Reflecting Backward from Carol to The Price of Salt

Cate Blanchett in Carol (2015) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

About halfway through Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Carol and Therese make a pit stop during their cross-country road trip. The two women have decided to take their mutual attraction out on the road, but the tension between themselves and a hostile midcentury society still persists. This tension spills over when Carol makes a critique of young Therese’s outlook on the world. 

“I wonder if you’ll really enjoy this trip,” Carol says. “You so prefer things reflected in glass, don’t you? You have your private conception of everything. … I wonder if you’ll even like seeing real mountains and real people.” Therese takes the punch to the gut, but thinks to herself, “Real people? …hideous.” But Carol continues: “How do you ever expect to create anything if you get all your experiences secondhand?”

We might consider literary adaptation a secondhand experience. Like Carol, we often wonder how a film dares to dilute a novel to an image reflected through glass and celluloid. “The book is better,” we smugly argue, failing to realize that cinema lies somewhere between reflection and reality. When we pair the cinematic with the literary, something transcendental can occur—if only we let both forms tap into their best assets. 

The Price of Salt obsesses over this question of turning a “reading” of the world, or a lover, into a reality; Carol, its adaptation, dramatizes this anxiety by mobilizing cinematic and inherently visual language. Rather than shrinking from the hall of mirrors that inevitably unfolds when creating a literary adaptation, Carol embraces reflections and distortions, folding them into the film’s core aesthetic. As a result, Todd Haynes, Phyllis Nagy, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett together reveal the literary adaptation’s potential for investigating the chasms between our private conceptions, like a reading of a book or a romantic fantasy, and the real thing, a character embodied or a love requited.

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For advice on how to actually do this, you can scour the internet for interviews with Haynes or Nagy, Blanchett or Mara, but the best guidance comes from Carol herself during the film. During Therese’s (Mara) first visit to her home, Carol (Blanchett) questions whether Therese would like to be a photographer. When Therese wonders whether she’s even any good at it, Carol counsels, “All you can do is keep working. Use what feels right. Throw away the rest.” Following Carol’s advice, the creators behind the film threw away quite a lot of Highsmith’s novel, but still managed to maintain its essential qualities. 

First published in 1952, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt was categorized as a lesbian pulp novel, with all the seedy accoutrements attached to the genre. The narrative follows Therese, a young shop girl and stage designer, who falls in love with Carol, a disillusioned housewife, whose husband will later divorce her and cite her deviant sexuality in a bid for their daughter’s custody. Highsmith’s novel, however, possessed numerous important distinctions from its peers. She kept the blonde/brunette dynamic, for instance, that we still see in popular depictions of queer couples and, with it, the usual temptress and virgin power play. But thankfully, Highsmith threw out the rest.

Carol (2015) | StudioCanal
StudioCanal

She especially barred shame and self-reproach from her novel, and dared to give Therese and Carol a happy ending. This had never happened before for lesbian characters, pulp or otherwise. Before The Price of Salt. and long after, queer characters have had to pay a high price for their deviant behavior; one of them—usually the butch or the temptress—would either go insane or die. Carol should’ve been committed to an asylum, while Therese would’ve married Richard, her heteronormative option. Both The Price of Salt and Carol keep these threats present in the narrative, but firmly banish them to the fringes. How could these men in the film, doused in their dour brown clothes and awkward behavior, gain either woman’s allegiance, much less her love?

The Price of Salt rooted its women within everyday culture. Typically, in the lesbian pulp tradition, ladies get up to their bad behavior while in sorority houses, military barracks, or other all-women settings. Carol and Therese, on the other hand, are New Yorkers. They inhabit bustling Manhattan and take a road trip through America because (that’s right) we’re everywhere. And same-sex desire doesn’t happen just because a character can’t find an opposite sex person around. It happens because, as Carol finally admits to her divorce lawyers, “I wanted it to happen.” Yet, this idea of queer mobility and freedom in midcentury America is somewhat of a fantasy, as Todd Haynes’s other great midcentury period piece, Far from Heaven, depicts. 

In Carol, Haynes highlights the feeling of being within and without one’s culture through the film’s visual language, particularly its constant divisions, obfuscations, and framing devices. Whenever Carol or Therese try to discuss their private lives with another person, the shot is split in two. Therese shares her interest in photography with Dannie (John Magaro), an acquaintance who goes from brief romantic interest to friend. Likewise, Carol first confides her craving for a road trip to one of the other wives at a party she’s forced to attend with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Both shots are divided. Neither queer woman can connect with their straight interlocutor, despite their attempts. 

