The French Lieutenant’s Woman

We’ve all seen films that failed to capture the essentials of a favorite novel. Maybe the actors weren’t up to the part; my vote for worst actor and actress in a film adaptation of a literary work goes to Brad Pitt in “Legends of the Fall” and Demi Moore in “The Scarlett Letter.” Maybe the structure of the book was too complicated to convert to the screen (“The Time Traveller’s Wife”). Or maybe the director messed with the story too much to satisfy purists. Notwithstanding Robert J. Downey Jr.’s performance—I’ve loved the guy since “Chaplin”—I’d have to put “Sherlock Holmes” in this category.

A good film adaptation of a novel translates its characters, story, and setting into cinematic language while remaining true to the author’s intention. How does it do this? I’ll give you an illustration: Karel Reisz’s adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.Yes, I’m stacking the deck. Pinter was a Nobel prizewinning playwright, and John Fowles’s first choice to write the screenplay of his book. Reisz was his first choice to direct, too, and Meryl Streep was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the title role.

Still, the task of was daunting. The French Lieutenant’s Woman was not your average novel. Fowles set out to write a Victorian romance as told by a mid-twentieth-century know-it-all. The reader is always being pulled aside by Fowles’s narrator, dragged out of the story by some piquant historical tidbit.

Most often they are dark allusions to our century’s bleakest developments. The hero of the novel, Charles, belonged the landed aristocracy. A dilettante inspired by Darwin to collect fossils, “he knew nothing,” the reader is told, “of the beavered German Jew quietly working, as it happened, that very afternoon in the British Museum library, and whose work in those somber walls was to bear such bright red fruit.” Charles’s jilted fiancée Ernestine lived to a ripe old age. “She was born in 1846. And she died on the day that Hitler invaded Poland.” Nothing is safe in Fowles’s Victorian world. The leaden green walls of the stern dowager Mrs. Poulteney’s kitchen were, “unknown to the occupants (and to be fair, to the tyrant upstairs), rich in arsenic.”

Fowles peppered his text with contemporary sources. Fragments of Tennyson’s poems juxtaposed against the observations of Victorian naturalists. Allusions to Thomas Malthus and Matthew Arnold as well as Karl Marx. Case studies of Victorian madwomen, statistics on London prostitutes. Discourses on manners and servants and sex.

Of course. Sex and the Victorians. Imbued with the spirit of free love, readers in 1969 (the year the book came out) are continually reminded of how hung up the Victorians were when it came to sex. And yet the narrator does not allow his modern audience to feel smug.

In a way, by transferring to the public imagination what they left to the private, we are the more Victorian—in the derogatory sense of the word—century, since we have, in destroying so much of the mystery, the difficulty, the aura of  the forbidden, destroyed also a great deal of the pleasure.

Passages like this one challenge us in a rather heavy-handed way to reflect on our own certainties. Anyone who is familiar with Fowles’s earlier novel, The Magus, knows that the author can be quite manipulative, sadistic even, pushing and prodding his readers along twisty byways, setting them up to make fools of themselves as the main character of that novel is toyed with by the Greek magnate with a sinister past. So it is not surprising to find him doing the same thing here, right down to the ambiguous ending.

Short of the clumsy device of a voice-over, how was Pinter to convey the twentieth-century narrator’s irony? His solution was to frame the Victorian story within the making of a present-day film about the novel, and to cut back and forth between the story of repressed Victorian lovers and the affair between the actors who play them. Like Fowles, he provided two endings, one happy, one sad. And he allowed the two eras to talk to one another; the picture suggests that it was in reflecting on the dilemma of the nineteenth-century heroine that Streep’s twentieth-century character reclaimed her moral soul.

But rereading The French Lieutenant’s Woman after watching the film, I decided that Pinter missed a crucial aspect of Fowles’s vision. It’s funny, because Pinter chose to highlight this same element when he accepted his Nobel in 2005. “The real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art,” he said. “Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost…”

Fowles’s book is all about freedom: “cruel but necessary (if we are to survive—and yes, still today) freedom.” At the very end, the narrator withdraws, leaving readers to make meaning for themselves. Pinter made his choice, coming out on the side of redemption. I find myself less sure of the characters, less trusting of Charles’s ability to surmount his certainties. Unable to ignore the perverse streak in Sarah, the French lieutenant’s woman. “Modern women like Sarah exist and I have never understood them,” Fowles’s narrator confessed.

2 thoughts on “The French Lieutenant’s Woman

  1. I believe you cheated a bit in the second paragraph. At the time Harold Pinter was chosen to write the screenplay for TFLW, he hadn’t yet won a Nobel Prize. He was nonetheless an excellent choice, having already written some other fine screenplay adaptations. (Go to the critical study at, click on the cover to peruse its contents, and look at the list in the Table of Contents. Those are only the best of them, not all of them.)

    That reminds me: have you ever seen The Pumpkin Eater? I saw it in a film studies class and was reminded of it when proofing the upcoming issue of a literary quarterly, which contains a discussion of it. Another Pinter screenplay derived from a novel, and a good film as well–a rather disturbing portrait of a marriage.

    You’ve done a great job here of treating in a short space the complexities of the novel vis-a-vis those of the film. Makes me want to read the novel again and see the film again.

    The only thing I’ll add is that a friend and I had seen this film about a year before we finagled jobs as extras on the production of Silkwood. (I’ve posted a picture at Facebook, which seems to use this extravagant URL: On the day when we first saw Meryl Streep on the set, our first impulse, which we had to suppress, was to call out “Sarah!”


    1. I’ve got a Meryl Streep story to share as well. Not long after “Kramer vs. Kramer,” I was in the Yale Co-op buying socks and the woman behind me in line at the cash register was sniffing, like she had a bad cold and hadn’t brought any kleenex. Something about those sniffs sounded familiar, and I turned around and saw… Meryl Streep! She sniffed the same way in the film.

      (And thanks for keeping me honest, John.)


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