Teachers' Forum


Please download Java(tm).

The Treatment of Time in Fiction and Film: The French Lieutenant's Woman
Ma³gorzata Kosior


Two aspects of narration in novels and films are time and memory. These abstract notions are in fact very close to human experience as our perception of time is shaped by natural processes - we measure it in days, months and years with their division into seasons. As Slomith Rimmon-Kenan puts it in his book Narrative Fiction:


Our civilization tends to think of time as a uni-directional and irreversible flow, a sort of one-way street. Such a conception was given metaphoric shape by Heraclitus early in western history: you cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters and yet other waters go ever flowing on.[1]


The literary and cinematic expression of time and memory, however, can be different. Equipped with various devices, authors can create retrospective plots. Consequently, like any aspect of life the experience of time and recollection of past events may also become the subject of a narrative text. Conventional wisdom leads to the conviction that success in the artistic treatment of time can be primarily achieved by a mastery of the written word, i.e. in literature. However, since the earliest days of the history of cinema, a number of film directors have met the challenge of adapting retrospective plots for the screen, translating abstract notions into images. It is, therefore, a valid project to analyse the means used by literary authors and filmmakers to handle the problems of time and memory when telling the same story in different ‘languages’. I will specifically try to answer the question of whether films are necessarily of lower artistic quality due to the fact that film operates with images instead of words.


I shall argue in conscious opposition to the point of view expressed by Virginia Woolf, Hannah Arendt, George Bluestone, and others that films do not necessarily diminish the value of literary works. To introduce my thesis I will appeal at this point to two examples from the history of cinema. The first film adaptations of literary texts were produced as early as the beginning of the 20th century and adaptations have retained their popularity ever since. Thus, among other problems a great number of directors have had to deal with the problem of timeshifting. An example of an adaptation based primarily on the related questions of memory and timeshifting is John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941), based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn, a bestseller from 1939. The film is more concerned with memory, and it opens with a monologue by the main character's:


I am leaving behind me fifty years of memory. Memory… Who shall say what is real and what is not? Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind. There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it … So I can close my eyes on my valley as it was … [2]


With these words the protagonist looks out of the window and the view dissolves into the image of the valley as he remembers it from his childhood. As he explains in the monologue, there are no boundaries for memory, which can store and retrieve virtually anything. Most of the film is narrated in flashback with the protagonist's off-camera voice occasionally commenting on the events.


Adaptations based on timeshifting are not the domain of older films only. A more recent case is Forrest Gump from 1994 directed by Robert Zemeckis, with Tom Hanks in the main role, based on the 1986 best seller by Winston Groom. The film is especially interesting from the technical point of view. Forrest Gump is one of the first films demonstrating the possibilities of using computer technology for generating images in genres other than science-fiction. As one critic puts it:


Perhaps the most distinctive part of the entertainment value of Forrest Gump (...) is its use of state-of-the-art special effects techniques to alter the historical record by inserting Forrest visually into it.[3]


The protagonist takes part in important, influential events from American history. He is the one who teaches Elvis Presley how to dance, reports the Watergate burglary, and inspires John Lennon to write “Imagine.” According to Thomas Byers, history is neutralised by the way in which historical sequences are presented in the film. By putting Forrest amidst images of great importance for the fate of mankind, Zemeckis manipulates and flattens history. For example, by introducing the problem of assassination and presenting such figures as John and Robert Kennedy, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, and John Lennon, he equalises them as simply victims of maniacs and deprives them of their historical importance. Peter N. Chumo explains in his essay:


Forrest Gump (...) is a fantasy in which national tensions and conflicts are transcended. ( . . . ) a reassuring fantasy of a man who, in an almost mythic way, can transcend our divisions and heal the scars of the past.[4]


These examples are both American adaptations of literary works, although the first is set in Wales and based on the work of a Welsh novelist. My own primary analysis, however, will not be devoted to a Hollywood production. I shall concentrate on the treatment of time and memory in The French Lieutenant’s Woman: the novel by the English writer John Fowles and its film adaptation by Karl Reisz. I have chosen this text and its film version from a large number of other works dealing with the problem of timeshifting due to the unconventional and complicated form of the novel which forced the film director to be more experimental than usual in his choice of methods and techniques concerning time.


Adaptation and the Problem of Narrative Techniques in Literature and Film

Already at an early stage of the development of the film industry, literature inspired film makers and the practice of translating books into film was a common one. D. W. Griffith, the man considered by critics to be the first true artist and credited with “inventing Hollywood,” based a number of his movies on poems, plays, short stories and novels. Among writers whose works were adapted by Griffith, Joy Gould Boyum, a film critic and the author of research on adaptation and a book on the symbiotic relationship between literature and film, lists: Tennyson, Browning, Jack London, Tolstoy, Poe, O’Henry, Reade, Maupassant, Stevenson, and others.[5]  Mainly however the works of his beloved Dickens were considered good material for adaptation, inspiring various innovations like the use of the close-up, parallel editing, montage and the dissolve. Thanks to the novelty of these works, D. W. Griffith earned the name of ‘father of film technique’. Some of his contributions are particularly relevant to the treatment of time and memory: the device of parallel cutting - showing first action from one scene and then cutting to another leaving the impression that both scenes were happening simultaneously and techniques for showing what his characters were remembering and/or dreaming of.


