Secretary: The Film vs the Short Story


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Secretary: A Comparison of the Film and Short Story

–This essay has spoilers of both the film and short story.—

Quotes from the short story are in block quotes

[Film notes are in brackets.]

*General commentary follows an asterisk

The Mary Gaitskill story was published in her collection Bad Behavior in 1988. I reviewed it here.

[The screenplay was written by Erin Cressida Wilson and the film was released in 2002. The story was adapted by Cressida and director Steven Shainberg.] I reviewed and recapped the film here.

Because this post is a long one, the rest will be after this break.

[Overall, the film has much more going on, including two entire characters that don’t appear in the story—Peter, Lee’s boyfriend, which is her chance at a normal/vanilla life and Trisha, Mr Grey’s former something (wife or secretary) who gives us some insight into his life. In the story, Debby/ Lee doesn’t go to an institution nor does she self harm. All of the characters are more fully developed in the film.]

In the source material, the character’s name is Debby Robb and the action takes place in Detroit.

[The film takes place in Florida.]

In the story, Debby and her mother are going through the want ads together and Debby says about herself, ‘I’m not friendly and I’m not personable. I’m not going to answer an ad for somebody like that. It would be stupid.’
Her mother replies, ‘You can be friendly. And you are personable when you aren’t busy putting yourself down.’

[In the film Lee goes through the want ads on her own and practises what she’s going to say at the interview—looking forward to having a job like a grown up.]

Debby mentions that her hands are ‘red and rough and remained that way no matter the amount of lotion’ she used.

[The Lee of the film is delicate and girly—there’s nothing rough about her.]

Debby also swears in the story.

[The only time Lee uses profane language is near the end of the film when she’s alone and getting herself off with idea of Mr Grey putting his ‘prick’ in her mouth.]

Debby actually tells her mother to shut up. This is an abrasive, unattractive person.

She may find her mother overwhelming at times, but she'd never be horrible to her. (credit)

She may find her mother overwhelming at times, but she’d never be horrible to her. (credit)

[Lee cares for her mother. She cares for her sister and father and even her fiance, Peter, even though she’s not attracted to him. She’s a gentle person who only learns to be assertive once she’s been with Mr Grey for awhile.]

–Back to the want ads.–

Debby says, ‘I’m dependable. I could answer an ad for somebody dependable.’
‘You are that.’

[In the film, Mr Grey asks for someone who can show up on time, which denotes dependability. Lee says, ‘I can do that.’]

Debby’s mother drives her to interviews.

[This also occurred in the original script, but was cut; substituted for Lee talking to herself in a mirror.]

The next place was a tax information office in a slab of building with green trim. They gave me an intelligence test that was mostly spelling and ‘What’s wrong with this sentence?’ The woman came out of her office holding my test and smiling. ‘You scored higher than anyone else I’ve interviewed,’ she said. ‘You’re really overqualified for this job. There’s no challenge. You’d be bored to death.’
‘I want to be bored,’ I said.
She laughed. ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s true.’
We had a nice talk about what people want out of their jobs and then I left.

[Aside from the final sentence that exchange happens in Mr Grey’s office during her interview and, rather than an intelligence test, he’s referring to her typing scores.]

*The first time we see E. Edward Grey in the story (who is only ever called ‘the lawyer’) is thusly:

The lawyer was a short man with dark, shiny eyes and dense immobile shoulders. He took my hand with an indifferent aggressive snatch. It felt like he could have put his hand through my rib cage, grabbed my heart, squeezed it a little to see how it felt, then let go. ‘Come into my office,’ he said.
We sat down and he fixed his eyes on me. ‘It’s not much of a job,’ he said. ‘I have a paralegal who does research and legwork, and the proofreading gets done at an agency. All I need is a presentable typist who can get to work on time and answer the phone.’
‘I can do that,’ I said.
‘It’s very dull work,’ he said.
‘I like dull work.’
He stared at me, his eyes becoming hooded in thought. ‘There’s something about you,’ he said. ‘You’re closed up, you’re tight. You’re like a wall.’
‘I know.’
My answer surprised him and his eyes lost their hoods. He tilted his head back and looked at me, his shiny eyes bared again. ‘Do you ever loosen up?’
The corners of my mouth jerked, smilelike. ‘I don’t know.’ My palms sweated.

