‘Steel Magnolias’ With Dolly Parton and Sally Field is a Heart-Wrenching True Story: Here’s How the Classic Film Came to Be

by Madison Miller

In 1989, the popular film “Steel Magnolias” was released.

The film starred Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Julia Roberts, and Olympia Dukakis. “Steel Magnolias” tells the story of friendship, loss, and family all in a small Southern town. The title of the film is meant to suggest that female characters of the movie can be as delicate as a magnolia flower, but also tough as steel.

This feminist film celebrates women and the bond of female friendship.

The touching and emotional film with a star-studded cast is actually based on a heart-wrenching true story.

Creating ‘Steel Magnolias’

Before the film came out, there was a play. Robert Harling first adapted the story as a play in 1987. Then a few years later Herbert Ross created the film we know today.

According to Country Living, Harling wrote the play after his sister Susan had passed away from complications related to her type 1 diabetes. His sister had gotten married and decided to have a baby, although doctors told her it could be extremely dangerous.

Susan’s circulatory system and kidneys failed. After a kidney transplant from her mother, Susan still died at the age of 33. Harling wrote the play, which he never thought would become as popular, to connect his nephew with his mother that had passed away. He feared she would be forgotten as Susan’s husband had quickly remarried and his nephew was calling his new wife “mama” already.

In many ways, Harling wrote the film so no one would ever forget his sister, especially the child she had left behind. However, given the success of the movie, he’s felt guilty about telling the story at moments.

“My sister had to die for all that to happen. So almost daily I think about what my life would be if she had lived. It can take you to an uncompromisingly dark place sometimes. Then I just have to go back to the honesty of the first impulse, that I just wanted somebody to remember her,” Harling said to Garden & Gun.

Recreating a Real Southern Community

The story is both a sad account of his sister’s death as well as a comedic look at his Southern hometown. The film perfectly balances humor, wit, and charm until eventually, it’s a lot of heartbreak.

 “I always thought the women in my community were so witty and clever. It was like a witty one-upmanship [between them]. In a lot of ways, they talked in bumper stickers,” Harling said to Country Living.

Just like his sister’s death was a true story, the friends in the small hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana, are all based on real people as well.

What Else Does the Film Say?

Beyond friendship, humor, and loss, “Steel Magnolias” also says something about ignoring a doctor’s warnings.

In the film, Roberts’ character dies a few years after having her baby. However, her doctor had warned her of the extreme possibility of a disastrous outcome.

According to The Atlantic, the film is reminiscent of others that have characters blatantly ignoring medical orders, specifically regarding reproduction. Movies like “The Black Stork,” “Married in Name Only,” and “The Garden of Knowledge.” However, it’s clear that “Steel Magnolias” positive and humor-filled messages are meant to tell an entirely different kind of story.

Some insist the film is more about getting past the greatest lows in life and learning to be resilient and strong, rather than the actual medical death itself.

Even behind-the-scenes, the actors on stage had developed a bond that has gone through the test of time. “We became protective. We became one … really did make fast friends, all of us, and have been ever since. I don’t know what it is about the subject matter in the movie, but going through that makes you friends for life,” Shirley MacLaine said, according to Garden & Gun.