Yet Griffith certainly was not the father of adaptation. In rendering books into films, according to Boyum, Griffith followed the example of French and Italian filmmakers who were working in the field at the very beginning of the 20th century. As early as 1902 George Melies based his A Trip to the Moon on the story line of a novel written by Jules Veme.[6] Already in Griffith's days transitions which break the linearity of the action were done so skilfully that all the sequences form one continuous and undisturbed flow of action, which was not an easy achievement at such an early stage of the development of the cinema.


Since the early days of Griffith, literature has been a mine of plots and characters for films. Such classic roots gave films:


(...) their own touch of class. For to adapt a prestigious work was to do more than merely borrow its plot, its characters, its themes, (. . . ), it was - and in fact still is - to borrow a bit of that work's quality and stature.[7]


As the role of literature in filmmaking has been acknowledged since the early beginnings, adaptations have always held a privileged place. For example, at the 1939 Academy Awards nearly every film competing was an adaptation. Among others we could mention such remarkable titles as Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr. Chips and Gone with the Wind.


However, no matter how special the role of adaptation in film history is, it has detractors as well as supporters. For example, Boyum relates Virginia Woolf’s rather low opinion of the ‘alliance’ between cinema and literature. Boyum gives an account of the derogatory terms she used in regard to the process of adaptation. Woolf held the view that such a combination of the two intrinsically different disciplines was 'unnatural' and 'disastrous' to both forms, with books - ‘unfortunate victims’ falling prey to the ‘parasite,’ as she called film, for the sheer pleasure and fun of ‘the savages of the twentieth century’, meaning the audience.


Woolf’s fears were backed up by Hannah Arendt who believed that high culture might be destroyed by entertaining versions of what great authors of the past wanted to say. Arendt's view on adaptation is summed up by Boyum as follows:


A work of literature ( . . . ) is by definition a work of complexity and quality which is addressed to an educated elite; (...) movies, in contrast, are mere entertainment, directed at anyone, and everyone. (...) Adaptation, in Arendt's view, is synonymous with betrayal.[8]


While some critics were against adaptations due to their concern with literature, others cared more about the future of film. Vachel Lindsay, who from the very beginning opted for treating film as art, claimed that adaptation “worked against the film medium's uniqueness”.[9] So here again we can describe the process of adapting as betrayal, but this time it would be the betrayal of the cinematic form.


A film scholar whose ideas were in accordance with these of Woolf and Arendt was George Bluestone. In his Novels into Film published in 1957 he claimed that the novel and the film are completely different forms, the former being intrinsically superior to its adaptation. Bluestone claims that every time a filmmaker attempts to render “a work of substance and significance”, it inevitably leads to disaster. Even an adaptation of the highest quality will remain a lesser work of art than the source itself. Bluestone's publication Novels into Film became the bible of high culture defenders and it was not replaced by any other work on adaptation for some twenty-five years.


George Bluestone also expressed some interesting opinions concerning the limitations of film in the treatment of time, memory and dreams. He claims that what we are shown on the screen is only a pictorial representation of various states of mind and such representations are bound to disappoint the viewer. The reason for this is that films operate in space while thoughts or feelings cannot be captured or represented in spatial terms, thus films are not equipped to render states of mind. As Bluestone puts it: “The rendition of mental states (...) cannot be as adequately represented by film as by language.”[10] In Bluestone's view, the moment a filmmaker tries to picture thought it ceases to be one, since thought is a state of mind which by definition is absent in the visible world. And that is precisely the problem which a filmmaker faces - how to render the flux of time.


According to Bluestone, abstract notions of time, feelings, thought, memory, or states of mind cannot be adapted successfully by any means, since presenting them is the domain of literature. Bluestone argues that memory, dream, or imagination cannot be represented spatially and hence successfully rendered into images. He explains it in the following way:


If the film has difficulty presenting streams of consciousness, it has even more difficulty presenting states of mind which are defined precisely by the absence in them of the visible world. Conceptual imaging, by definition, has no existence in space. [Thus] the film, by arranging external signs for our visual perception, or by presenting us with dialogue, can lead us to infer thought. But it cannot show us thought directly. It can show us characters thinking, feeling, and speaking, but it cannot show us their thoughts and feelings.[11]


However, some scholars tend to claim that such a situation may actually raise the artistic value of an adaptation. As Seymour Chatman feels: “[L]ike all artistic limitations, the problem of conveying thought can turn into a virtue. It challenges the artist to rise above mere technical constraints.”[12]


In literature thoughts can be introduced easily by means of such words as ‘think’ or ‘remember’ and by quotation marks which cannot be the case in film. According to F. E. Sparshott, the novel is a filmic work of art, which means that the events which can be narrated in prose can be filmed as well. The difference he notices between the novelist and the filmmaker is the following:


[T]he film-maker has no language proper to his medium in which to specify temporal relations. He may use titles, trick dissolves, a narrator's voice, or datable visual clues to establish his temporal relations; but some directors seem to feel that such devices are clumsy or vulgar (…).[13]


What makes the task of a filmmaker even more difficult is that, as Bela Balzas points out, “pictures have no tenses.”[14] Film, however, can find adequate equivalents for psychological time for instance, filmmakers can use dialogues and music for this purpose. Moreover, words in film do not stand alone but find their support in the spatial images to which they are attached.


