The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981, Dir. Karel Reisz)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Karel Reisz’s film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is based on the 1969 novel of the same title by John Fowles. This complex, highly-literary, postmodern novel clearly posed severe problems in terms of adaptation to film, but the script by distinguished playwright Harold Pinter, combined with the work of noted director Reisz, is reasonably successful at capturing much of what makes the novel special, while using the resources of film to produce a work that is nevertheless quite different from the novel. In particular, the novel is a work of metafiction that is, as much as anything, about the process of its own writing (and of writing novels in general). The film, however, takes this motif into the world of film: instead of being about the writing of a novel, it is about the making of a film. But both the novel and the film are also explorations of the ways the past relates to the present and about the ways we conceive of and represent the past through the optic of the present.

The novel is built on a central story that resembles the kind of narrative that might have been told in a late Victorian novel. The work of Thomas Hardy was of particular importance to Fowles as a model in this respect. However, Hardy’s novels themselves are not conventional Victorian novels but already recognize that the world is changing and that the values and practices of the Victorian world are rapidly becoming obsolete. Fowles images this same outlook by making science a central topic of the novel and by making thinkers such as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin—both harbingers of the modern world of the twentieth century and of the coming of a new, more scientific approach to understanding reality—crucial components of the intellectual background of the novel. Perhaps more importantly, though, Fowles’ postmodern approach contains significant reminders that he is not writing a Victorian novel but a pastiche of a Victorian novel, an imitation of a Victorian novel that originates in a later time period and thus must necessarily mean something different than any Victorian novel could.

The film is somewhat less overt in foregrounding the metafictional qualities of the narrative. Instead, it simply presents two different narratives, one from the 1860s and one from the present time of the film. The first of these is a story that is being told in a film set in the 1860s but made more than a hundred years later. The second is the story of making of that film, particularly focusing on an illicit on-set love affair between the two lead actors, Anna (Meryl Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons), who also play the lovers, Sarah Woodruff and Charles Henry, who are at the heart of the nineteenth-century narrative. The stories of Anna and Mike and of Sarah and Charles are told in parallel by cutting between the two of them throughout the film, without any explicit commentary, leaving it to viewers to decide for themselves how the two narratives are related to one another and how the presence of each might influence our interpretation of the other.

If nothing else, the film makes it quite clear that the nineteenth-century world depicted in the film-within-the-film is dramatically different from the twentieth-century world in which that film and the film we are watching were made. The novel also foregrounds the difference between the world of its fictional story and that of its composition, but includes more details that make clear some of the implications of this difference, including the fact that any attempt to represent the nineteenth century from the perspective of the latter part of the twentieth century will inevitably be colored by all of the changes in attitudes and perspectives that have occurred in the intervening time. Moreover, this insight is made particularly powerful by the fact that this intervening time included a period of some of the most rapid, dramatic, and sweeping changes ever to have occurred in human history.

Written from the perspective of a time after the spectacular flurry of historical change that was the first half of the twentieth century, the novel is equipped with the historical knowledge of that change, a knowledge that largely undermines the relatively placid official historical vision of the Victorians, who saw history as a process of gradual progress and improvement (with Britain, of course, leading the way), until the cataclysmic events such as the late-nineteenth-century economic collapse and the two World Wars made it clear that history does not necessarily proceed in such a smooth fashion and that things do not necessarily improve. Fowles makes this aspect of his novel particularly clear by demonstrating that Charles, though an amateur paleontologist, does not understand Darwin’s theory of evolution, instead adopting a common Victorian misperception that evolution, for Darwin, was a smooth and gradual process of adaptation in which plants and animals changed over time by adapting to changing environments. In short, Charles sees evolution essentially as most Victorians saw history itself. In reality, of course, history proceeds much more according to the dialectical model put forth by Marx, which sees history as a much more turbulent process of conflict and strife in which the more progressive forces do not necessarily come out on top.

Marx is missing from the film, and Darwin is used only superficially, as a marker of the growing prominence of science in the British mind during the Victorian period—evidenced by the fact that a scientist figure at one point swears on The Evolution of Species much as a less secular thinker might swear on the Bible. There is no indication in the film that Charles does not understand Darwin and no suggestion that late-Victorian misreadings of Darwin might have had something to do with late-Victorian misreadings of the historical process. The novel is also much richer in its evocation of Victoriana than is the film—as when the poet Christian Rosetti appears in the next, causing in Charles a momentary horrified suspicion that Sarah might be involved with Rosetti in that most disturbing of all activities for the Victorians—a lesbian liaison.

