The most famous film (admittedly, it may also be the only film) directly concerned with the translation of literature into cinema must be Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation*. Now, Adaptation is, at least putatively, an actual adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. But the way in which Orlean’s reportage is constantly mangled and travestied en route to film is the running joke embedded in the screenplay, whose subject is, unsurprisingly given its title, not so much the theft of orchids as the act of adaptation itself, and the technical, commercial, and artistic challenges of taking a work in one medium and finding a way to convey its essence in another. It’s also about the humiliating demands and knee-jerk, unimaginative restrictions placed on Hollywood screenwriters, and, as such, it contains some moments whose oblique, angry hilarity are all but invisible to anybody who isn’t a Hollywood screenwriter. When I saw the film in a Berkeley movie theater some eight years ago, there were a few key moments when I was the only person in the room laughing. Had I seen it in Los Angeles, I imagine I would have had more company.
But Adaptation, for all its considerable brilliance, is also something of a stunt. I don’t use the term pejoratively; my admiration for Kaufman’s achievement is unalloyed. But the film is by its very nature a one-off, much too bizarre, much too self-referential, much too meta to serve as a model for anything but its own spectacular, showy self.
There is, however, another novel-to-screenplay adaptation of comparable brilliance, whose phenomenal ingenuity is all but undetectable unless one considers a priori the challenges posed by the source material.
John Fowles doesn’t seem to be much spoken or thought of now, at least not in the United States, but in his prime he was a very good novelist, and there was a span of a bit over a decade when he had an impressive run, producing in succession four memorable works of fiction that still deserve a readership. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a best-seller when first published in 1969, may be the best of them, and is certainly the best-known. It misses greatness by a hair, arguably; its eponymous heroine (the author himself refers to her, erroneously, I should say, as the novel’s protagonist) is a bit underdeveloped as a character, and the denouement (or denouements, as I’ll explain in a moment), in which members of the Rossetti family suddenly make a surprise and utterly unprepared appearance, qualifies as a very big stretch from a very distant left-field. But despite these weaknesses, its merits are considerable, and the skill that went into its making is nothing less than virtuosic. Perhaps most impressively, it plays post-modernist games with narrative while at the same time giving the conventional demands of narrative their full due.
In brief, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a sort of pastiche of Victorian romantic fiction, told in a stylized prose of pitch-perfect accuracy that falls just this side of parody. The novel tells the story of Charles Smithson, a well-born gentleman of modestly heterodox views who conceives a grand and socially impermissible passion for a mysterious young woman with a scandalous past. It would work perfectly well as a straightforward tale of love and intrigue set in the 1860s on the Dorset coast and amid the stews of London. Seduced and abandoned damsels, storm-tossed lovers, marriages of convenience, thwarted ambitions, governesses and heiresses, brothels and gentleman’s clubs, upstairs and down, all figure in the mix.
But Fowles was after more. Immersed as he was in the literature of the period and knowledgeable as he was about its ethos, he wanted his novel to work both straightforwardly as a Victorian novel and at the same time as a gloss on the Victorian novel, and on Victorianism.
To accomplish this, the novel’s narrator—i.e., John Fowles—becomes a sort of character himself. For almost the entirety of the novel, he is an invisible character, whose Victorian cadences nevertheless provide allusions not only to contemporaneous ideas and events, but also anachronistic references to Freud and Marx and a full panoply of ideas and historical developments whose flowering awaited the 20th century. He is both of the period and removed from it, accepting of its mores and regarding them critically from the vantage point of a century hence. But although of course visible, or at least audible, to us, he plays no role in the fictional events unfolding within the novel’s pages.
And then, near its end, in a remarkable passage (that, among other things, obviously made a lasting impression on Martin Amis, as any reader of his masterpiece, Money, can attest), the author unexpectedly enters a train compartment in which Smithson is sitting—Smithson glares at him, resenting the intrusion —and examines his creation in perplexity, wondering what to do with him next. Smithson has been placed at a dramatic crossroads, the conclusion of the novel can take several different directions, and John Fowles, clad in Victorian garb, seated in a Victorian train compartment, facing the Victorian gentleman of his own devising, can’t decide which direction his handiwork ought to take.