Film, like literature, is a narrative medium. The writer uses words whereas the filmmaker uses pictures supported by the language of sounds. Language consists of vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Vocabulary consists of words, which are representations of various notions and things and words are combined in a logical way by means of syntax. According to Robert Richardson, the author of Literature and Film, we find the equivalent of such a system in film with the photographed image in the role of vocabulary. Grammatical and syntactic methods are rendered by means of editing, cutting, or montage. Single shots carry the meaning of words, and when arranged carefully they convey the same meaning as words in phrases do. The conclusion which can be drawn from such a comparison is that film has substantial vocabulary. As we read in Richardson:


a fade-out followed by a fade-in was early conventionalized to mean ‘time passes’, while a dissolve meant ‘meanwhile in another place.’ Flashbacks thus became the standard way to express time past, while future time could be conveyed by misty or slow motion, or 'dream' editing.[15]


Many film critics seem to agree that music is also an integral component of a film and plays a crucial role in the narrative process. Three quotations from Kathryn Kaliniak, Sarah Kozloff and Claudia Gorbman, respectively, support this statement:


Narrative is not constructed by visual means alone. By this I mean that music works as part of the process that transmits narrative information to the spectator … [16]


The moment we recognize to what degree film music shapes our perception of a narrative, we can no longer consider it incidental …[17]


Voice-over is just one of many elements, including musical scoring, sound effects, editing, lighting, and so on through which the cinematic text is narrated.[18]


The dominant classification of film sounds was developed by Kracauer. A sound may belong to the film story, like dialogues of characters, or it may be extraneous. Background music or some background commentary will belong to the latter group. In the former case the sound may be simultaneous with the scene being shown on the screen at the moment, or it may belong to another parallel scene. Apart from simultaneous sound, the film story may be manipulated by non-simultaneous music. Sometimes sound may be heard before the image is shown. In other cases the sound we hear may be a reminder of a past event called a sonic flashback. This kind of flashback gives us information about the scene without the need for visualization. In other cases the sound from an earlier scene may linger a trifle longer than the scene itself. When used in this function the background music is referred to as a sound bridge. As we can see the role of music is far from simple: “Thus sound may (...) merely duplicate or reinforce what is visible, but it may play an independent structural or narrative role.”[19] Thanks to visual and sound techniques akin to the above film can challenge literature on the field of the treatment of time.


The treatment of time in John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman

John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a kind of love story set in 1867, written in the late 1960s in the form of a historical novel. I have chosen the novel for its interesting and unconventional range of narrative means to depict shifts in the flow of time and the role of memory. In his study of John Fowles’s fiction Mahmoud Salami discusses the novel as a postmodern text and defines postmodernism as:


“characterised by contradiction, permutation, discontinuity , randomness, infinite regress, overobtrusive narrators, explicit dramatization of the reader, Chinese-box structures, incantatory and absurd lists, critical discussion of the form of narration, intertextuality, self-reflexive images, parody, play and games.”[20]


Usually only a couple of these characteristics appear in a work of postmodemist fiction. Throughout the analysis only those features which contribute to the blurring of time in The French Lieutenant's Woman will be discussed.


The novel is a pastiche, an attack on Victorian conventions, "telling one of the era's key fables (the male hero faced with the choice between the fair and the dark lady, between sentiment and sensuality, social reaffirmation and danger) (...).”[21] It is based on the confrontation of two epochs - the 1860s and 1960s - with Ernestina representing the first, and Sarah the symbol of the nascent twentieth century. The clash between the modem and the Victorian is reported by “a highly self-conscious, contemporary narrator who comments on the nineteenth-century narrative from a twentieth-century perspective.”[22] The narrator does not associate himself either with the times nor with the people he talks about. While making comments on the events he often uses such phrases as: “We who live afterwards (...),”[23] and calls the Victorians ‘they.’ The novel sets out with an omniscient god-like narrator who communicates the narrative to us as far as chapter 13, after which he sheds his Victorian disguise giving up control over the narrative and providing the characters with freedom. At some points the narrator becomes like a character of the novel, best presented in chapter 55 when he meets Charles on a train, and starts wondering how to end the story. This is how he puts it himself:


Now the question I am asking, as I stare at Charles, is (...) what the devil am I going to do with you? I have already thought of ending Charles's career here and now; of leaving him for eternity on his way to London. But the conventions of Victorian fiction allow, allowed no place for the open, the inconclusive ending. (p. 348)


With these words the narrator flips the coin in order to decide which ending to choose.


