A Struggle with Sarah: Fowles, Pinter, Reisz, and the French Lieutenant's Woman

By Sellery, J'Nan Morse | West Virginia University Philological Papers, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

A Struggle with Sarah: Fowles, Pinter, Reisz, and the French Lieutenant's Woman


Sellery, J'Nan Morse, West Virginia University Philological Papers


Soon after the publication of The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles invited Harold Pinter to write the screenplay. But it required eleven years to enlist Pinter and director Karel Reisz to agree upon a collaboration. (1) Fowles makes clear that, from 1969 when the novel was in page proof to 1981, to no avail, his agent offered the novel to Reisz and to others. (2) In 1978, Fowles and his agent again asked Reisz, who agreed to direct the film, whether Pinter would become a "demon barber," and Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons would play the leads (Garard 18). After agreement among the three principals, filming began May 27, 1980. (3)

The story of these creators' collaboration, and the interpretation of this essay's title, begins with Fowles's injunction to Pinter and Reisz as they were preparing the screenplay for filming "To keep" Sarah "inexplicable" (Conradi 46-47). Who is Sarah Woodruff? As character and performer how does she test her creators? Does Sarah outwit them in her represented struggle for personal and artistic freedom? Or do Fowles, Pinter, and Reisz give it to her with one hand and take it back with the other. This film depicts one woman acting two roles, "cast in the role of" the sexual body." (4) The representations of Sarah or Anna by Meryl Streep juxtapose the female body in different cultural settings, reinforcing Fowles's anxiety about Sarah. (5) Through feminist theory and gender politics, I outline the shifting ground of cultural attitudes about female sexuality in the three creators' adaptation of The French Lieutenant's Woman as film. Problems carried over from novel to film surround the narrator's role, which emphasizes the iconic implications of women's bodily behaviors (6) in Sarah Woodruff's nineteenth-century masochistic suffering, and Anna's twentieth-century flippant sexuality.

As film, The French Lieutenant's Woman relies on visual and narrative space, (7) in different historical times, by constructing the subject positions that emotionally fit spectators' fantasies and experiences. Films traditionally create the camera's gaze for voyeuristic and active mate spectators, reinforcing heterosexual cultural values, and androcentric gender attitudes. The male gaze offers us highly eroticized descriptions of women in film. (8) Sarah and Anna are never free from Charles's or Mike's invasive exploitive gaze, exemplifying the male fantasy that women are forever displaying themselves to men. Feminist film scholarship deconstructs dominant male patterns of thought and social practice by rejecting the notion that the image of woman is an observable spectacle. (9) This film both acknowledges hegemonic patriarchy while simultaneously criticizing androcentric attitudes through the mystique of Sarah-Anna. Their strategic performances reveal total resistance to patriarchal cultural attitudes about women's roles.

Working with the texts and critics, I inquire about the cultural gender assumptions surrounding Sarah's or Anna's representations of the female body. Mulvey suggests the mystery of woman does not derive from the opposition of male/female binaries but from a disturbance, iconographically represented in images of the female body, symptomatic of the anxieties and desires that are projected onto the feminine within the patriarchal psyche (57). In this film, visual images of woman as a self-inflicted Victorian outcast, or a self-centered twentieth-century actor reveal a cultural crack in the projected mythic mysteries of women.

The creators emphasize the interaction of nineteenth- and twentieth-century's cultural attitudes about gender representation. They differentiate between Victorian class attitudes of monogamous heterosexuality in the screen actor's (Charles's or Sarah's) stories, and the twentieth-century cultural assumptions of free love in the film making process of the actors' (Mike's or Anna,s). (10) The sex conflict between genders is closely related to power and to fantasy (Hutcheon 127). …

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