[The verbal exchange is nearly word-for-word what happens in the screenplay. Action-wise, Lee enters his office while he’s sat at his desk.]

That night I put my new work clothes on a chair and looked at them. A brown skirt, a beige blouse. I was attracted to the bland ugliness, but I didn’t know how long that would last.

[It’s impossible to tell how Lee feels about her wardrobe in the film, but her clothes at the start of the film are frumpy. As she becomes more comfortable with her sexuality her clothes become more mature.]

Pictured: More Mature (credit)

Pictured: More mature [source link now dead]

My family’s enthusiasm made me feel sarcastic about the job—about any effort to do anything, in fact. In light of their enthusiasm, the only intelligent course of action seemed to be immobility and rudeness. But in the morning, as I ate my poached eggs and toast, I couldn’t help but feel curious and excited. The feeling grew as I rode in the car with my mother to the receding orange building. I felt like I was accomplishing something. I wanted to do well. … I had sentimental thoughts about workers and the decency of unthinking toil. I was pleased to be like them, insofar as I was.

*Debby’s submissiveness—her eagerness to please—is beginning to emerge even though she wants to keep it to herself.

[The film version of this character appears to be happy with the job immediately. That first evening we see her in the bath, practising the message she’ll leave on the phone and being pleased to be able to use the word ‘we’ in regard to the people working at the office.]

[The office in the film is very elegant but unusual and stylized.]
The description in the story is:

The elegant old armchairs and puffy upholstered couch were themselves disoriented in the stiff modernity of the waiting room. My heavy oak desk was an idiot standing against a wall covered with beige plaster.

[Lee’s desk is indeed a heavy, though ornate, oak desk, but it’s in front of a glass-wall with shelves of various heights. In the commentary they did this on purpose—intentionally changing what is described in the source material.]

My first two weeks were serene. I enjoyed the dullness of days, the repetition of motions, the terse, polite interactions between the lawyer and me. I enjoyed feeling him impose his brainlessly confident sense of existence on me. He would say, ‘Type this letter,’ and my sensibility would contract until the abstractions of achievement and production found expression in the typing of the letter. I was useful.

*More with the eager-to-please submissiveness. Also, finding her stability within his solidity and confidence.

The first day of the third week, the lawyer came out of his office, stiffer than usual, his eyes lit up in a peculiar, stalking way. He was carrying one of my letters. He put it on my desk, right in front of me. ‘Look at it,’ he said. I did.
‘Do you see that?’
‘What?’ I asked.
‘This letter has three typing errors in it, one of which is, I think, a spelling error.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘This isn’t the first time, either. There have been others that I let go because it was your first few weeks. But this can’t go on. Do you know what this makes me look like to the people who receive these letters?’
I looked at him, mortified. There had been a catastrophe hidden in the folds of my contentment for two weeks and he hadn’t even told me. It seemed unfair, although when I thought about it I could understand his reluctance, maybe even embarrassment, to draw attention to something so stupidly unpleasant.
‘Type it again.’
I did, but I was so badly shaken that I made even more mistakes. ‘You are wasting my time,’ he said, and handed it to me once again. I typed it correctly the third time, but he sulked in his office for the rest of the day.
This kind of thing kept occurring all week. Each time, the lawyer’s irritation and disbelief mounted. In addition, I sensed something else growing in him, an intimate tendril creeping from one of his darker areas, nursed on the feeling that he had discovered something about me.

[A great deal of this is word-for-word in the film, though the last line occurs near the end, which Lee says to a reporter and Mr Grey reads, realising Lee understands him. The first part of this section is provoked by Mr Grey seeing Lee on a date. Until this point he’s attempted to rein in his need to dominate her.]

