Book and film review of Peyton Place (1957)

A few weeks ago I watched the 1957 film Peyton Place because I had read the book by Grace Metalious a long time ago and thought it pretty good, though not great. The film was pretty bad, though. I was surprised to learn that it had been nominated for nine Oscars but not surprised that it failed to win any. What prompts me to review it is that the way that the book was transformed into film reveals something interesting about the standards that were imposed unevenly on the two forms of art.

They had changed quite a lot of the book and left out its central theme of rampant hypocrisy and meanness in an ostensibly upright and god-fearing small town. Instead they erased the flaws of many of the characters and made it into a fairly tedious and conventional story that went on for 2 hours and 37 minutes. In the book most of the main characters do not come out well but the film makes them into much nicer people in order to give happy endings all around. In the book, three main characters (the town doctor, newspaper editor, and new high school principal) acted honorably though none of them were churchgoers, but they became so in the film.

The book has rape as central elements. A major plot issue is where the doctor, a man of high ethical principles, risks his license to perform an abortion to protect a poor young woman from the shame of having her rape by her drunken stepfather become public knowledge. In the film, the young woman has a miscarriage instead. In the book, another young woman who gets pregnant by the playboy son of the richest man in town, a factory owner, is forced into getting an abortion by the threat of having her father fired from his job in the factory. In the film, this plot line entirely disappears to be replaced by a love story between the woman and the son.

The reason for these changes that to my mind ruined the film may have been due to the restrictive Hays Code that was inspired by the Catholic church and existed from 1930 to 1968 that limited what films could show. The code was technically ‘voluntary’ but was strictly followed in order to prevent formal government intervention.

The code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of “general principles” which prohibited a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it”, called for depictions of the “correct standards of life”, and lastly forbade a picture from showing any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation”. The second part was a set of “particular applications” which was an exacting list of items which could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or on the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned, but were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation. Depiction of miscegenation (i.e. marital or sexual relations between different races) was forbidden. It also stated that the notion of an “adults-only policy” would be a dubious, ineffective strategy which would be difficult to enforce; however, it did allow that “maturer minds may easily understand and accept without harm subject matter in plots which does younger people positive harm”. If children were supervised and the events implied elliptically, the code allowed “the possibility of a cinematically inspired thought crime”.

The production code sought not only to determine what could be portrayed on screen but also to promote traditional values. Sexual relations outside of marriage—which were forbidden from being portrayed as attractive or beautiful—were to be presented in a way that would not arouse passion or make them seem permissible. All criminal action had to be punished, and neither the crime nor the criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience, or the audience must at least be aware that such behavior is wrong, usually through “compensating moral value”. Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers, and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that those individuals portrayed as villains were the exceptions to the rule

The entire document was written with Catholic undertones and stated that art must be handled carefully because it could be “morally evil in its effects” and because its “deep moral significance” was unquestionable. It was initially decided to keep the Catholic influence on the Code secret A recurring theme was “that throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right” The Code also contained an addendum commonly referred to as the Advertising Code which regulated advertising copy and imagery.

The book Peyton Place was progressive for its time in the way that it depicted women and sexuality but the film made it into a run-of-the-mill conventional morality tale. There was a TV soap opera version that ran for five seasons from 1964 to 1969 and had over 500 episodes, and a day time spin-off Return to Peyton Place that ran from 1972-1974 that was made after the end of the Hays Code. I have no idea if the greater freedom resulted in being closer to the book.

Here’s the trailer for the film, though I don’t recommend it.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    If 1950s melodramas are your cup of tea (they’re not mine), Douglas Sirk is your man. Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life are among his better known films.

  2. Bernadette Landon says

    Interesting observations, but one minor correction (as I’m watching the movie even as I’m writing this.) The doctor absolutely performs an abortion in the movie, but the doctor insists that the nurse write it up as an appendectomy, and he then threatens her with a little exposure of her own hanky-panky if she were to blab the truth.

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