Film Treatment: Stephen King’s “The Breathing Method,” 1982

  • Concept

    In 1935, countless young women traveled to New York City to pursue their dreams. A few of them may even have achieved them. One woman, Sandra Stansfield, wound up needing to alter her dream significantly. The way she achieved her new goal is unforgettable…and breathtaking.Sandra arrives on a bus from Kansas, but is no starry-eyed dreamer. Sandra has goals and Sandra has plans to accomplish those goals. She finds work, she lets a room, she takes acting classes, she pounds pavement. She is a woman of singular determination.

    “Homesickness is a real sickness – the ache of the uprooted plant.” Despite her steel will, Sandra is plagued with homesickness, and goes out with a young man from her acting class a few times. When she learns she is pregnant, he tells her he will “do the decent thing” – then packs his bags and skips town.

    Sandra is not cowed. She finds a doctor who will treat an unmarried pregnant woman, a doctor who is fact kind to her. Dr. McCarron and his nurse Ella Davidson are both accepting of her, though it takes Nurse Davidson a visit or two to think of her as more than “that chippie.”

    We watch Sandra work until nearly the fifth month of her pregnancy, at the perfume counter of a department store. She is fired for her condition, she is kicked out of her boarding house – things that would be almost unthinkable to us today. She finds a home to live in with the help of “cheap magic” – an old wedding ring she buys for $2 at a pawn shop. She concocts a tragic story of a dead husband and voilá, she is transformed from a shameless hussy to an object of pity. It is but slight improvement. But Sandra is determined to have her baby.

    Dr. McCarron is ahead of his time, and teaches Sandra his “breathing method” – which we now know as the Lamaze Method for natural birth. At the time, sedation was standard procedure for pregnancies, but once Sandra learns that she can control and command her body’s responses with careful thought and specific forms of breathing, she practices as though she were training for the Olympics. She eats properly. She reads novels and newspapers to her blind landlady. She prepares to be a single mother in 1935.

    Sandra Stansfield goes into labor on Christmas Eve, as a snowstorm is rapidly changing over to sleet. The streets of New York City are covered in ice. Sandra, breathing the way she was taught, summons a cab earlier than her labor requires, thinking of how long it will take to travel across the city in the poor weather. Her cab driver is a young man, nervous, helping her every step, anxious behind the wheel. As they arrive at the hospital, Dr. McCarron has just arrived. He has expected Sandra will already be admitted and waiting for him, but the cab ride was too long and her labor progressed too quickly. As they approach the hospital, the cab driver spots a hole in traffic and guns the engine to leap forward, nervous, wanting nothing more than to be done with this ride and to have this woman not have her baby in his cab. But an ambulance is coming out at the same time, and there is an accident. A spectacular, horrific collision. Sandra Stansfield is thrown from the cab as Dr. McCarron and a few other hospital workers look on. He runs to her, desperate to do what he can to help, to move her inside to the emergency room. He can see her body tensing with the contractions of deep labor. He can also see her head rolling into the gutter.

    Sandra Stansfield’s body still breathes.

  • Characters

    Sandra Stansfield is a very “modern” woman for 1935. She has no personal issue with being alone and nothing to prove. When faced with her pregnancy, she does not wring her hands or break down – totally valid reactions – but takes the steps needed to do the best she can for herself and her child. We are on Sandra’s side from the onset. Her history is bland and typical, her personality is not. She has always been goal-oriented. She came to New York and found employment and saved money and took acting classes, instead of going to Hollywood to wait to be “discovered.” She has been in the city for four years by the time we meet her. She is thrifty and good with money. Sandra is a woman in control until the bitter end, and beyond.Dr. Emlyn McCarron is a thoughtful, happily married man. A veteran of the First World War, his interest in Sandra Stansfield is driven solely by professional and interpersonal affinity. There is no romantic element between them. McCarron’s practice is only six years old in 1935, so he is a young man, hale, hearty, and with an interest in obstetrics but not specializing in it. He becomes a friend and mentor to Sandra.

