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Friday, March 27, 2009

Book vs. Film: The French Lieutenant's Woman vs. The French Lieutant's Woman

Plot: The French Lieutenant's Woman, both in book and film form, is a story about telling a story. The story being told takes place during the Victorian era and centres on a Sarah, a woman with a bad reputation. She's known as "the French Lieutenant's whore" because of a rumored affair she had with a sailor who abandoned her, and now she's a pariah in the community. Charles Smithson becomes fascinated with her, threatening his future with his financee, the daughter of a wealthy tradesman.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film: To put it simply, the book is about writing a book, the film is about making a film based on the book. Although much of the book unfolds unimpeded by authorial asides, John Fowles does break in every once in a while to remind the reader that he's telling a story and remark on the actions of his characters, particularly the growing idiocy of Charles. In the film, some of the action takes place in front of the cameras as part of the film-within-the-film, but some of it takes place behind the scenes as the actors playing Sarah and Charles find their own lives mirroring that of their characters.

For The Book: I'm a bit biased because the book is one of my absolute favourites. Fowles does somethig tricky in that he lulls you into immersing yourself in the story of Sarah and Charles and then yanks you out of it without making the transition seem jarring. The novel is a brilliant example of post-modern style and often disarmingly funny.

For The Film: By adapting it as an "onstage/offstage" story, the film captures the spirit of the book better than a straight adaptation ever could. Aside from being the story of Sarah and Charles' doomed love, The French Lieutenant's Woman is also about actively analyzing at the mores and attitudes of a bygone era, which the film does in its offstage portions. There are also great performances by Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, though Streep stands out more by virtue of the fact that both of her characters (the actress and Sarah) are written to be stronger presences than those portrayed by Irons.

Winner: I like the movie, but I love the book. The film is, however, one of the best page to screen adaptations I've ever seen, even if it starts to lag a little by the end. So, obviously, the winner is the book but it's a pretty tight race.


Shubhajit said...

Hi, came to know of your blog from your introduction mail to culturazzi members. This is really a nice place you have here.

Was going through your list of 100 best movies. It has some really surprising candidates like Bound, Sex & Lucia, A Very Long Engagement, Constant Gardener and Donnie Darko. They didn't just make your list that much more interesting, but also showed that it is far more honest and personal than the thousand other Top 100 lists that we get to see around us all the time, most of which are no more than crowd-pleasers.

Hoping to be a regular visitor to your blog. Do have a look at mine, too.

R. D. Finch said...

Norma, sorry it took me so long to get to your post, but it's been a hectic week for me. My own last post was a real struggle, and I've been devoting a lot of time to the best films of the 50's at Wonders in the Dark. I liked the way you pinpointed the differences between the book and the movie. I also love them both and think Streep should have won the Oscar for her performance. It's probably my favorite performance by her. As for Irons, I'll never forget the look on his face when he's gazing at that red wig Streep wears during filming. I also loved Leo McKern ("Rumpole of the Bailey") as Dr. Grogan. You didn't mention that the late Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter is the one who wrote the screenplay and presumably devised the way of translating the book's "violation of aesthetic distance" into a cinematic equivalent. I wasn't sure how this would work, but the results satisfied me. When the movie was released, I recall reading that it was originally devised as a project for Vanessa Redgrave (whom Reisz had directed in "Isadora") but that by the time financing was arranged he thought she was too old for the role, and that's how Streep got the part. I hope your post inspires people to seek out this excellent movie. It seems to have faded from memory despite the impressive talent involved, and that includes Fowles as the author of the novel.