friend is layered with symbolism and a sense of dread, all building to a climax that will shake you to your core.
In the 1985 film adaptation, Smooth Talk, Connie (Laura Dern) is a self-absorbed, boy crazy fifteen-year-old, constantly at odds with her mother (Mary Kay Place), who favors her duteous older sister, June (Elizabeth Berridge). Connie spends her evenings sneaking around with her friends and making out with boys she meets at a local drive-in restaurant. She initially finds all the attention intoxicating, until the night she captures the eye of a stranger in a gold convertible covered with cryptic writing. While her parents are away at a barbecue, two men arrive at Connie's house and she recognizes the driver, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), as the guy from the restaurant. Curious and charmed by the charismatic stranger who appeals to her sense of vanity and desire, Connie slowly realizes he isn’t who he claims to be and grows increasingly terrified. When she refuses to go for a ride with him, Friend becomes more forceful, threatening to harm her family, all while maintaining a disturbing level of confidence in his ability to coerce her into doing what he wants. Eventually, Connie is compelled to leave the safety of her house and succumb to his demands.
Written in 1966, Oates based antagonist, Arnold Friend, on a real-life serial killer by the name of Charles Schmid. Known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” Schmid was a cult hero among the teenagers in town, said to have charmed them into keeping the murders he was prone to boasting about a secret. A bizarre individual, he’d paint his face with white pancake makeup and draw on a mole to make himself appear more sinister. Self-conscious about his height, Schmid would stuff newspapers and flattened cans into his cowboy boots to appear taller, which made him unsteady on his feet. Oates incorporated many of these quirks into Arnold Friend, gradually revealing them through Connie’s awareness of things that seem off about his appearance and demeanor. The film deviates from these exterior details to focus on the dialogue and mounting tension in the unforgettable scene, directed with precision by Joyce Chopra and featuring exceptional performances from Laura Dern and Treat Williams.
Admittedly, up until the climactic encounter that is the majority of Oates’ story, Smooth Talk is your run-of-the-mill coming-of-age movie. It fills in the blanks with typical teenage fare, depicting Connie’s discord with her family and her reckless pursuit of male attention, barely acknowledging the otherworldly atmosphere of the source material. Still, the moment Arnold Friend pulls up Connie’s driveway, you’re ensnared in the genius of one of our most prolific writers. Nearly a word for word recreation, the scene is a master class in building tension through dialogue. Gradually, Dern’s innocent young girl is coaxed from the safety of her house by Williams’ beguiling and intimidating charm.
Oates originally titled the story “Death and the Maiden” before deciding on a more symbolic and vague approach to telling the tale. A format that has inspired countless interpretations of the character Arnold Friend, not to mention the cryptic messages on his car. Many think of Friend as a supernatural entity, like death or the devil, while others read him more literally as a serial rapist and murderer. Either way, it’s clear that his intent is to lure Connie to a secluded location and have his way with her. While these supernatural aspects are more prominent in the story than the film, there is some suggestion that Friend has certain “powers,” considering he knows intimate details about Connie and her family.
The messages painted on Friend’s car – including the numbers 33, 19, 17 – are also open to interpretation. Friend tells Connie the numbers are a “secret code,” never revealing what they actually mean. Some claim the numbers equaling 69 makes them representative of Friend’s sexual deviancy, while others believe they point to the Bible verse Judges 19:17, because of its connection to the story’s title: “When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, ‘Where are you going? Where did you come from?’” Friend uses other hidden messages, like lyrics to popular songs as a way to disguise his age and relate to Connie and her generation’s obsession with music. Music is a constant in both versions, often portraying Connie’s mood or emotional state-of-mind. Oates even dedicated the story to Bob Dylan, citing his song “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” as inspiration: “The vagabond who's rapping at your door / Is standing in the clothes that you once wore / Strike another match, go start anew / And it's all over now, baby blue.”
In the end, Connie goes with Arnold Friend as if under some sort of spell, and we never learn what becomes of her. But the film creates an ending for her, as if choosing to believe it was all a dream or symbolic of her loss of virtue. It’s the cryptic layers in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? that make it such a compelling and unforgettable story. The adaptation may sacrifice some of the more mystical allusions, but the dark reality is that people like Arnold Friend exist in the world. It's a scenario parents have been warning their daughters about since the dawn of time. A warning typically met with a roll of teenage eyes, but Oates makes the nightmare a reality, mixing true terror with fiction to convey the all too real dangers of growing up female and the inevitable end of innocence.