In contrast, when Therese speaks to another queer woman, those divides are markedly crossed as the other woman moves towards Therese, either in comfort or flirtation. All these scenes occur behind glass, forcing us to look at these women through a translucent surface. Once we note this, it’s easier to realize how many shots contain a window that clouds our uninhibited view. Carol and Therese are divided from others and separated from us, which makes the moments without refractions and framing so much more poignant, from the first lovestruck glance to the last.

Looking directly at Carol and Therese, however, naturally begs the question: Who are they? And can the novel help us construct these characters? Phyllis Nagy, Carol’s screenwriter, discussed this central question in an interview at TIFF, calling Therese “basically a stalker” and stating that Carol “had to be invented.” Highsmith’s novel comes entirely from Therese’s extremely limited, first-person perspective on Carol. As a result, we never gain access to Carol herself. When Nagy first began adapting the novel, she threw this idea out and started to write Carol into the film, not as a mere projection of Therese’s gaze, but as a fully realized woman. Then, as the years passed and the screenplay kept flitting through various producers and directors’ hands, Nagy began to soften Therese’s stalker perspective. 

Thankfully, Todd Haynes came on board and reclaimed Therese’s atypical point of view. He encouraged Nagy to return to her early drafts of the screenplay, which were more intrinsically tied to Highsmith’s famed, psychopathic aesthetic. (Let’s not forget, Highsmith also wrote Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley.) “There was a greater ease between the women initially in the script,” Haynes told Indiewire. “and in the novel there was tremendous tension and uncertainty. So that sense of being locked inside one point of view was strengthened and made more disquieting.” Therese keeps her central, albeit limited, perspective from the novel, but now Carol’s perspective runs parallel to Therese’s, strengthening the tension even further.

The first time we see Carol alone on film, she’s brushing her daughter’s hair, and both are reflected in the vanity mirrors. Then, to offset the mirrored Carol, the film flits through a couple domestic scenes—coloring a picture with her daughter, while correcting her husband’s casual sexism, and multitasking in the kitchen—until she meets Therese for their “glove lunch.” Blanchett’s performance during the lunch complements Haynes and Nagy’s work and transforms Carol into flesh and blood. During this first private meeting, Blanchett carefully balances between seductive and contained, daring but scared. Her eyes say lust and desire, while her red-stained mouth opens and closes in hesitance and uncertainty. She’s a pickup artist, maybe, but she’s also a married woman and a lesbian in the 1950s. 

Carol (2015) | StudioCanal

To further realize Carol and offset these tense reminders of the period, Blanchett adds humor and improvisation. Whether it’s a head-to-toe size-up of Therese, or a joke, or a wink, or a line like “I never looked like that” when first undressing her, Blanchett transforms Carol from a cardboard cutout of a discontented housewife into a sassy femme top, who will draw a gun on you but seems to bow before the systemic pressures of domesticity, if only for a moment. And yet, she also reflects the Carol that peeks through Therese’s limited perspective at times in the novel, “a woman with a child and a husband, with freckles on her hands and a habit of cursing, of growing melancholy at unexpected moments, with a bad habit of indulging her will.” Blanchett’s got her, in vivid Sandy-Powell-designed colors no less, but there still lies the problem of Therese.

The other major change Nagy made to the novel was to turn Therese into a photographer. When questioned about this change, Nagy gave a pragmatic answer—a stage designer on the screen would’ve been a “nightmare,” she argued, while “photography is always the easiest answer. It’s visual.” It’s a smart move from a character standpoint, and becomes even more so once Haynes makes mid-century, documentary-style photography the film’s main aesthetic.

To create Carol‘s visual language, Haynes and frequent cinematographer Edward Lachman drew largely from mid-century American photographers, especially women like Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt, Esther Bubley, and Vivian Maier. Saul Leiter’s photographs made the most obvious impact. Haynes and Lachman adapted Leiter’s overarching interest in reflection, capturing figures through windows, mirrors, and glass. Haynes also heightens the visual allusions through the film’s overarching framing device, lifted from David Lean’s Brief Encounter

Through these foundational decisions, Haynes smoothly transfers the novel into a medium that exists within time and motion, while also embedding Therese’s gaze into every shot of the film. Nagy might’ve given Carol her own perspective, but Haynes filters them all through a photographer’s lens, a photographer like Therese. The tension of adaptation, reflection, and a polluted perspective persists despite the script’s best efforts; Highsmith is still there, lurking. 

