books to film

Book versus movie: Meryl Streep is the best thing about ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’

Karel Reisz’s version of the John Fowles novel, based on the Harold Pinter screenplay, is a not always successful film within a film.

Her name is Sarah Woodruff. Sympathisers identify her as “poor Tragedy” and scandal mongers have labelled her “the French Lieutenant’s whore”. In the small fishing village of Lyme Regis in South England, the penurious Sarah often walks alone on a windy promontory. When she is not dangerously close to the swirling waters of the Cobb, she is found wandering beneath the dense green boughs of the Undercliff. A striking young woman with “uncanny” intelligence and perspicacity, she reads “far more fiction and far more poetry, those two sanctuaries of the lonely, than most of her kind”.

It is believed that after a lover’s betrayal she suffers from a medical condition – “obscure melancholia.”

Charles Smithson, a young paleontologist, is drawn to the mysterious Sarah. “I feel like a man possessed against his will – against all that is better in his character,” he confesses. As he grows more and more obsessed with her, he becomes “increasingly unsure of the frontier between the real Sarah and the Sarah he had created in so many such dreams: the one Eve personified, all mystery and love and profundity, and the other a half scheming, half crazed governess from an obscure seaside town”. In pursuit of Sarah, Charles gambles away his sanity, his fiancée and his reputation as a “gentleman”.

There are two endings to John Fowles’s bestselling novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1968), one more predictable than the other and neither without complexity. But Fowles has much to offer besides protagonists struggling in the wet iron grip of Lyme Bay. His spoof-like depiction of Victorian England captures all the cant and pompous Puritanism that go with silk cravats and satin bustles.

John Fowles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
John Fowles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Persuaded by the vicar and believing herself a genuine benefactor, dowager Mrs Poulteney prepares to offer Sarah the conditional position of companion. On the day of Sarah’s interview, Fowles tells us, “the ferns looked greenly forgiving: but Mrs. Poulteney was whitely the contrary.” Never an omniscient or ubiquitous narrator, Fowles often chats intimately with his reader, sharing his surprise at what his own characters think, feel or even do. Allusions to Darwin, Freud and Dickens – reformers of a world to come – are not without significance as they ultimately establish Sarah and Charles to be individuals ahead of their time.

Detailed descriptions bring whiffs of “air as sharp as lemon juice” and cheese like “squadrons of reserve moons” within biting distance. Such niceties, meandering as they may be, are served with Fowles’s brand of “tonic wit”. This provides the delectable edge to an otherwise familiar story of the mad and the maddened.

Director Karel Reisz’s adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) is based on Harold Pinter’s screenplay, which Fowles termed as “not a ‘version’ of my novel; but (as) the blueprint…of a brilliant metaphor for it.” Reisz mentions a “particular sort of Pirandello-ish device: when you have any sequence which leads into the next, you have all the residue of feelings that remain and you bring these with you into the new sequence. In our film, the feelings from the Victorian story carry over into the modern, the modern into the Victorian.”

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).

In other words, while engaging with the story of Sarah and Charles, the audience is inveigled to believe that a similar adulterous affair exists between the actors who play them. This contention, though attractive, ends up being lightweight.

Nominations and awards notwithstanding, lead actress Meryl Streep has said that she was not happy with the film: “…the structure of it was sort of artificial because I was the actress playing the French Lieutenant’s Woman. At the same time I was an American actress playing a British woman.” Even so, Streep is impressive.

A familiar scene for modern Streep characters is one of speaking on the telephone with a clandestine lover while a husband or boyfriend lurks in earshot. There are those intakes of breath, those half smiles of discomfort and guilt and the micro-second glazed look before she makes up her mind how to cope with an inevitable confrontation. The last telephone scene between Molly and Frank (Robert De Niro) in Ulu Grosberg’s Falling In Love (1984) is a throwback to Streep as Anna speaking to Mike (Jeremy Irons) in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).

Mike invites Anna and her boyfriend David to a lunch party with other members of the cast. In his expansive country house, Anna comes face to face with Mike’s wife Sonia (played by the reliable Penelope Wilton). They share a nuanced moment of knowing and smiling awkwardness. In their restraint they are equally matched, but obviously Streep gets the bigger close-ups.

In the period scenes of Reisz’s film, Streep is outstanding. She has the support of Patience Collier, who perfectly plays the formidable harridan Mrs Poulteney. Dr Grogan, who diagnoses Charles’s malady as well as Sarah’s, is memorably played by Leo Mckern, and Charles’s fiancée, the spoilt Ernestina, is a snug-as-a-glove fit for the dainty but not fragile Lynsey Baxter.

The costumes are immaculate as is the skillful make up. Streep makes a chic Anna and a wan pre-Raphaelite like Sarah. Irons as Mike is wavy haired and casual with none of the woolly sideburns and stiffness that make him Charles. Sets and natural locations merge naturally. The interiors are intricate and the exteriors well appointed. When we follow Sarah through a glen, we are in Constable country, serene and secretive. Reisz’s film is elegant and bewitching as long as it stays in 1860.

The gold standard for the depiction of a film within a film is Francois Truffaut’s unvarnished Day for Night (1973). Had she been part of it, Streep might have felt differently.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.