At the end of the week he began complaining about the way I answered the phone. ‘You’re like a machine,’ he said. ‘You sound like you’re in the Twilight Zone. You don’t think when you respond to people.’

[In the film, he coaches Lee on how to answer the phone in a separate scene that’s quite positive. The scene in the story sounds more similar to the scene in the film where Mr Grey gives Lee a plethora a list of problems he has with her.]

Learning to use the phone like a big girl. (credit)

Learning to use the phone like a big girl. [source link now dead]

When he asked me to come into his office at the end of the day, I thought he was going to fire me. The idea was a relief, but a numbing one. I sat down and he fixed me with a look that was speculative but benign, for him. He leaned back in his chair in a comfortable way, one hand dangling sideways from his wrist. To my surprise, he began talking to me about my problems, as he saw them.
‘I sense that you are a very nice but complex person, with wild mood swings that you keep hidden. You just shut up the house and act like there’s nobody home.’
‘That’s true,’ I said. ‘I do that.’
‘Well, why? Why don’t you open up a little bit? It would probably help your typing.’
It was really not any of his business, I thought.
‘You should try to talk more. I know I’m your employer and we have a prescribed relationship, but you should feel free to discuss your problems with me.’
The idea of discussing my problems with him was preposterous. ‘It’s hard to think of having that kind of discussion with you,’ I said. I hesitated. ‘You have a strong personality and…when I encounter a personality like that, I tend to step back because I don’t know how to deal with it.’

[Again, this scene in the film is much gentler, much more supportive. In the film, Lee doesn’t seem as self-aware as Debby, or at least not as verbal about it. She’s giggly.]

The next day I made another mistake. The intimacy of the previous day seemed to make the mistake even more repulsive to him because he got madder than usual. I wanted him to fire me. I would have suggested it, but I was struck silent. I sat and stared at the letter while he yelled. ‘What’s wrong with you!’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
He stood quietly for a moment. Then he said, ‘Come into my office. And bring that letter.’
I followed him into his office.
‘Put that letter on my desk,’ he said.
I did.
‘Now bend over so that you are looking directly at it. Put your elbows on the desk and your face very close to the letter.’
Shaken and puzzled, I did what he said.
‘Now read the letter to yourself. Keep reading it over and over again.’
I read: ‘Dear Mr Garvey: I am very grateful to you for referring…’ He began spanking me as I said ‘referring.’ The funny thing was, I wasn’t even surprised. I actually kept reading the letter, although my understanding of it was not very clear. I began crying on it, which blurred the ink. The word ‘humiliation’ came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked out all other words. Further, I felt that the concept it stood for had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while.
He spanked me for about ten minutes, I think. I read the letter only about five times, partly because it rapidly became too wet to be legible. When he stopped he said, ‘Now straighten up and go type it again.’
I went to my desk. He closed the office door behind him. I sat down, blew my nose and wiped my face. I stared into space for several minutes, every now and then dwelling on the tingling sensation in my buttocks. I typed the letter again and took it into his office. He didn’t look up as I put it on his desk.

[Lee reads the letter out loud; because reading it in her head wouldn’t be as cinematic even though the film has a great deal of voice over. With the first smack she settles in, however, and doesn’t cry. She only gets through it twice. At the end their fingers touch in an intimate way. This was an accident that happened in rehearsal they decided to keep, but it fit with the overall tenderness between the film versions of the characters.]

Notice: No crying or humiliation. (credit)

Notice: No crying or humiliation. (credit)

–same day, about a client–

He was suing his neighbors because they had a dog that ‘barked all goddamn day.’ I listened to him talk. It surprised me how this short conversation quickly restored my sensibility. Everything seemed perfectly normal by the time the lawyer came out of his office to greet the client. I noticed he had my letter in one hand. Just before he turned to lead the client away, he handed it to me, smiling. ‘Good letter,’ he said.

[Lee is making copies when Mr Grey makes the ‘Good letter’ comment. He didn’t need to restore her sensibility as much in the film, as she seems to assimilate the spanking better. When she takes the letter into his office and he ignores it she says, ‘Oh.’ As though she understands the situation perfectly in that moment.]

