Fiction can often provide a short synopsis of some significant element of human development. In Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where are you going, Where have you been?”, the main character, Connie, can be seen to go through a great deal of growth in a short amount of time. Her innocent-yet-not-innocent use of her growing sexuality as she attempts to discover the pathway to adulthood has the inadvertent effect of attracting the wrong man. A film adaptation of the story, Smooth Talk, represents much of these same ideas. Although there are some significant differences between the story and the film versions, Connie’s encounter with Arnold Friend forces her to take the giant step from innocent child and slightly knowledgeable, self-absorbed teen to greatly disillusioned and sacrificing adult.
At the beginning of the story in both written and film versions, Connie is characterized as a typical teenager. She is completely self-absorbed on a superficial level, concerned with the way she looks and how others perceive her. “She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” This description is brilliantly acted out by the film’s star, Laura Dern. Her interests include boys, fashions, hairstyles and makeup. Contrasted against this image of innocence, she lives a double life. “Everything about her had two sides to it; one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out.” In this characterization, Oates illustrates that her character is at once very innocent in her experience, but also rebellious and ready, so she imagines, much more exciting and adult experiences.
Connie’s behavior when out
As an attractive and social girl, Connie is also portrayed as associating her impending adulthood with her blossoming sexuality. She enjoys the fact that she could get a boy, a ‘cool’ boy, with a car, to spend three hours with her having dinner “and then down an alley a mile or so away” as seen in the book, but once there, the film illustrates her fear of going too far and she returns to her friends. Even as she enjoys her moment of glory, though, she notices the admiring glance of who she will later learn is Arnold Friend. Although he seems somehow out of place, “she couldn’t help glancing back.” This precocious understanding of the powers of her sex marks her for the man in the gold car. “He wagged a finger and laughed and said ‘Gonna get you, baby,’ and Connie turned away again without Eddie noticing anything.” Only now has Connie discovered the dangers associated with her newfound powers, but she is not given a chance to discover just how that trace of fright Arnold introduced fit into her burgeoning identity before he was pulling up to her door and she was forced to take her final step.
Connie’s behavior toward Arnold Friend
In both story and film, as Connie talks with Arnold at her ranch house door, she is forced to realize that she can no longer retreat to the status of child. She wants to run and hide, but realizes, as Arnold points out the weaknesses of her house, that there is nowhere for her to run. Finally, Arnold presents her with the question that will determine her adult status. Will she give her life to save that of her family? While this is a compelling enough question, it is not what finally convinces Connie to leave the house. Arnold bluntly states what Connie has been piecing together: “The place where you came from ain’t there anymore, and where you had in mind to go is canceled out.” She cannot go back to being a child after this encounter, no matter what decision she makes now, while her plans to explore the power of her sexuality have just been destroyed by the fear she has now learned to associate with it. While the story makes it seem as if Connie was murdered by Arnold Friend, ending before she returns home, the largest difference between story and film is in the film, Connie is returned home disheveled but alive.
From near-complete innocence at the beginning of the story, the character of Connie can be seen to make the final transition to adulthood. Although the difference between story and film is profound, I agree with Oates that it seems necessary. To begin with, the story required a greater degree of ‘flesh’ in order to succeed as a film at any length. This also required greater characterization of Connie and Arnold to the point where the audience would have demanded to know what happened next. The final sign of Connie’s sudden maturity is in her resignation to the truth of Arnold’s statements and her willingness to attempt to prevent any harm falling on the rest of her family by sacrificing herself. The film rewards this sacrifice, reinforcing the idea that young people need to grow up, by demonstrating Connie returned home perhaps injured, but alive, while it also retains the ambiguity of Oates’ original story in keeping the audience guessing about what might have happened to her during the course of the afternoon.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where are you going, Where have you been?” The Ontario Review. 1991. Web.