The richness of such details in the book is one reason why it seemed to many that the book could never be adapted to film. The book’s meditations on the relationship between literary conventions and dominant thoughts about history and society also provide a dimension that would be difficult to capture on film. In particular, the overt metafictionality of Fowles’ novel is set against the confident, well-ordered structure of the typical Victorian novel, with its authoritative narrators, who know everything, understand everything, and tell readers everything that is relevant. They can thus produce well-ordered narratives that mimic the Victorian vision of an orderly world. And this gap itself provides one of the central examples of the difference between the two time periods involved in the narrative of the novel. As I have noted elsewhere,

“Fowles inscribes the bourgeois ideology of progress and history-as-narrative directly in his text by presenting an effective simulacrum of a Victorian novel. But he disrupts the development of this novel at key points, having his narrator step outside the frame of the novel and remind the reader that what she is reading is a fiction constructed according to artificial conventions, not according to a reflection of ‘reality’” (Booker 127).

The film, on the other hand, is left with a somewhat stripped-down version of the concerns of the novel. It retains a certain metafictional aspect that clearly invites readers to ask why the film is structured the way that it is and to read the stories of Mike and Anna and of Charles and Sarah against one another. But this comparison of narratives says relatively little in this case about techniques of storytelling, partly because there are no Victorian filmmaking conventions against which to compare modern conventions. On the other hand, a close viewing of the film clearly shows that the contemporary story is presented as more realistic, while the Victorian narrative is more stylized and artificial, perhaps suggesting that we are able to tell stories set in our own time with more authentic insight than we can tell stories set in other places or periods.

The film immediately announces its own metafictional nature, beginning with an opening shot that shows Anna, aided by a makeup woman, examining her makeup in preparation for shooting a scene of a film (also entitled The French Lieutenant’s Woman). A clapper is snapped to open the scene—bearing the names of the director (K. Q. Rogers) and the cameraman (Joe Ainsley) of the film being shot.[1] The scene then shows Anna’s Sarah walking toward the beach in the nineteenth-century coastal town of Lyme Regis. She goes up steps onto the top of the “Cobb,” a stone jetty built to hold back the violent waves that batter against it. As she walks all the way to the end of the structure to what is clearly a precarious position, there is a clear implication that she wouldn’t much care were she to be washed out into the sea. Later, however, we will come to suspect that Sarah is simply playing a part, something that she often does in her largely successful attempts to manipulate Charles. The film within-the-film then cuts to the village itself, helping to establish its nineteenth-century setting. A cut to Mike’s Charles shows him using a hammer and chisel to chip a fossil out of rock, introducing his character and his avocation.[2] By this time, we have shifted entirely into the world of the film-within-the-film, where we stay for an extended segment, as Charles travels out to the home of Ernestina Freeman (Lynsey Baxter) to ask for her hand in marriage, beginning an engagement that will be an important plot point in this story. She says yes, and they hug demurely, rather than kiss: it is clear that they barely know one another and have certainly had no previous physical relationship (which would be out of the question, given that she is a proper and respectable Victorian woman).

The film we are watching then cuts immediately to the present day, as a phone call awakens a sleeping Mike, who is in bed with Anna, both apparently naked, establishing the sexual nature of their relationship, in stark contrast to the pristine relationship of Charles and Ernestina. They are late to the set, where Anna is needed, and the call has come to her room. Realizing that the caller will now surmise, given that Mike answered the phone in her room, that she and Mike had been sleeping together, Anna quips, jokingly, “They’ll fire me for immorality. They’ll think I’m a whore.” “You are,” responds Mike, and it is clear that neither of them is really that concerned that they have been caught together, even though we will later learn that he has a wife and she has a steady boyfriend. The very different values of the film’s two periods have now already been determined: behavior that would be shocking and entirely unacceptable in the Victorian world of the film is of little real concern to anyone in the film’s modern-day world. Anna’s reputation will not be ruined by her dalliance with Mike.