When I went home that night, everything was the same. My life had not been disarranged by the event except for a slight increase in the distance between me and my family. My behind was not even red when I looked at it in the bathroom mirror.

[That evening at home—rather than a distance between Lee and her family—she tells her mother that the lock can come off the cabinet that has the sharps in it. We do see her looking at her backside in the mirror at the office and there is bruising.]

That's bruising, all right. (credit)

That’s bruising, all right. [source link now dead]

*This fits with the conversation earlier about her liking to see the physical manifestation of self-harming. She would enjoy seeing the result of the spanking.

But when I got into bed and thought about the thing, I got excited. I was more excited, in fact, than I had ever been in my life. That didn’t surprise me, either. I felt a numbness; I felt that I could never have a normal conversation with anyone again. I masturbated slowly, to put off the climax as long as I could. But there was no climax, even though I tried for a long time. Then I couldn’t sleep.

[This is somewhat echoed in a scene where Lee tries to masturbate whilst thinking of her boyfriend, Peter, but is only successful when thinking of her boss. Perhaps if Debby had tried thinking of ‘the lawyer’ she would have been more successful.]

It happened twice more in the next week and a half. The following week, when I made a typing mistake, he didn’t spank me. Instead, he told me to bend over his desk, look at the typing mistake and repeat ‘I am stupid’ for several minutes.

[Originally in the screenplay during the fantasy sequence when Lee is masturbating and thinking of Mr Grey she pictures herself on all fours on his desk saying, ‘I am stupid.’ They tried other dialogue and settled on the more affirming, ‘I’m your secretary.’]

Our relationship didn’t change otherwise.

[She realised this would happen–this was the way things were going to be–after the first spanking in the film.]

I began to have recurring dreams about him. In one, the most frequent, I walked with him in a field of big bright red poppies. The day was brilliant and warm. We were smiling at each other, and there was a tremendous sense of release and goodwill between us. He looked at me and said, ‘I understand you now, Debby.’ Then we held hands.

[This imagery is similar to what Lee pictures during her masturbation fantasy about Mr Grey.]

Like so. (credit)

Like so. (credit)

[Then we really diverge from the plot. In the film, Lee’s father goes to hospital for his alcoholism and she goes to Mr Grey’s house to ask for a spanking, which she can’t bring herself to do. He finds her dependence on him threatening and stops spanking her so she begins trying to provoke him by making more and more egregious errors, one of which finally succeeds. He calls her into his office when there is a client waiting in the lobby, which is why he has to be quiet and can’t actually strike her (he doesn’t spank her in the film version of the scene). Otherwise, the actual scene is exactly as it appears in the original story:]

The last time I made a typing error and the lawyer summoned me to his office, two unusual things occurred. The first was that after he finished spanking me he told me to pull up my skirt. Fear hooked my stomach and pulled it toward my chest. I turned my head and tried to look at him.
‘You’re not worried that I’m going to rape you, are you?’ he said. ‘Don’t. I’m not interested in that, not in the least. Pull up your skirt.’

[He uses the word ‘fuck’ rather than ‘rape’ here.]

I turned my head away from him. I thought, I don’t have to do this. I can stop right now. I can straighten up and walk out. But I didn’t. I pulled up my skirt.
‘Pull down your panty hose and underwear.’
A finger of nausea poked my stomach.
‘I told you I’m not going to fuck you. Do what I say.’
The skin on my face and throat was hot, but my fingertips were cold on my legs as I pulled down my underwear and panty hose. The letter before me became distorted beyond recognition. I thought I might faint or vomit, but I didn’t. I was held up by a feeling of dizzying suspension, like the one I have in dreams where I can fly, but only if I get into some weird position.
At first he didn’t seem to be doing anything. Then I became aware of a small frenzy of expended energy behind me. I had an impression of a vicious little animal frantically burrowing dirt with its tiny claws and teeth, My hips were sprayed with hot sticky muck.
‘Go clean yourself off,’ he said. ‘And do that letter again.’
I stood slowly, and felt my skirt fall over the sticky gunk. He briskly swung open the door and I left the room, not even pulling up my panty hose and underwear, since I was going to use the bathroom anyway.