    Nurse Ella Davidson is older, more matronly, smart as a whip – smart enough to quickly see that simply lumping Sandra into a category of “trollop” is a grave mistake. She comes to respect and admire Sandra as much as Dr. McCarron does…especially when she sees how promptly and completely Sandra pays her medical bills.

    Mrs. Kelly is Sandra’s supervisor at the department store. She does not understand this young woman and lives very much in a world where “proper” young women do not behave in the manner which Sandra has so obviously behaved. She is married with teenage sons, and is scandalized when she learns of Sandra’s condition, saying “I had you to dinner…with my sons!” She is judgemental and small-minded about those around her.

    Mrs. Gibbs is the blind woman that Sandra boards with after her initial landlady kicks her out. She has only heard Sandra’s “tragic young widow” story at all, so doesn’t really know her true self. But she is kindly and friendly and welcoming also. Sandra doesn’t have many friends in the city, but these few allies keep her going. Her own iron will keeps her on track.

  • Themes

    “The Breathing Method,” as King wrote it, is actually a set-piece placed within the frame of a mysterious “gentlemen’s club” where eerie stories are exchanged. It’s a good frame, it reads well and King revisits the club in a few other short stories. However, as an engraving over the fireplace in that story reminds us: “It is the tale, not he who tells it.”King’s strong suit is characters and that is true in “The Breathing Method.” He writes strong women, although he is usually more skilled with the ones set in less modern times – such as 1935.

    This story is about the things in life we can control…and the things we can’t. Sandra returns again and again to the “cheap magic” of her pawn shop wedding ring. When she shows it to Dr. McCarron, she says “I am no longer a little roundheels strumpet, and my child is no longer a bastard.” She hates doing this, hates the deception, but America in 1935 is not yet a place where people can be honest about many things. About desire. About action. About things you can control and can’t control.

    The story is also about the change in women’s lives between then and now. Though there is still too much we struggle with, there is a powerful exercise in reminding ourselves where we have come from, and what generations before us needed to do to get us here. Sandra Stansfield is no activist. But she was born into an America where women could not yet vote, and her child will grow through some of the biggest decades of change for women in the history of Western civilization.

  • Locations

    New York City, 1935. The key locations in the text are Harriet White Memorial Hospital, set very close to Madison Square Garden right in the middle of Manhattan. McCarron’s office is a single-physician practice so should be easily set comfortably in a small brownstone in a photogenic neighborhood. Sandra Stansfield lives in a “respectable boarding house” in an unspecified neighborhood as well, but after her “delicate condition” is noticed she is kicked out, and she takes a room from Mrs. Gibbs in a small place in Greenwich Village.Harriet White Memorial Hospital is described as resembling “a great gray prison.” There is a courtyard in front where ambulances and cars may pull in to drop off patients, a great paved expanse describing a semicircle. In the center, on a heavy marble pedestal, is a great gray carved statue of Harriet White – who is Dr. McCarron’s father’s first wife. Carved into this pedestal is a quote from Cato, “There is no comfort without pain; thus we define salvation through suffering.”

    McCarron’s office is small and homey and comfortable, kept that way by the efficient Nurse Davidson. A waiting room painted in a comforting, muted colors with chairs that are comfortable but not invitingly so. Nurse Davidson’s desk is of a heavy, dark wood and there will be great wooden cabinets behind her. Dr. McCarron will have a comfortable office with similar chairs to the waiting room on the other side of his large professional desk. There will be an examination room with bland artwork, white walls, and the usual array of somewhat disturbing jars, boxes, and cabinets with very small drawers.

    Sandra’s homes are both just rooms for let. She lives in New York for four years before we meet her so she will have a few pieces that travel with her, such as a mirror for her vanity, a chair, perhaps a small writing desk. She will not own elaborate furniture or any luxury items – she is far too practical and smart with her money to waste it on such things.

    The department store where Sandra works is not specified in the text; picking a legendary location like Loeser’s in Brooklyn gives us a nice setting for the first part of Sandra’s story.

