Meryl Streep as Sarah in The French Lieutenant's Woman

by Richard Combs

The South Coast town of Kingswear is a ferry stop across river from Dartmouth, which by comparison is something of a metropolis. Kingswear does, however, boast a railway station, which was closed by British Rail as unprofitable but now does brisk business as part of a private line servicing the Dart Valley. Confirming that this is the West Country but introducing some confusion about the century, a modern joys-of-rail-travel advertisement carries an endorsement from Isambard Kingdom Brunei about how speed will enhance such journeys. The nineteenth century more forcefully returned to the twentieth at the end of October last year, when the unit of The French Lieutenant’s Woman moved in to complete a schedule that had begun in May and taken in locations in London, the Lake District and nearby Lyme Regis. For a few days, Kingswear station stood in for the grander Victorian concourse of Exeter; a steam engine of the old Great Western Railway shunted up and down the valley for the filming of the hero’s arrival; and actress Meryl Streep appeared and disappeared courtesy of Concorde for some fill-in shots, preserving the secrecy that has shrouded her work on the film throughout.
John Fowles, author of the novel which treats Victorian manners from a twentieth century perspective, also visited for a day from Lyme Regis, where most of the story is set and where he has lived for fifteen years. He noted the diminutive proportions of ‘Exeter’ station, but was generally sanguine about how much period accuracy was possible or desirable. ‘The period hassle is a nightmare for directors. I don’t think it worries me so much. In a very early scene I did correct something which I thought was wrong, but if you start worrying too much about Victorian hand gestures, or how exactly they would have spoken, you lose all dramatic impetus.’
The question of fidelity to his novel is another, slightly more complicated matter, since the book doesn’t set out to be a seamless period recreation but an attempt to use the conventions of the nineteenth century novel selfconsciously, to question not only the processes of fiction but the social ‘making’ of the characters. Fowles was confident, however, about the way this authorial point of view had been translated in Harold Pinter’s script, and reluctant to trespass by commenting on it. He was further happy that after two botched adaptations of his work, he had got his choice of director for this one, Karel Reisz.
Reisz, in fact, was approached to film the book before it was published, but turned it down because he had just finished a large period picture, Isadora. Since then, Fowles has discussed the project with ‘hundreds—certainly dozens of producers and directors. Fred Zinnemann must have worked for two years on it; Franklin Schaffner was involved for a time; Dick Lester, Michael Cacoyannis, Lindsay Anderson. Only Zinnemann really got to serious pre- production, but he couldn’t get a script he was totally happy with, although it was by a very good man called Dennis Potter.’ Fowles finally got his first pick of director (‘Morgan, for me, is the best British film since the war’) when Reisz was offered the project again and brought in Harold Pinter to do the screenplay. Although the creative mill doesn’t quite stop there, as Reisz admits: ‘I did have a try with David Mercer. We talked and talked but never got to writing. And then Harold took to it like a duck to water.’
How Meryl Streep has carried off the part of Sarah Woodruff—the lady who, in Reisz’s phrase, ‘rubs up against her age right from the beginning,’ and in time teaches the more convention-bound hero ‘to become alien, to question it’—is not the production’s only closely guarded secret. The devices used to translate Fowles’ teasing conjuring tricks, and particularly his two-fold ending, are also being kept under wraps. According to Fowles, ‘This is Harold. We’re all sworn to secrecy,’ and to Reisz, ‘We have some surprises up our sleeves which we’d rather keep for the viewer than the reader.’ But the director is insistent that there has been no ‘straightening out’ of the novel. ‘There are certain scenes in the film which are sort of in inverted commas. Whether that will work I don’t know, but it would be a travesty of what the book is about if you didn’t do that. You have to keep the audience aware that you are presenting them with an artefact. But of course you also have to involve their feelings, so it’s a very difficult line. It’s partly a matter of language, which is very literary, very concentrated and very Victorian in its involutions and complex sentence structures. People are asked to say things that people aren’t normally asked to say in movies, which immediately creates a kind of artificiality.’
Apart from considerations of fidelity, Reisz feels that, stripped of the author’s manipulations, the story would not work anyway. ‘It wouldn’t make sense, because a lot of the plotting is in the commentary. Quite apart from that whole game he plays about the alternative versions, and how he’s in control of the characters and so on. Which is part of the fun of the novel, and also a device that is peculiarly apt for characters who are trying to pull themselves out of the nineteenth century. So the way he writes and what he writes are one. We haven’t kept his order of events, but we have tried to keep what I suppose one could call a serial structure, like Victorian novels. Our story takes place in fifteen little self-contained leaps, each of which contradicts what happened previously.’ On the question of literary background, Fowles comments that the writer he had in mind was Thackeray, who also liked to tease his readers. ‘Thackeray was a great one for saying, dear reader I am now going to do this, or dear reader you’re quite wrong, this isn’t what really happened. My book is very much like that.’
