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Similarities and Differences Between Elizabeth Jolley’s Novel The Well and the Film Based Upon It
This post includes spoilers for both the 1986 Elizabeth Jolley novel The Well and the 1997 film of the same name. There are spoilers everywhere and will not be behind the usual ‘here be spoilers’ tags. If you need a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading, here is a photo of Pamela Rabe.
If you’ve decided to stick around, then here we go.
There are more similarities than differences and the film sticks very close to the book–closer than most adaptations do. Many of the same conversations happen, though perhaps in different places.
The most noticeable difference, however, is the choice of casting Pamela Rabe as Hester Harper. In the book, Hester is menopausal or after–she’s fifty-something if she’s a day. Whereas, Rabe wouldn’t have been forty when she played the role. (Don’t get me wrong, they made the correct decision, but I was surprised by how much older the character was in the book.)
Per usual, there’s more about everyone in the novel–films don’t have the ability to capture the inner world of the characters the way books do–and we learn more about Hester’s beloved governess Hilde and Mr Bird and Katherine’s friend Joanna, as well as Katherine’s time at the orphanage.
Hilde had to leave one day after having a miscarriage (or giving birth? it’s difficult to tell from the description) when Hester was fourteen. Hester found her in the middle of the night on the floor of the bathroom bleeding profusely and crying. The next day her father took Hilde away and Hester was sent to boarding school. This gave Hester quite a dim view of bearing children or childbirth or relations between men and women.
Mr Bird dies suddenly near the end of the book but was trying to look after Hester right up until his end. There is some intimation that he was romantically interested in her, possibly. He certainly had affection for her, as he’d sent her cards on special occasions her entire life. She hadn’t wondered why until it was too late to ask. The original Hester Harper is remarkably self-involved.
Joanna, Katherine’s friend who spends most of the book and film on remand, sends letters and plans a visit. She eventually becomes an evangelist and her final letter in the book arrives on white paper with a gold cross on each page. She invites Kathy to join her for a tour of the States.
The Hester Harper of the book seemed much more frivolous and less capable than the one in the film, who was always in control and knew what was what. The Hester of the film also seems to have more of a sense of humour and a better singing voice.
The Katherine of the book (she’s never given a surname) is more annoying, but she also looks after Hester. She’s less conniving in the source material, whereas in the film, she comes across as money-grubbing and manipulative. This could be because the book is very much from Hester’s point of view, but the film has to be from a more objective viewpoint. However, in the book, Katherine never refers to her benefactress as ‘Hester’, as she does in the film. She always calls her ‘Miss Harper’.
The original Hester Harper is much less likable. She’s insanely possessive and absolutely will not allow Katherine to bring a man into their house and certainly not allow her precious Kathy to have a baby, even though, as she ages, these are things the younger woman expresses an interest in. She’s jealous of Joanna, as well, but not to the same degree, and, by the end of the novel, she’s resigned to letting Kathy go with Joanna to America if she wants.
The book explains where Hester gets Kathy (see my review ) which I had found confusing in the film. And in the book the Harpers didn’t have Molly–the woman they let go in the film–to make room for Kathy. The girl also didn’t find the work too hard and strop off only to return. Films need conflict, though. Something else the book explains that the film doesn’t is what Katherine sees in Hester. She seems to like looking after the woman–she brings her sweets at the dance, for example, in the book. But in the film it’s unclear why she’d return that day early on when she’d decided the work was too hard.
In the book, Katherine wears the yellow dress to the dance that Hester makes for her. It’s cause for some snide comments because Mrs Borden thinks Hester is trying to keep Kathy like a child even though she’s twenty-one, but Katherine likes it–she certainly doesn’t intentionally ruin it the way the character in the film does.
After the man is put down the well everything goes the same in both media. However, in the big argument in the film, Kathy says something to the effect of, ‘If you give me the key I’ll do anything you want, I’ll be so good.’ Intimating sexual favours. This line doesn’t appear in the book, though earlier Hester reflects on how her enjoyment of watching Katherine dance makes her feel and:
She groaned. The dance was for her the only physical manifestation of physical love. Hester did not feel guilty about the feeling. It was private. She pulled off onto the gravel for a few precious minutes alone on the edge of the great emptiness.
Afterwards, in her weakness, she cried a little…
So clearly there was sexual attraction on Hester’s side, even though Kathy doesn’t mention it in the book and that’s really the only mention
The last scene of the book is Hester with a petrol can in the car with Mrs Borden and a bunch of her children. She and Kathy had run out of fuel and the older woman felt like a walk so the younger woman stayed in the car to work on her sewing for an upcoming fete. Joanna will be arriving by then for a week-long stay.
The well has just been permanently covered over after the downpour, which nearly filled it. Hester had it covered as she thought Kathy would realise the men working on it all morning would have surely heard anyone alive if, indeed, there had been a living soul down there.
Hester has also set herself on the plan that, if Kathy decides she wants to go to America with Joanna, she’ll simply have to let her and fill the emptiness of her days by constantly finding things to do with her time.
The film ends with Hester in the Bordens’ car with the brood and Kathy hitch-hiking with a bunch of money. The book is never clear on if Kathy has the money or not. In the book Hester doesn’t look for it the way she does in the film.
Oh, and in the book the woolly hat is red, rather than yellow.