This contrast will remain important throughout the film, which (lacking some of the other textual resources of the novel) is limited to a focus on one of the core concerns of the novel: the differences in attitudes toward sexuality and sexual conduct between the Victorian and the contemporary periods. And, as the title implies, this focus is particularly applied to attitudes about women’s sexuality and sexual conduct. The film makes clear its relatively conventional view of the Victorian time as a period of great sexual repression, though it also makes clear that there was a certain hypocrisy involved in stodgy Victorian attitudes and that, in actual practice, the sexual behavior of the Victorians might not have been quite as restrained as their officially endorsed values would suggest.

This aspect of the film is emphasized in a scene between Anna and Mike in which she reads William Acton’s 1857 study Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects, which notes that at, in 1857, there were approximately 80,000 prostitutes in London and that one in every sixty houses there was a brothel. For her, this makes clear the meaning of the line Sarah speaks in the film they are making: “If I went to London, I know what I should become. I should become what some already call me here in Lyme.” Further, Anna notes the statistic that these prostitutes serviced approximately two million clients per week, at a time when the entire male population of London of all ages was approximately two million. Meanwhile, many of the prostitutes were “nice girls, like governesses, who had lost their jobs.” Anna herself is fascinated by the implication: that a woman of the time who fell upon hard times, perhaps because she defended her employer in some way and lost her job, would have little choice but to turn to prostitution to survive. Mike, meanwhile, is concerned with the implication for the men. Doing a quick calculation, he determines that adult males in London (excluding the aged) were apparently visiting prostitutes an average of 2.4 times per week.

In short, Victorian men were having sex as often as British men in the 1980s—perhaps even a bit more often. But their activity was largely limited to sex workers, meaning that the famous Victorian repression of sexual activity really only applied to women who were not prostitutes, suggesting a colossal amount of hypocrisy, as well as a concerted effort to confine women’s sexuality to areas in which it could be well policed, such as marriage and prostitution[3]. In the meantime, the existence of these prostitutes essentially served as a deterrent to “nice girls,” who were discouraged from engaging in any activities that might ultimately cause them to be forced into prostitution.

Fowles’ novel does not pursue the implications of this phenomenon as much as it might have, and the film does so even less. Some feminist commentators have criticized Fowles on this score, as when Magali Cornier Michael argues that Sarah, while she to some extent rebels against the limitations placed upon her by Victorian society, does not really break free of male fantasies about the feminine and therefore is unable to genuinely seize control of her own sexuality. Sarah’s safe conscription within the bounds of male fantasy therefore leaves the text without any true figure of feminist emancipation from patriarchal domination. And, of course, while Michael does not say so, this criticism could be leveled even more strongly against the film in terms of its representation of Sarah. Not only do we ultimately learn that she had been a virgin before having sex with Charles (an encounter that is much more comically anticlimactic in the novel than in the film), but she also essentially goes off into the sunset with him at the end of the film-within-the-film, safely established as his sexual property.[4]

On the other hand, the clearly conservative nature of the ending of the film’s Victorian narrative potentially serves as a critical demonstration of the lack of real choices available to Victorian women. This is especially the case given the way it is contrasted with the contemporary narrative of the film, in which Anna does escape Mike’s masculine domination. One might conventionally expect Mike, who has a wife and family, to be the one now ready to return to his real life, but he has clearly become smitten with Anna and does not want their relationship to end simply because the shooting of their film is complete. She, on the other hand, has clearly viewed their relationship as a temporary dalliance intended to make their time shooting the film more pleasant. Now that this shooting has wrapped, she is ready to return to her “real” life, leaving Mike in the lurch.

The contrast between this contemporary ending and the Victorian ending is highlighted by the way in which, as the story ends, Anna drives away with her boyfriend, without a final goodbye. Seeing her drive away from an upstairs window, Mike calls out to her by yelling “Sarah,” suggesting the extent to which he has begun to confuse Sarah and Anna in his mind, but also suggesting a certain fantasy longing for the days in which women were less independent and could be more easily dominated. Instead of taking possession of the heroine, he is left alone and forlorn, while Anna pursues other options. Thus, while Sarah might not be a truly effective feminist heroine in either the novel or the film, Anna (who, of course, does not appear in the novel), emerges in the film as a somewhat stronger character. Granted, she is going away with her previously existing boyfriend and not going off on her on in a gesture of complete independence from masculine domination, but she has at least had a choice of options and has determined that she prefers this one.