Famously—or famously, at least, when the book was current—it takes two different, contradictory directions in rapid succession. After confiding to us that the order of alternate events has been determined by a coin-toss —we needn’t believe him, of course—Fowles first provides a romantically satisfying happy ending, and immediately after, follows that up, starting from the exact same spot in the narrative, with a bleakly unhappy one. Take your pick, he’s telling us; I can’t decide. It’s frustrating and ingenious at the same time, and in keeping with the dual consciousness informing every sentence in the book.
So, okay. Say you’re a screenwriter hired to adapt this novel, a novel containing both a compelling love story and the full apparatus of post-modernist literary trickery. What do you do? I would wager that 99 out of a 100, or perhaps even 999 out of 1,000 screenwriters, including the most talented, would regretfully conclude that these “special effects,” these devices that give the book its unique atmosphere, are solely the provenance of literature, and simply cannot be effectively or gracefully transposed to another medium. These screenwriters would glory in the high romance of the Victorian love story, which is certainly adequate to sustain a very good film, and glumly abandon the novel’s narrative conjuring tricks as untranslatable.
But the screenwriter ultimately hired for the job wasn’t one of those 999; he was the greatest English playwright of his generation, along with being an unrivaled genius as an adapter of other people’s work**. Harold Pinter appreciated the novel’s special qualities sufficiently that he could not let himself be satisfied simply telling the front-lit story, and he was working with a good director, Karel Reisz, who was sympathetic to his predilections. So instead, he devised a cinematic framing device that permitted him to tell the love story while still paying deference to the novel’s intricate literary latticework.
Pinter’s solution: To begin his film with a movie company working on location in Lyme Regis, Dorset, where they are shooting the film adaptation of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The sequences from the film-within-a-film, which occupy the bulk of screen time, tell the novel’s story more or less straightforwardly. But the two actors portraying the leads in the film—played by Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, and here named Mike and Anna—are also conducting an illicit affair, the kind of intense adulterous location-shoot folie that may be more the rule than the exception in the film business. Ergo, two sets of lovers, both pursuing forbidden love affairs, both embodied by the same two people, but one 19th century, one 20th century. Their affairs mirror and comment upon each other, one a pure product of Victorian repression and hypocrisy, the other also clandestine, but “modern” and “enlightened,” violating a different set of rules and raising a different set of expectations. The dual consciousness of the novel’s narration is thereby matched with a dual consciousness playing out naturally within the central conceit of the film.
And Pinter’s solution even preserves the two disparate endings (and the existence of the two endings is explicitly addressed in dialogue from the film, overheard conversation on the movie set, which constitutes yet another level of narrative games-playing). The lovers from the novel are happily reunited, as befits the romantic protagonists of a romantic tale. But Mike and Anna, living in less romantic times, and subject to less romantic pressures, ultimately bid each other farewell and return to their respective spouses, Mike apparently broken-hearted, Anna with perhaps one rueful backward glance.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a good film but not a great film. Despite fine acting and skillful direction, something somehow finally fails to ignite, some alchemy that unites and elevates the various components of a film into a greater whole. But for any student of screenwriting, and certainly anyone interested in the way adaptation can be imaginative and original and free-wheeling, but always in service to the work of art being translated, Harold Pinter’s superlatively clever adaptation of John Fowles’ novel remains an ideal model.
*My attribution of authorship in this case to the film’s screenwriter rather than its talented director is deliberate; authorship in film ought to be a more controversial issue than conventional critical commentary is willing to concede, and in reality, pace Cahiers du Cinema, movies are almost always dishes with several cooks. But in the case of Adaptation, brilliantly directed and acted though it is, the creative impetus, and the central conceit, and the insanely, painstakingly sly story structure, all clearly originated with the writer.
**Those familiar with the film cherish his adaptation, for director Joseph Losey, of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, a wonderfully inventive re-creation. But even more extraordinary is the astonishing screenplay, also written for Losey, but ultimately—sadly but not surprisingly —unproduced, of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a seemingly impossible assignment he pulls off with a feat of writerly prestidigitation that should leave lovers of Proust breathless. We’ll never have an opportunity to see the movie, alas, but the screenplay has been published and is well worth reading.