The narrator uses his twentieth-century retrospection in order to clarify some aspects of Victorian times which may be grasped more easily when compared to the reader's reality. Already at the outset of the novel we read as follows: “(...) the Cobb has changed very little since the year of which I write” (p. 7). The descriptions of action spots are very often based on the comparison between the past and the present. To give an example of such a way of portraying locations in the novel, I will quote how the narrator depicts the Undercliff to the reader, which Charles has chosen as the destination during his walks at the beginning of the novel and where he meets Sarah:


There is not a single cottage in the Undercliff now; in 1867 there were several, lived in by gamekeepers, woodmen, a pigherd or two. (...) Now the Undercliff has reverted to a state of total wilderness. The cottage walls have crumbled into ivied stumps, the old branch paths have gone; no car road goes near it, the one remaining track that traverses it is often impassable. And it is so by Act of Parliament: a national nature reserve. (p. 62)


Although the action is twisted and shifted so many times within the narrative, and the order and linearity of the plot are broken, the reader does not get confused. This is achieved by means of intermingling exact dates within the text. We know, for example, that the action begins in March 1867, or that the first encounter between Charles and Sarah takes place on 29 March the same year. We are also informed that Miss Woodruff was taken in by Mrs. Poultney in the spring of 1866, and that in December 1868 the main protagonist is on his trip to the United States. Such reminders are quite often used in the novel. However, from time to time we are not given the date and the narrator tries to paint a panorama of the particular moment in history which is to become the background for the events presented afterwards. Such a technique is used a number of times in The French Lieutenant's Woman, for example at the beginning of chapter 57:


And now let us jump twenty months. It is a brisk early February day in the year 1869. Gladstone has in the interval at last reached No. 10 Downing Street; the last public execution in England has taken place; Mill's Subjection of Women and Girton College are about to appear. The Thames is its usual infamous mud-grey. (p. 358)


Sometimes the narrator considers it his duty to explain to the reader even individual words which might not be easily understood by somebody living in modem times. The reason for this lies in the archaic qualities of the language used by Fowles. The language is adjusted to Victorian reality, for example when describing Ernestina in chapter 16, the narrator finds it necessary to elaborate on the object the girl is holding in her hand. The fragment reads as follows: “(. . . ) fireshield (an object rather like a long-paddled pingpong bat, covered in embroidered satin and maroon-braided by the edges, whose purpose is to prevent the heat from the crackling coals daring to redden that chastely pale complexion) (...).” (p. 100) In a similar way the narrator treats the word ‘cad,’ with which Ernestina addresses Charles in chapter 44:  “A ‘cad’ in those days meant an omnibus-conductor, famous for their gift of low repartee.” (p. 291) In such a way the narrator constantly leaps across centuries to comment on his Victorian story.


The novel blurs the past, the present and the future by drawing parallels between various time planes, which is clearly seen in the following fragment:


Perhaps you see very little link between Charles of 1267, with all his newfangled French notions of chastity and chasing after Holy Grails, the Charles of 1867 with his loathing of trade, and the Charles of today, a computer scientist deaf to the screams of the tender humanists who begin to discern their own redundancy. (p. 257)


Another example of a similar retrospective glance on the Victorian age is a short description of Sarah's ability to judge people, based on modern criteria: “(...) as if, jumping a century, she was born with a computer in her heart.” (p. 50) Such devices are repeated here and there in the novel in order to clarify things to the reader.


Since the narrator is contemporary, he is able to relate the events from the novel with the present day, for example telling us that the cottage on Ware Commons now belongs to a London architect. He can also give us information about the future of the characters of the novel. Sometimes he proves them wrong presenting evidence still unknown to them. At one point the narrator elaborates on Mary - Mrs. Tranter's young maid - not only describing her from a modern perspective, contrasting at the same time two models of beauty, but he also writes about the girl's great-great-granddaughter “(...) who is twenty-two years old this month I write in, much resembles her ancestor; and her face is known over the entire world, for she is one of the more celebrated younger film actresses.” (p. 69)


Our times are generally treated in the novel as somehow special or even better, the principle of chronocentrism stressed by Morson in his analysis of backshadowing. Such an attitude in The French Lieutenant's Woman results a number of times in irony, often expressed overtly, for example in the comical description of Charles's attire for a scientific exploration of the Cobb. The narrator refers to the protagonist's clothes as the “bone of contention between the two centuries” (p. 45) and diminishes him in the reader's eyes. Stating plainly: “(. . . ) we laugh [ at over-dressed and over-equipped Charles]” (p.45), the narrator builds on Morson's idea of chronocentrism. The rhetorical questions posed in the novel: “How (...) can he [Charles] not have seen that light clothes would have been more comfortable? That a hat was not necessary? That stout nailed boots on a boulder-strewn beach are as suitable as ice-skates?” (p. 45) sound very much like Morson's He should have known, which he describes as an “essential trope of backshadowing”.[24]


Another issue concerning the shifts in time of the narration concerns connecting the Victorian events with the ones from the twentieth-century history. Sometimes, again to ensure better understanding, the Victorian age is explained by applying comparisons with more up-to-date aspects of history, obviously not known to the protagonists. Such a device is used, for example, in several descriptions of Mrs. Poultney, repeatedly compared to a Nazi officer whose ways with her servants would certainly win the lady a place in the Gestapo. Another reference to the twentieth-century history can be found in the paragraph about Ernestina’s parents’ concern with her poor health. What we learn is that, in fact, the girl was never seriously ill in her life and her anxious parents would have been really surprised if they had had a chance to see into the future: “For Ernestina was to outlive all her generation. She was born in 1846. And she died on the day that Hitler invaded Poland”. (p. 29) In such a way the story gets enriched with the narrator's retrospection, since the information repeatedly presented to the reader was not available at the time of the action.