  • Action Scene

    It is a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in Greenwich Village, 1935. There is snow on the ground but it is sleeting now, the slush getting covered in a thick layer of ice. It is 6:30 p.m., dark outside, Christmas lights glinting here and there, reflected back in ice over and over. A cab pulls up in front of a narrow three-story brownstone where a young woman is waiting. She is obviously pregnant. The cabbie helps her down the slippery steps and into the cab. As he drives he hears strange noises from the backseat – not wailing cries of pain but strangely audible breathing, deep, long breaths. The traffic is terrible. The baby is coming and the cab cannot seem to make time. He has to get from the Village to the Flatiron District, to the hospital near Madison Square Garden, and it shouldn’t take this long, it never takes this long… Three blocks away from the courtyard entrance to Harriet White Memorial Hospital, there is a break in traffic. Spotting his chance, the young driver speeds up to dart through the gap and cut up to the hospital, the cab shooting forward but the wheels spinning too much, too fast on the ice. He holds the cab under the barest control and is turning into the courtyard when he sees an ambulance heading down the emergency room ramp and towards the same entryway. The cab driver and the ambulance driver both stomp on their brakes, panicked, but of course it is far too late. The cab begins to slide around sideways as it skids into the courtyard. The ambulance fishtails wildly and its rear end slams into the heavy marble pedestal supporting the statue of Harriet White. The back doors fly open and a gurney – mercifully unoccupied – rattles out into the courtyard. Several people are standing near the hospital doors, and when the ambulance strikes the statue a young woman who is walking toward the hospital doors lets out a scream, slips on the ice, and falls to the ground, her purse skittering away from her. The cab is continuing to swing around and after its impact, the ambulance bounces heavily away from the statue and smashes into the cab broadside. The cab starts to spin wildly and slams crunchingly, deafeningly, violently into the statue pedestal. The speed of the cab and the force of the impact are enough to practically tear the car in two. As onlookers scream and stare – one of them the doctor who is there to attend the pregnant woman – the passenger in the backseat of the cab, the young pregnant woman who had been making such strange breathing noises, is thrown through the right rear window like a ragdoll. The doctor has recognized his patient in the speeding cab has already started to run towards the accident, slipping and sliding. As he approaches the body, his foot strikes an object that skitters away like the purse of the woman who has just slipped on the sidewalk moments before. The doctor arrives at his patient’s body splayed on the ice in the courtyard, noticing that something about the body seems very wrong just an instant before he realizes that the object he has unthinkingly kicked away is his patient’s severed head. The body before him is still taking the harsh, measured breaths he has taught her. His Breathing Method.
  • Dialogue Scene

    May I show you something I bought with my severance pay, Dr. McCarron?
    Yes, if you like.
    [removes small box from her purse]
    I bought it at a pawnshop for two dollars. And it’s the only time during this whole nightmare that I’ve felt ashamed and dirty. Isn’t that strange? [opens box and removes a plain gold wedding ring]
    I don’t think…
    ’ll do what’s necessary. I’m staying in what Mrs. Kelly would undoubtedly call “a respectable boarding house.” My landlady has been kind and friendly…but Mrs. Kelly was kind and friendly, too. I think she may ask me to leave at any time now, and I suspect that if I say anything about the rent-balance due me, or the damage deposit I paid when I moved in, she’ll laugh in my face.
    My dear young woman, that would be quite illegal. There are courts and lawyers to help you answer such…
    The courts are men’s clubs and not apt to go out of their way to befriend a woman in my position. Perhaps I could get my money back, perhaps not. Either way, the expense and the trouble and the…the unpleasantness…hardly seem worth the forty-seven dollars or so. I had no business mentioning it to you in the first place. It hasn’t happened yet, and maybe it won’t. But in any case, I intend to be practical from now on. I’ve got my eye on a place down in the Village, just in case. It’s on the third floor, but it’s clean, and it’s five dollars a month cheaper than where I’m staying now. I wore this when the landlady showed me the room. [she puts the ring on the third finger of her left hand] There! Now I’m Mrs. Stansfield. My husband was a truck-driver who was killed on the Pittsburgh-New York run. Very sad. But I am no longer a little roundheels strumpet, and my child is no longer a bastard.