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The Price of Salt began as an exercise in fantasy fulfillment. Highsmith also worked as a department store clerk and, like Therese, grew instantly enamored with a mysterious female customer. Unlike Therese, Highsmith’s mysterious woman never reciprocated her interest. There was no lunch date, no weekend getaways to the suburbs, no road trip, and certainly no happy ending. This partially explains Highsmith’s disinterest in making a thing of the novel. The Price of Salt inversely delineates Highsmith’s own romantic failure, and none of us like to be reminded of those. She cast a mirror upon her own life to catch a new angle and perhaps create an alternate, directly reversed version of reality.

Highsmith didn’t stop at The Price of Salt though. Only later did biographers realize just how far she went to try and make her fantasy a reality. In her Afterword for the novel, written in 1989, Highsmith explains how she saw the beautiful blonde woman at the store where she worked, went home, sketched the plot, then fell ill with the chickenpox. Since she had the woman’s delivery address though, Highsmith decided, two years later, to stalk her while she was finishing the novel. 

She took a train from Pennsylvania Station to New Jersey and watched the woman, a Mrs. E. R. Senn, pull into her driveway on North Murray Avenue. “I felt quite close to murder too,” she wrote in her journal that day, “Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing.” Sounds more like Ripley than Therese, but Highsmith continues: “To arrest her suddenly, my hands upon her throat (which I should really like to kiss) as if I took a photograph, to make her in an instant cool and rigid as a statue.” Highsmith makes her desire explicit here, a desire for control through creating an art object out of a person. She can now be managed and adored at will. 

Highsmith buries much of this in The Price of Salt, but Therese’s actions still reek of invasion. In the novel, Therese describes Carol’s beauty, “which struck her like a glimpse of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.” There’s that rigid, cool statue Highsmith wanted. Call it a fantastic twist of fate or a fair bit of synchronicity, but over half a century later, there’s Highsmith herself in the film adaptation of her novel, finally doing to Carol what she wished to do to her mystery woman. Not throttling her, thankfully, but rather taking her picture, fixing her in time and space. The film, as a shrewd work of literary adaptation, reveals this buried tension and lays it bare before a watching audience.

These days, we’re constantly taking pictures of ourselves, our friends, our lovers, and even strangers. We’ve become numb to the camera as a gaze that captures and transforms a being in motion into a static yet immortal image. Carol, however, reminds us of photography’s invasiveness and distortion. “I always feel funny taking pictures of people,” Therese admits in one scene, “like it’s an—.” “Invasion of privacy,” Dannie finishes. Thanks to his encouragement, Therese nevertheless begins to take pictures of people, particularly one person: Carol. The couple’s first driving sequence in the Lincoln Tunnel, for instance, highlights motion, fantasy, and Therese’s gaze upon Carol. Blanchett’s face is refracted through glass, then also intercut with discordant snapshots that arise from Therese’s fantastic and sometimes future perspective. Already, Therese mixes the Carol sitting next to her, with the Carol of her imagination, and the Carol of her nostalgic musings.

Mara Rooney and Cate Blanchett | StudioCanal

In The Price of Salt’s Lincoln Tunnel sequence, Therese “wished the tunnel might cave in and kill them both, that their bodies might be dragged out together.” Once again, Highsmith mixes queer desire with death and makes Therese feel, like Shakespeare’s Othello did, if it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy. In her journal, however, Highsmith did not wish to die. She wished to kill.

Haynes and Nagy replace this unsettling tension with photography’s inherent ability to capture, to “shoot.” The Lincoln Tunnel sequence ends when the car stops, and Therese puts a new roll of film into her camera. Carol is further away from her now, buying a Christmas tree for her home. Therese stays by Carol’s car and takes her photograph, just as a private eye would. The staging is clear and reminds us of that tension Haynes wanted to infuse into the film from the novel. The scene recreates the simultaneous distance yet proximity, through the camera, of falling in love, especially when you’re doing it for the first time with another same-sex person. It also unconsciously recreates the predatory within the romantic, especially when that desire is marginalized.