Apart from the confrontation between 1960s and 1860s the problem of time is also treated in a more conventional way. The events are very often stopped at an unpredictable moment and they are continued later on in the novel. It happens that we are not presented with the whole event but later on given a brief account of what happened. That is how we learn what really happened between Charles and the prostitute. After the introductory sentence: “He remembered only too clearly the events of the previous night”, (p. 276) the narrator proceeds to finish the story abruptly interrupted before. The order of the narrative is also reversed in chapter 43 when Charles receives a letter from Dr. Grogan which is actually the answer to Charles's letter, the existence of which we had no idea before. In order to clarify the events the narrator says: “(...) but before we read it [the letter from Grogan], we must read the note Charles had sent on his return to Lyme (...). It had said the following: (...)” (p. 281). Now, equipped with some necessary knowledge, we are allowed to read the letter from Dr. Grogan. Also about Charles's European and Mediterranean travels lasting fifteen months we learn from a retrospective paragraph in chapter 58. There is yet another flashback which plays the most important role in the novel: Sarah's confession. She expresses her desire to tell the story of her tragic experience to Charles with the following words: “I should like to tell you what happened eighteen months ago.” (p. 125) The whole story occupies most of chapter 20. It begins with words: “His name was Varguennes”. (p. 146) The recollection is interrupted here and there by questions asked by Charles. However, as we learn later on in the novel, the account of the events given by Sarah was falsified and an additional explanation is given in chapter 47.


Objects of every-day use often provoke shifts in time. Likewise in The French Lieutenant's Woman there are some examples of such objects being employed in the narrative. One of them will be the brooch worn by Mary (now Sam's wife) which was never delivered to Sarah by Charles's unfaithful servant. This object remains for Sam a link with the past, because: “(...) he had never told Mary what he had done. (...) [H)e put his arm round the swollen waist and kissed its owner; then looked down at the brooch she wore between her breasts (...).” (p. 363) Although in the course of the action we have already learnt that Sarah never came into possession of the piece of jewellery, every mention of it will be a reminder of the past events both for the reader and for Sam.


Another object connected with the twists in the order of events is a clock. In chapter 61, after the second and just before the third ending, the narrator again becomes part of the plot. He turns the clock backwards. “It seems (...) that he was running a quarter of an hour fast.” (p. 395) In this way, the narrator provides himself with an excuse for introducing another option of the ending.


At this juncture, the problem of the three endings in The French Lieutenant's Woman is reached. Each of them is located at a different place in the novel. The first one is situated in chapters 43 and 44 and is immediately rejected in chapter 45. This option, as we read in Salami, “epitomizes the rejection of freedom, the obedience of duty, and Victorian ideology.”[25] Charles rejects Sarah's covert invitation and never meets her in Exeter. He goes back to his fiancee and we never learn what happens with Sarah later on - “( . . . ) whatever it was, she never troubled Charles again in person, however long she may have lingered in his memory.” (p. 292) Although Charles decides to sacrifice his femme fatale for the virtuous lady, the marriage between Mr. Smithson and Miss Freeman did not turn out to be a happy one; but it was at least constructed according to Victorian standards and expectations of the society of that age. The second ending - Sarah's reunion with Charles - takes place in chapter 60 and is a “kind of wish fulfilment of Charles's fantasies”.[26] Sarah is found after Charles had already lost any hope of regaining the love of his life. After many bitter words have been said by both of them, and many accusations made, Charles wins Sarah back. He also learns about the existence and meets the fruit of their love - their daughter, Lalageo - which is, as the narrator finds essential to point out, contradictory to the Victorian rule of not introducing important characters at the end of a book. But there is yet another ending to come - the one which embodies Sarah's existential freedom. This option of the protagonists’ fate is marked in the text by a repetition of the words with which Charles accuses Sarah of sheer cruelty when he finds out that although she knew that she was being looked for, she decided to keep on hiding herself under a changed name. What Charles says reads as follows:


‘No. It is as I say. You have not only planted the dagger in my chest, you have delighted in twisting it.’ She stood now staring at Charles, as if against her will, but hypnotized, the defiant criminal awaiting sentence. He pronounced it. ‘A day will come when you shall be called to account for what you have done to me. And if there is justice in heaven – your punishment shall outlast eternity!’ (p. 395)


This excerpt is repeated in the two endings when a twist in potential future is about to take place. As Marie-Claire Simonetti rightly suggests: “The repeated paragraph occurs in the final scene between Sarah and Charles and acts as a literary hinge between two possible endings: one that reunites the couple, another that separates them.”[27]


In The French Lieutenant's Woman John Fowles abandons the ‘taboo’ treatment of the past by confronting two epochs and showing a clash between them. He employs a narrator who belongs to the present, but appears on two time planes with the present giving him the advantage of seeing more and seeing things differently. The author’s narrative techniques of handling constant timeshifting posed a big challenge to anyone who would attempt a film adaptation of the novel. Karel Reisz’s cinematic methods of rendering Fowles’s prose on the screen proved as equally innovative as the narrative techniques of the author. I shall attempt to show that the film adaptation of the novel does little or no injustice to the written original and does not diminish its value.


