The French Lieutenant’s Woman: how did a good book make such a bad film? | Books

John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman has presented a unique challenge to film-makers since it came out in 1969. There’s the authorial figure who frequently interrupts his own text to rewrite key scenes. There’s the authorial figure of Fowles himself, who has a scene where he sits in a train carriage with a lead character. And, as Fowles put it in an essay from 1981, the book describes “all those aspects of life and modes of feeling that can never be represented visually”. The novel journeyed deep into “inner space” where cameras couldn’t follow.

In spite of such obstacles – or perhaps because of them – plenty of famous film-makers have attempted to get it on screen. Fred Zinnemann tried, with a Dennis Potter script. Mike Nichols briefly took the helm. Franklin Schaffner was also approached to direct. (Fowles once said: “A Hollywood screenwriter came over to do that one, I’m told he had a nervous breakdown after six weeks.”) John Frankenheimer was also offered the director’s chair, but concluded: “There is no way you can film the book. You can tell the same story in a movie, of course, but not in the same way. And how Fowles tells his story is what makes the book so good.”

Fowles was inclined to agree that his book was unfilmable until “whatever fickle gods rule the cinema decided to smile on us”. That time came 10 years after the book was published, when Karel Reisz was lined up as director, renowned playwright Harold Pinter took on the script, and actors including Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons were attached.

Pinter’s involvement was especially pleasing to Fowles. “I do not need to dwell on his universally acknowledged qualities as a playwright,” he purred. He was a fan of Pinter’s solution to the metafictional problems the book posed: instead of having the author step into the narrative, Pinter had the action move outside the period frame. The film starts with a shot of a clapper board and the action frequently moves from the Victorian love story of the novel’s heroes Charles and Sarah to portray an affair that is happening between the two actors playing them in 1981. For Fowles, this was a brilliant metaphor for the novel.

Plenty of critics shared his pleasure. The venerable cinema critic Roger Ebert called it “a beautiful film to look at, and remarkably well-acted … it entertains admirers of Fowles’s novel, but does not reveal the book’s secrets.”

If I were finishing this article here, I might be describing it as a success. Unfortunately, I can’t do that because I’ve just seen it and: oh dear …

It hasn’t aged well. I won’t argue with Fowles about Pinter’s ability as a playwright – but it’s worth remembering that Pinter was also responsible for this poetry about the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq:

Here they go again
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America’s God.

There’s nothing quite that bad in his adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but it gives an impression of the heavy stomp Pinter takes through the story, the resolute humourlessness of his script and the overripeness of his dialogue. Some of the latter I could just about forgive as faithful reproductions of Fowles’s Victorian pastiche. Sadly, the “I want you” histrionics also spill into the present day narrative, aided and abetted by some surprisingly poor performances from Irons and Streep. It got to the point that whenever the camera panned out to the modern-day film set, I was half-expecting to see shots of Irons chewing on the scenery. Some won’t be surprised about how hammy he is, but even Streep tucks into the proverbial pig, spending most of her screen time gazing wistfully into the middle distance while mangling an English accent.

On the plus side, there are some fine shots of Lyme Regis town and Dorset country. There’s also plenty to enjoy if you like lingering shots of period clothing. But the pacing feels so slow that I often found myself wondering how the make-up department managed to attach the mutton-chop sideburns on to Victorian Charles as much as anything he was thinking or saying. In the 1980s narrative, I was reduced to looking out for Ford Cortinas. There were some nice old Rovers, too. But such fleeting pleasures don’t detract from the central truth that the film is now interesting only as a period piece, while the book remains fresh and vital. It turns out that the cameras couldn’t follow far enough.

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