The filming in Kingswear involves a good deal of period recreation, not just of the station but of the street leading to the hotel where Sarah and Charles Smithson (played by stage actor Jeremy Irons) will spend a night together, and where they will be observed by Charles’ manservant Sam, who then commits the crucial betrayal. A good many locals have been drafted as ‘authentic’ faces, not just for the backgrounds but even in small parts (these are experienced non-actors, however, as Dartmouth seems to be often called on by film and TV crews). Shooting goes on until ten at night on one scene in which Sam simply crossing the road is orchestrated with various Victorian conveyances passing by over the rubber cobble-stones. Period, in this case, is both a challenge and a danger, as Reisz admits. ‘There’s a kind of double process going on. You use up an enormous amount of energy just saying to yourself, does that feel Victorian? But the moment you become a tourist in the period, you’re dead. It’s quite difficult to avoid because that world of Victorian interiors is so dominated by detail. And the moment you reproduce that faithfully you’re in television-land.’
Time and setting become more ambiguous in another scene, shot the following morning, where Charles, having for a while lost Sarah, is sitting, with the abstracted tranquillity, perhaps, of the convalescent, in a garden overlooking a headland that might be anywhere in the world. A telegram then arrives announcing that she has been found. Reisz points out something which Fowles is pleased to see being admitted at last by ‘most academic critics’, namely that Charles is in many ways the central character. In terms of the adaptation, and the balance with Meryl Streep’s Sarah—according to Reisz, a character whose ‘nature is absolute, who won’t brook any compromise’ played by an actress of great authority who is happiest going ‘beyond naturalism’—the character of Charles has been significantly revised.
‘Charles is a bigger character than Sarah, he is in all the events, so the pull between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or between manners and feelings, is in him. In the novel he is rather passive, a person of sensibility but not much authority. We’ve tried to make a film about the sentimental education of a decent Victorian chap. He starts more innocent and ends more knowing than in the book.’ The commercial success of the film, Reisz feels, will depend on how audiences respond to this change in Charles. ‘He is a rather chilly, forbidding person, for the first half of the story at least. He does some fairly awful things, because his feelings are so covert, so manners-ridden. The risk is whether audiences will go with him, will want him to be enlightened.’
Inevitably, there are little more than glimmerings at the moment of how Fowles’ double ending will be handled. The setting is no longer London, and the menage of the Rossettis, but the ambiguousness has been preserved. ‘We’ve got a sort of happy ending. But you don’t know whether that’s what he should be doing. I think you know that she should be doing it.’ Fowles was even more reluctant, on the grounds of professional courtesy, to discuss the point. Of the two endings (which in the first draft of his novel, apparently, had been in the reverse order), he confessed, ‘They’ve found a rather neat way of leaving it.’ Of Pinter’s script, ‘What really struck me was how much better it was than all the previous ones. Mainly in the brilliant compression. I don’t believe in exact fidelity. The kind of director I’ve learned to distrust is the one who says, Mr Fowles, I love your book, I’m not going to change a line of it. I think in all good conversions, the scriptwriter finds a metaphor for the novel, he doesn’t try to reproduce it.’
Given that one of Fowles’ preoccupations has been the way people define themselves through language, and the tussle over English as it is used in England and in America—‘I think I’m possibly more fond of the American way now’—the cross-Atlantic casting of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is interesting. ‘When Zinnemann was trying to get a production going, we had an absurd afternoon, in which I was arguing that an American actress would be the best solution, and it was the American director who was saying it must be a British actress. Even in the book I suggested that the kind of freedom Sarah was trying to get was more typical of midnineteenth century America than of Britain.’ Ironically, on the film of The Collector, where Fowles had no credited participation in the script, he worked for a month in Hollywood, ‘sort of putting it back into British English.’
As the history of The French Lieutenant’s Woman project shows, Fowles has a greater acquaintance with the film world than one might expect, and admits to being, until recently, a constant filmgoer. He suggests some possible equations: is Citizen Kane the Ulysses of cinema, is Satyajit Ray its Jane Austen? The Collector at one time was to be a small-budget, black-and-white, art-house film, possibly to be directed by Robert Bresson. ‘I was born in 1926, and anyone born after the time when the cinema became popular and easily accessible has been deeply influenced in the way you tell stories. I did at one time analyse my dreams in great detail, and I’ve recognised there that you get jump cuts and cross cuts. One must think a bit with the camera now. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I was quite definitely making cinema cuts here and there in the narrative. But the last novel I wrote, Daniel Martin, was deliberately designed to be unfilmable, because I think there are things the novel can do that the cinema never can. I’ve always wanted to write a book where you see a character as a boy and an adolescent and a grown man. And in the cinema that’s one of the most notorious nightmares. But the rights to Daniel Martin have been sold, again to a director I like, Sydney Pollack, who wanted to do The French Lieutenant’s Woman …’

Richard Combs, “In Search of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman,'” Sight and Sound, 50 (Winter 1980-1981) 34-35


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