The Treatment of Time in The French Lieutenant's Woman by Karel Reisz

The final section of this paper will be devoted to the cinematic version of the discussed novel. I will be examining narrative techniques used by the director of the adaptation and the aim of the analysis is to show that time and memory, despite being abstract terms quite easily describable in words, can be pictured on the screen in a variety of ways. Numerous techniques available to modern cinema offer a wide range of possibilities for depicting the flow of time without diminishing the value of the literary works adapted into film.


The adaptation of The French Lieutenant's Woman was an especially challenging task which nobody ventured to take on for eleven years after the book had been published. It was feared that the kind of fiction created by Fowles did not lend itself for adaptation which could only lead to diminishing its unusual qualities. Fowles himself was never worried about the visualisation of The French Lieutenant's Woman. As we read in his foreword to the screenplay, any text “worth its salt (...) will survive being ‘visualised.’”[28] More than one scriptwriter rejected the offer to adapt the novel for the screen as the task required great skill and an independent way of thinking. Finally, the work was done Harold Pinter and the film was directed by Karel Reisz with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons starring in the main roles. Significantly, the delay was caused by the novel's unconventional treatment of temporality.


The main problems which the filmmakers had to face were the following: how to translate the omniscient narrator's verbal presentation into cinematic terms, and how to present the three endings offered by the novel. As we read in Boyum’s study on the adaptation of Fowles's novel, there existed a number of easy solutions, “For example, (...) it would have been possible to omit the narrative frame and simply allow the Victorian tale to stand on its own (...). It also would have been possible to include the narrator himself as character (...).”[29] Boyum also mentions some significant problems which such solutions might have caused. One of them is the talkativeness of the narrator, which would have led to a static picture. According to Peter J. Conradi, Fowles himself rejected the idea of including the narrator within the story as one of the protagonists whereas he absolutely approved of “[t]he device of the modem love affair which acts as an acoustic chamber within which the Victorian affair can resonate(...).”[30] put forward by Reisz.


Since Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a novel within a novel, the device of a film within a film was suggested as most suitable in the adaptation. This solution solved two problems: that of the contemporary narrator, and that of the multiple endings. The first sequence of the movie opens with a clap of the clapperboard which reads “The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Scene 1, Take 1”[31] and a voice off-screen shouting directions to the actors. Already within the first minutes of the film two parallel stories begin to develop. As Charles Garard observes: “The addition of twentieth-century actors and actresses portraying the nineteenth-century characters of Fowles’ novel have replaced the privileged perspective of the omniscient narrator (...).”[32]Anna and Mike and the course of their love affair comment on the Victorian story a number of times. However, the role of Fowles’s historical documentation used extensively in the novel for the purpose of commenting on the Victorian times is substantially diminished in the film. Only in one scene does Anna read to Mike an abstract concerning prostitution in London one century before, but he does not show much interest in the subject. This excerpt from the Victorian documentation is only a small fraction of what we find in the novel.


The aforementioned scene follows a Victorian sequence in which Mrs. Poultney makes a speech on morality, criticising Sarah’s “provocative, intolerable and sinful”[33] behaviour, by which she means walking to the Undercliff and staring out to the sea. The two scenes are contrasted in such a way that they present two different ways of understanding what morality is. While Mrs. Poultney finds Sarah's pastimes intolerable from the ethical point of view, Anna and Mike are not much shocked by the unbelievable statistics of the number of prostitutes and brothels in the Victorian times and they even make jokes on the subject.


There also existed the problem of the multiple endings. Its resolution is provided by the use of two parallel time planes. The equivalent of the novel's first ending occurs at the railway station in Exeter. When Charles sets off on his trip to London, he has the most honourable intentions not to get in touch with Sarah. Just as in the novel, he intends to go back to his fiancee to live happily ever after, but he suddenly changes his plans. The second and the third ending are each introduced on a different time plane. In the former, which is the Victorian solution, Charles is reunited with Sarah and they row away in a boat. The third ending depicts Mike abandoned by Anna in Windermere, where the last sequences of the film, including the happy ending, were shot.


It is worth analysing at this point what constitutes the relationship between the two time planes presented in the film. The story from the 20th century is a copy of the romance from a hundred years before. The action of both affairs moves from Lyme to Exeter, then to London, and it ends at Lake Windermere. Boyum presents a short account of similarities which may further prove this statement: “Like Charles, Mike is committed to another woman – though she is not his fiancee but his wife. Like Sarah, Anna has a French lover – only this time an authentic one who seems totally committed to her. Like Charles too, Mike displays a passion that is obsessive; while like Sarah, Anna proves ultimately elusive.”[34] A number of times Anna and Mike behave like their nineteenth-century alter egos. For example, just like Sarah runs away from Charles after their love-making, Anna leaves to meet her French lover. Mike wants to go after Anna and Charles sets off in search of Sarah. The contemporary love affair in which the two actors are involved seems to be triggered by the life of their characters. Some critics, for example Chatman, claim that Mike is not really in love with Anna but with Sarah. This theory finds its support at the end of the film. Conradi likewise points to this issue in one of his articles:


The last word of the film (...) is spoken by Mike, leaning out of the window of the Lake Windermere house where the story of Charles and Sarah has already ended (...). Anna has left and abandoned Mike just as Sarah had earlier abandoned Charles at Exeter, leaving only the wig in which she plays Sarah and the gunning of her car engine as she drives away. Mike, distraught, leans out of the window. The name that he shouts into the dark is Sarah’s, not Anna’s.[35]


While Mike seems to be attracted by a woman like the Victorian protagonist, Charles appears to be fascinated by Sarah - the evolutionary woman who breaks the boundaries of her times, a mutant of the Victorian period, the embodiment of progress. This signals as well that the boundaries between the two epochs become blurred for the actors.