  • Pitch

    In 1982, Stephen King published a book of four novellas, Different Seasons. Three of these novellas have been filmed, with varying degrees of success. Apt Pupil (1998), Stand By Me (1986), and The Shawshank Redemption (1998) run the gamut from “disappointing” to “one of the most beloved movies of all time.” It’s quite a run from one collection. What of that fourth novella…that fourth season? What of “The Breathing Method”?There was a time when a movie based on a work by Stephen King was the very opposite of a prestige piece. There was a time when movies based on works by Stephen King were, in fact, laughable embarrassments. But when you look at Stand By Me or The Shawshank Redemption, you see some of the best of King’s strengths: unforgettable characters, powerful situations, memorable images.

    Why hasn’t anyone adapted “The Breathing Method” yet? The framing narrative in the novella is awkward for film, and unnecessary unless one aims to make a series of films about the strange, possibly otherworldly, gentlemen’s club where odd tales are told. But Sandra’s tale is compelling, engaging, breathtaking…and tragic.

    No two ways about it: Sandra dies at the end. Her headless corpse breathes as McCarron delivers her baby in the snow, and he hears her last whispered words…escaping from the lips of her severed head several feet away.

    It’s a special effects parlor trick and not much more unless we are awfully damn invested in Sandra Stansfield. And with a script from a skilled writer in the hands of a skilled director we will be invested indeed. We will watch her work and plan and make her way. We’ll watch her make connections and make mistakes and when the father of her child leaves her, she will not collapse in a weeping heap but will make her way, again, ever forward.

    The story shows us that Sandra’s child, a boy, lives a successful happy life – through the lens of Dr. McCarron’s discreet later observations. The movie can end happily even though Sandra’s life does not. But Sandra is not just a martyr to the life of her child – there are more than enough movies telling that story. She is a determined march into the future. She is an unsentimental (not unloving), unwavering look into a future America where more and more of us can choose our own way, our own path, decide where we are going and get there.

    A movie adapted from King will get King fans – fans of his books AND his movies. A movie with its origin in the same space as Shawshank and Stand By Me will get attention from movie fans in general. (There’s a lot of people out there who still don’t know that Shawshank is a King work!) A movie where there are plenty of roles for women – that “passes the Bechdel test” – is still far too rare a thing and is going to bring people in…some people will come for that reason alone.

    A strong cast, mostly intimate sets with a few cityscapes, a terrifying, pulse-pounding action sequence at the heart, an otherworldly (downright creepy) act of courage – no movie can be all things to all people. But this movie can be scary for people who “don’t like horror,” woman-centered without feeling like “a chick flick,” it can be political in a remote-in-time way that doesn’t court current controversy, and it can be a feast for a strong cast. Put “The Breathing Method” in the right hands…and people will walk away breathless.

  • Photo Appendix
    New York Hospital and the East River, 1935. Photo Credit:
    New York Hospital and the East River, 1935. Photo Credit:
    Photo of Dr. Samuel Huntington's office, photo credit Huntington Historical Society:'s_doctors.htm
    Photo of Dr. Samuel Huntington’s office, photo credit Huntington Historical Society:’s_doctors.htm
    Avenue C in Greenwich Village, circa 1926. Photo credit: NYC Historical Archives via The Atlantic
    Avenue C in Greenwich Village, circa 1926. Photo credit: NYC Historical Archives via The Atlantic
    Children play outside a tenement building, 1935. Photo credit: Museum of the City of New York
    Children play outside a tenement building, 1935. Photo credit: Museum of the City of New York

    Loeser's Department store in Brooklyn circa 1941. Photo credit: Brooklyn Visual Heritage
    Loeser’s Department store in Brooklyn circa 1941. Photo credit: Brooklyn Visual Heritage

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