[Lee redresses herself fully before going to the loo.]

I got to the bathroom and wiped myself off. I didn’t feel embarrassed. I felt mechanical. I wanted to get that dumb paralegal out of the office so I could come back to the bathroom and masturbate.
Susan completed her errand and left. I masturbated. I retyped the letter. The lawyer sat in his office all day.
When my mother picked me up that afternoon, she asked me if I was all right.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘I don’t know. You look a little strange.’
‘I’m as all right as I ever am.’
‘That doesn’t sound good, honey.’

[We don’t see an exchange with her mother after this experience, but it’s obvious Lee likes it. She also masturbates in the stall next to the paralegal rather than waiting for her to leave for the day. After this experience Mr Grey attempts to fire her and things get a little weird.]

A little weird. (credit)

A little weird. (credit)

But I didn’t sleep, although I became mentally incoherent for long, ugly stretches of time.

*This has nothing to do with anything. I just like the line in the story and can identify with it.

I didn’t call in. The lawyer didn’t call the house. I didn’t go in or call the next day or the day after that. The lawyer still didn’t call. I was slightly hurt by his absent phone call, but my relief was far greater than my hurt.
After I’d stayed home for four days, my father asked if I wasn’t worried about taking so much time off. I told him I’d quit, in front of Donna and my mother. He was dumbfounded.
‘That wasn’t very smart,’ he said. ‘What are you going to do now?’
‘I don’t care,’ I said. ‘That lawyer was an asshole.’

[In the film the ‘burrowing animal’ scene happens before lunch. She comes back to work after lunch and that’s when he tries to fire her, rather than her leaving and simply not returning for days because she’d ‘quit’ because he was an ‘asshole’.]

After that they may have sensed, with their intuition for the miserable, that something hideous had happened. Because they left the subject alone.
I received my last paycheck from the lawyer in the mail. It came with a letter folded around it. It said, ‘I am so sorry for what happened between us. I have realised what a terrible mistake I made with you. I can only hope that you will understand, and that you will not worsen an already unfortunate situation by discussing it with others. All the best.’ As a Ps he assured me that I could count on him for excellent references.
He enclosed a check for three hundred and eighty dollars, a little over two hundred dollars more than he owed me.
It occurred to me to tear up the check, or mail it back to the lawyer. But I didn’t do that.

[Mr Grey types a similar letter whilst Lee is on her lunch break that same day but doesn’t give it to her. He says a lot of what is in the letter in the story. Then he gives her the cheque in person. The cheque in the film is for $680.]

…my father stuck the newspaper under my nose and said, ‘Did you see what your old boss is doing?’ There was a small article on the upcoming mayoral elections in Westland. He was running for mayor. I took the paper from my father’s offering hands. For the first time, I felt an uncomplicated disgust for the lawyer. Westland was nothing but malls and doughnut stands and a big ugly theater with an artificial volcano in the front of it. What kind of idiot would want to be mayor of Westland?

[Mr Grey has no political aspirations whatsoever from what we can tell in the film.]

For some reason, I remembered the time, a few years before, when my mother had taken me to see a psychiatrist. One of the more obvious questions he had asked me was, ‘Debby, do you ever have the sensation of being outside yourself, almost as if you can actually watch yourself from another place?’ I hadn’t at the time, but I did now. And it wasn’t such a bad feeling at all.

[To say the film ends differently would be an understatement. After some serious D/s weirdness Lee and Mr Grey get married and live kinkily ever after.]

Well what did you do on YOUR honeymoon? (credit)

Well what did you do on YOUR honeymoon? [source link now dead]

Secretary is one of the very few times that the film adaptation vastly improved upon the source material, in my opinion. It’s not as though the film characters are the most well-adjusted people, but they manage to find some happiness–you were rooting for them. Whereas I wanted to set the characters in the story on fire.

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