The entire film production excavates the very weirdness that Highsmith sought to hide when she used a pseudonym to publish The Price of Salt or undermined the novel’s worth later in her life. The film makes overwhelming desire the central interest, but transforms it into something tender and heartbreaking, too. “What [The Price of Salt] does,” Haynes explained, “is it brings that same sense of the criminal to the amorous mind and the amorous experience. And what it feels like to begin to fall in love with somebody and not know how they feel in return.” 

Given this reflection across the various mirrors of the film, the novel, and Highsmith’s personal fantasy, the stereotypical lesbian-pulp conclusion—which features the asylum, the police, or the accidental death—becomes an even greater and present threat. To thwart this seemingly inevitable end, Therese must complete the daunting but essential task of negotiating a space in her mind for her idea of Carol to coincide with Carol herself. Carol must evolve from photographs and fantasy to a woman Therese can sit across a table from and refuse. And even more difficult, Therese must learn how to become an individual apart from Carol. 

Both the novel and the film have a hard time figuring out how to do this. In the adaptation, Abby (Sarah Paulson) goes to pick Therese up and drive back with her to New York City, a jarring sequence that begins with Therese falling asleep with Carol and waking up to Abby watching her from a corner. They conveniently (and, some might argue, intelligently) skip an even more puzzling section in the novel, where Therese spends time on her own out West. She settles in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she comes across a portrait of someone who looks strikingly like Carol. 

“It was Carol,” Therese thinks, during this scene. “The mouth smiled and the eyes regarded her with nothing but mockery, the last veil lifted and revealing nothing but mockery and gloating, the splendid satisfaction of the betrayal accomplished.” Therese immediately runs from the scene of her “betrayal,” but the break is already made. Later, on the phone, Abby asks her why she has not called Carol. “Yes, why hadn’t she? Because she had been thinking of a picture instead of Carol.” Therese must reconcile these two Carols and their uncanny implications or ultimately keep them divided, which in turn would divide her from Carol.

In the film, when Therese arrives back in New York, she tries to move on with her life. She begins repainting her apartment with help from Dannie. “You really captured whoever this is,” Dannie comments when he sees Therese’s portraits of Carol. Rather than a painted portrait fixed in a dusty library, Carol’s photo portraits still move through Therese’s home and mind, until, while assessing which pictures to send to The New York Times for a job, she places Carol’s pictures on the rubbish pile. She recreates her own home and personal style, transforms her voyeuristic hobby into a possible profession, and ultimately takes ownership of her life. She moves on without Carol and leaves the fantasy behind, the photographic world she created.

 

Meanwhile, Carol forces herself into her former role. She goes through the motions of psychotherapy and struggles with the limitations placed upon her life and home. Then suddenly, on her way to a meeting with her husband and their divorce lawyers, Carol sees Therese through glass, and the sight jolts her into wakefulness. A newly-styled and matured Therese crosses a busy city street on her way to work. Carol watches her in fascination, her face scrunched into the taxi window’s corner until Therese finally leaves her sight. 

During the divorce meeting, Carol owns her sexual desires toward women, particularly Therese, naming her during the deposition. She refuses how she’s been framed—legally and visually—throughout this final section of the narrative and even from the inception of the film. We only see Carol refracted through glass once more, as she writes a note to Therese, asking if she’d be available to meet. The refraction, perhaps the most distorted of the film, speaks to the chasm both Carol and Therese now have to traverse. 

When Therese shows up to the meeting, Carol tells Therese she loves her. Therese doesn’t respond and the moment vanishes when Jack interrupts. And suddenly, we’ve circled back again to the film’s opening. The hall of mirrors stretched to its utmost now snaps back to reality, where the camera no longer refracts or reflects between these women. They separate once more, and we follow Therese, as she goes to a house party and willfully alienates herself. She looks across the couples, all tinted in an artificial green light, and finally flees to Carol and to life.

In the final scene, Therese scans the Oak Room for Carol. Finally, their eyes meet. In the novel, the final lines read, “Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing, before her arm lifted suddenly, her hand waved a quick, eager greeting that Therese had never seen before. Therese walked toward her.” Therese makes her final decision, and it’s Carol who is smiling and making a new gesture, something for Therese to discover. “It was like meeting Carol all over again,” she thinks, “but it was still Carol and no one else.” In a finale no less breathtaking now then it was in 1952, they’ve rounded their personal journeys and found a way to circle back to one another, like the toy train Therese advised Carol to buy when they first met. 