The contrast between the two epochs is achieved through presenting how much Anna differs from Sarah, and in what aspects her relationship with Mike is incompatible to Sarah's liaison with Charles. While Sarah is “wild and needy”,[36] Anna is “more controlled and independent”.[37] This dissimilarity provides commentary on the evolution of the Victorian into the modem woman. Sarah is ahead of her times in this respect. In the words of a critic on postmodernist fiction, “Sarah (...) represents the first glimmerings of modem sensibility in Victorian culture, the historical opening wedge of modernity; she is (...) progressive.”[38] The contrasts between the two relationships also depict some differences, for example in the sexuality of the 19th and 20th centuries. When Sarah is wildly passionate and possessed by desires, Anna feels comfortable and at ease, treating sex rather frivolously. She proves it in the farewell scene at the railway station - when Mike declares his desire for her, she answers lightly: “But you've just had me. In Exeter."[39] With these words she bursts into laughter.


Except for the contrasts between the main protagonists of the two time planes, there are also other elements indicating differences in life now and then. These are, among others, the so-called pro-filmic devices, such as costumes, colours, or behaviour. Victorian characters wear clothes in dark intense colours, which match the severity and harshness of the environment. The contemporary protagonists, on the other hand, are dressed in more washed out attire in pale colours.


The way of filming also seems to be influenced by the shifts between the two time planes. As Simonetti notices:


[C]amera movements and framing appear quite controlled in the Victorian plot. The tea scene during Mrs. Poultney's visit illustrates the careful frame composition, which symbolizes the rigidity of Victorian conventions. Similarly, camera movements appear contrived when compared to those of the modern-day plot.[40]


Simonetti draws our attention to yet another artistic device. Namely, the difference existing between long takes used in Victorian sequences, and short ones in the contemporary plot. Due to these methods of filming, life in the twentieth century seems to be hectic, a little confused and faster than in the well-ordered Victorian period.


The aforementioned devices are hints that a twist in time is taking place. Reisz makes very little use of the usual signals such as fades, dissolves and music. A cut is his standard way of transferring from one time plane to the other. Only once does the director make use of a fade-out, when Mike looks out of the window after the party he held at his place, watching Anna leave with her Frenchman. When the screen turns black, a notice written in beautifully ornamented letters “Three years later”[41] appears on it. The subsequent fade-in depicts Charles sitting in an armchair staring into the sea, when a porter brings him a telegram with information about Sarah.


Only one cut is worth special attention, namely, the so-called match on action, when Anna begins a motion as herself and finishes it off as Sarah. For example: “Anna becomes Sarah in mid-fall: smooth editing shows Anna beginning her fall in modern-day clothes [rehearsing for shooting] and ending it in Victorian clothes [actually falling down on the Undercliff as Sarah].”[42] The motion is continuous, without any interruption, and only the change in scenery and costume indicates the shift in time.


At some points a soundbridge joining the past with the present occurs to remind us what is taking place on the screen. One of the examples takes place in the 34th minute of the film when Charles, encouraged by a note from Sarah secretly delivered when Ernestina is engaged in conversing with Mrs. Poultney, meets her at the graveyard. The woman asks him to see her one more time and to listen to the confession of her sin: “I must tell you of what happened to me eighteen months ago. (...) I shall be on the Undercliff tomorrow afternoon and the next afternoon. (...) I shall wait for you.”[43] While she pronounces these words, Charles leaves her staring into the night, the sound of organs coming from the church stops and the sound of cars becomes audible. A cut follows and the next shot shows Mike looking out of the window of his room at the dark sky. The musical theme we can hear in the background at this moment is the gloomy melody played whenever Sarah appears on the screen.


Some more scenes showing the co-existence of the two time planes were included in the original version of Pinter's screenplay. Scene number 74 is a good example:


74. Exterior. Undercliff. Day. Another angle.


May I accompany you? Since we walk in the same direction?

She stops.


I prefer to walk alone.


May I introduce myself?


I know who you are.

She collapses in laughter. He grins.

VOICE (off screen)

Cut! (With bewilderment) What's going on?


This scene would show again how the two worlds intermingle and are influenced one by the other.


Summing up, the effectiveness of the solution of the point of view problem and the multiple endings of the novel cannot be denied. Fowles himself thought of it as a brilliant idea. The introduction of two parallel plots in the cinematic version captured the rare climate and quality of Fowles’s fiction. Using a very few typical editorial techniques of showing shifts in time, Reisz created an excellent love story and managed to achieve what for eleven years seemed impossible: a skilful  rendering of Fowles’s narrative devices into a film.