The contrasting endings of the Victorian and contemporary narratives in the film, meanwhile, were clearly an attempt to incorporate what has been one of the most discussed aspects of the novel—the fact that its narrator supplies multiple endings. Indeed, in the final stages of the book, this narrator (himself clearly a creation of Fowles) becomes more and more intrusive in the narrative, providing more and more overt reminders that this is a work of fiction and that Fowles has the ability to make the narrative go in any direction he so chooses, unencumbered by the restrictions of Victorian realism, which demand that the narrator pretend merely to be relating events as they occurred and not manufacturing and manipulating those events according to the whims of his or her author.

This metafictional implication of the multiple endings is less clear in the film, where the different endings largely seem simply to reinforce the notion that women have more options in the contemporary world than they had in the Victorian era. In the novel, on the other hand, there are three endings, all of which take place within its fictional Victorian world. The three endings essentially indicate the three possible outcomes to Charles’ romantic endeavors. In the first (presented as Charles’ daydream), he winds up safely married to Ernestina, with Victorian order restored. In the second, he is reunited with Sarah (and their child), and they seem to have a chance to pursue a future together, somewhat disturbing the kind of closure expected of Victorian narratives, but still pointing toward a conventional heteronormative conclusion. In the final ending (which one might argue takes precedence as the ending of the novel, given that it comes last), Charles goes forth alone into the world without either Ernestine or Sarah, thus keeping all options open. The main point, however, simply seems to be to remind readers that this is a postmodern novel of the 1960s, not a Victorian novel; its author (via the intrusive narrator) is thus free to impose whatever ending he wishes, regardless of how unconventional it might be from a Victorian perspective. He is even free to impose multiple endings, confounding any final interpretive closure.

All in all, the film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is significantly simplified in relation to the novel, with many of the issues that are addressed in the book either omitted or treated in significantly less detail. In terms of sheer discursive content, the novel is clearly much richer, given that, among other things, it is able to incorporate passages from actual Victorian texts to reinforce its presentation of Victorian thought. On the other hand, the film is actually richer in some ways, primarily in its visual dimension, in the performances of the actors (especially Streep), and in the directness of the contrast between the two different historical settings that it involves. If nothing else, the relationship between the film and novel versions of this story offers a fascinating instance of adaptation and a rich opportunity for exploring the difference resources of the media of novel and film.


Booker, M. Keith. Techniques of Subversion in Modern Literature: Trangression, Abjection, and the Carnivalesque. University of Florida Press, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley.  Vintage-Random House, 1980.

Michael, Magali Cornier. “‘Who Is Sarah?’: A Critique of The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s Feminism.” Critique 28 (1987): 225–36.

Samson, Carol. “Situating Sarah: The French Lieutenant’s Woman on Film.” Filming John Fowles: Critical Essays on Motion Picture and Television Adaptations.” Ed. James Aubrey. McFarland, 2015. 101–128.


[1] Rogers and Ainsley are fictional characters who do not actually make an appearance in our film.

[2] As was common in Victorian England, Charles is an amateur scientist. Independently wealthy, he pursues his research as a hobby, not as a job (though this is not entirely clear from the film).

[3] One might compare here the conclusions of Michel Foucault in the introductory volume of his History of Sexuality. Exploring the notion of the repression of sexuality in the Victorian period, Foucault discovers that there was an explosion in the amount of discourse about sexuality during that period, rather than a repression of the topic. For Foucault, sexuality was not so much repressed in the Victorian period as it was produced, administered, and controlled. Sexuality thus becomes “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power” (103). In particular, sexuality functions as a focal point for an entire array of discursive practices through which modern society has attempted to constitute the individual as a subject of administrative control. The functioning of sexuality, meanwhile, becomes a key example of the way in which modern power is not fundamentally repressive, designed to prevent certain kinds of behavior. It is, instead, primarily “productive,” designed to produced certain kinds of behavior that can easily be managed by official power.

[4] For a discussion of the film that finds the representation of Sarah in the novel much more effectively feminist than in the film, see Samson.