Cate Blanchett | StudioCanal

To depict this almost ineffable moment, the film’s final shot belongs to Carol as she stares directly into the camera and slowly smiles. The real Carol finally breaks through the photos, the portrait, the glass and mirrors, even Highsmith’s journal entry. This finale also echoes Blanchett’s last moment on screen in I’m Not There, a stylized Bob Dylan biopic and her previous collaboration with Haynes. In that film, the camera stays on Blanchett for almost one beat too long, until the smile seems to shift from the character (Jude Quinn) to Blanchett herself. That overextended shot opens a gap in the text and lets the world beyond the film squeak through. In both these final looks, Carol and Jude hold a secret they seem on the verge of divulging. Then, right before they do, Haynes cuts away—with a gunshot (not unlike a snare pop) in I’m Not There and a black screen in Carol. The smile hangs in some liminal space between the character, the actor, the camera, and the audience and transfers to a place that cannot be seen on film or articulated in a novel. It beckons us to consider what comes next.

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Since Carol ‘s release, the lesbian film landscape has dramatically shifted, and queer characters’ stories are breaking onto box office charts and garnering major accolades at film festivals and award ceremonies. The desiring queer woman’s gaze perhaps developed the most since Carol with more characters taking a camera into their hands and capturing their lover, as they do in Disobedience or Atomic Blonde, but the problem of possession still remained. Then along came Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Sciamma, as both writer and director, turns the passive muse into an active subject. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the subject of Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) portrait, looks back at her artist and thus constantly stares directly at the camera. She talks back, advises, and pushes Marianne further, inspiring her portrait-artist and lover. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Sciamma explains how she constructed the tension in her film. “There’s all this surprise that lies within equality,” she asserts, “that’s the new tension. You don’t know what’s going to happen if it’s not about the social hierarchy, gender domination or intellection domination.” Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins here and explores this relationship of ultimate equality. In The Price of Salt, Therese flees from her lover’s uncanny portrait, and in its adaptation, both Carol and Therese reach out blindly into a midcentury American visual landscape that obscures, distorts, and divides. It’s a wonder that the story ends on a note of possibility and connection. 

Conversely, Sciamma’s characters reach for one another through the camera itself and, in the process, actively transform each other from the first frame to the last. Carol offered us that potential at the end of the film, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire invites us to see it happen. And coincidentally, Portrait’s strength draws from Sciamma’s commitment to infusing her former relationship with Adèle Haenel into the text itself, rather than burying it or reimagining it, as Highsmith did. “We talked a lot about cinema [during our relationship],” Sciamma explains, “and we grew enormously intellectually. I also wanted to show that in the film: the lasting, emancipating effect that such a romantic encounter can have on your life.” Carol and Therese look at one another, finding completion and individuality in the other, while Marianne looks at Héloïse in Portrait’s final scene and watches her revel in an aesthetic moment, which she was better prepared for and loved all the more because she loved Marianne. Because their mutually productive relationship—gazing upon a lover, then having that lover speak back and say, “I am also looking at you”—helped emancipate them, even if they separated.

In The Price of Salt, while she’s out alone in South Dakota, Therese receives a letter from Carol. The film also features a letter from Carol, but the novel’s version is better. Carol writes about how she watches the heterosexual couples around her, their squabbles and disconnects. “The rapport between two men or two women,” Carol writes, “can be absolute and perfect, as it can never be between man and woman, and perhaps some people want just this, as others want the more shifting and uncertain thing that happens between men and women.” Love depicted in a novel or film always shifts, but Carol addresses something different here, and particular to queer experiences. She expresses that very equality and reciprocity Sciamma centralizes in her film to reveal how love and great art should offer clarity and freedom to each of us as individuals.

I read The Price of Salt ten years after I first suspected my queer sexuality and instantly decided to live in the closet. That pulp novel changed my life because, through its happy ending, it opened up the possibility that I could exist, as someone in love and loved. Highsmith’s novel reflected my fears and hesitations, but then showed me that my life was possible. Years later, Carol taught me that I deserve more than mere possibility, than just the right to exist. Carol dared to be beautiful, while still retaining its humanity and its weirdness. It folded itself into the tones and motifs of almost a century of visual language, then filled it up, like a warm fur cloak, with flawed and vulnerable personalities. 

Since Carol, we’ve been free to dare more dangerously and decadently. Rather than viewing one another refracted behind glass or beyond a driveway, clutching onto a camera or an address slip, we now can prop a mirror against a lover’s body and dare to stare, to begin the work of drawing ourselves and our partners in truer, more vivid and roughened edges.