As I mentioned at the beginning, the language of books can be translated into the language of films. Words find their equivalents in single shots. Films also make use of many techniques which can be found in literary works, among which one can mention these dealing with the problem of time. The ‘flashback,’ which I have concentrated on, is one of the most famous devices typical of both arts. Bluestone puts it the following way: “The film (...) cannot render the attributes of thought (metaphor, dream, memory); but it can find adequate equivalents for the kind of psychological time which is characterised by variations in rate (distension, compression; speed-up, ralenti).”[44]  Similarly, emotions experienced by characters described by words in novels can be translated into an image by the body language of actors, as well as by music and camera movement.


Translating a novel into a cinematic form can be compared to translating a literary text from one language into another. Most words can find their equivalents in foreign vocabulary, but some ideas are better expressed in the native tongue. Similarly, the vocabulary of literature differs from the vocabulary of cinema. As a result, in the process of translating some things are bound to be lost, but others gained Literature is based only on words, whereas film unites the power of words with the power of visual images as well as with sounds and music. Therefore cinema is well equipped to translate shifts in time and time-related abstract notions such as memory and historical consciousness.


Both arts have a well-established position in the contemporary world, and both have the same aim and the ability to address our intellect and emotions. Although some critics point out that some written statements cannot be made in a film, we should not forget that they can be simply pronounced by a character, or that words can be shown on the screen. The latter device is used in The French Lieutenant’s Woman where at one point the passage of time is indicated by a phrase written on the black screen.


There certainly exist a great number of novelists discontented with the way their works have been treated in the process of adaptation. But it seems unavoidable since filmmakers treat literary works as raw material for interpretation by paraphrasing and converting elements. However, by using the language of cinema, they produce a work of art corresponding in value to the literary work it is based on. In the process of adaptation sometimes cinematic productions may add value to the literary work, or at least match their literary merit, but it also happens that something is impossible to be translated, and as a result gets lost. I would like to sum up my analysis with a conclusion drawn by Bluestone: “[W]hat is peculiarly filmic and what is peculiarly novelistic cannot be converted without destroying an integral part of each. That is why Proust and Joyce would seem as absurd on film as Chaplin would in print.”[45] It is the unique qualities of either medium, however, that make the dialogue between them fascinating.

[1] Slomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 40.

[2] Quoted from Tag Gallagher, John Ford The Man and His Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p 185.

[3] Thomas B. Byers, "History Re-Membered" in Modem Fiction Studies, Volume 42, No. 2, Summer 1996, p. 439.

[4] Quoted from Byers, pp. 421-2.

[5] See Joy Gould Boyum, Double Exposure: Fiction into Film (Markham, Ontario. Penguin Books Canada Limited, 1985), p. 3.

[6] See Boyum, op. cit., p. 3.

[7] Ibid., p. 5.

[8] Ibid, p.9.

[9] Ibid, p. 6.

[10] George Bluestone, Novels into Film (Baltimore. The John Hopkins Press, 1957), p. 47.

[11] Ibid, p. 47.

[12] Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms. The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (Ithaca and London: Come!l University Press, 1990), p. 159.

[13] F. E. Sparshott, “Basic Film Aesthetics” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 293.

[14] Quoted from Bluestone, op. cit., p. 57.

[15] Robert Richardson, Literature and Film (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1969), p. 66.

[16] Kathryn Kaliniak, Setting the Score. Music and Classical Hollywood Film (Madison. University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), p. 30.

[17] Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies Narrative Film Music (Bloomington. Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 11.

[18] Sarah Kozloff, Invisible Storytellers. Voice-over in American Fiction Film (Berkeley. University of California Press, 1988), pp. 43-4.


[19] Sparshott, op. cit., p. 297.

[20] Mahmoud Salami, John Fowles's Fiction and the Poetics of Postmodernism (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1992), p. 24.

[21] Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 358.

[22] Marie-Claire Simonetti, “The Blurring of Time in The French Lieutenant’s Woman; the Novel and the Film,”, in Literature Film Quarterly, 1996, Vol. 24, Issue 3, p. 301, at Academic Search Elite.

[23] John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman (London: Pan Books Ltd, 1987), p. 101. Page references after quotations shall be from this edition.

[24] Gary Saul Morson, Narrative and Freedom. The Shadows of Time (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 236.


[25] Salami, op. cit., p.132.

[26] 26 Ibid., p.132.

[27] Simonetti, op. cit.

[28] Quoted from Charles Garard, Point of View in Fiction and Film: Focus on John Fowles (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), p. 129.

[29] Boyum, op. cit., p.123.

[30] Peter J. Conradi, “The French Lieutenant's Woman: Novel, Screenplay, Film,” Critical Quarterly, 24.1,

1982, p. 49.

[31] Harold Pinter, The French Lieutenant's Woman and Other Screenplays (London: Methnen, 1981), p. l.

[32] Garard, op. cit., p.  95.

[33] Pinter, op. cit., p. 17.

[34] Boyum, op. cit., p. 124.

[35] Conradi, op. cit., p. 50.

[36] Boyum, op. cit., p. 127.

[37] Ibid, p. 127.

[38] Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 93.

[39] Pinter, op. cit., p. 74.

[40] Simonetti, op. cit.

[41] Pinter, op. cit., p. 97.

[42] Simonetti, op. cit.

[43] Pinter, op. cit., pp. 38-9.

[44] Bluestone, op. cit., p. 60.

[45] Ibid., p. 63.

Produced in Poland by British Council © 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.