Proposal for paper on 1991 BBC film adaptation Clarissa

Re: "How you all must have laughed. Such a witty masquerade:" the 1991 film Clarissa

Dear John,

Here's my proposal for your panel for the coming ASECS at Richmond: "The Eighteenth Century on Film." I hope you like it.

The purpose of my paper will be to argue that the 1991 mini-series, Clarissa, screenplay David Nokes and Janet Barron, directed by Joe Bierman, is an excellent film, as a commentary type adaptation of Richardson's Clarissa and in its own right. My view of the book is similar to that of Terry Eagleton, Terry Castle, and most recently, Rita Goldberg (to name only books here): I think it is proto-feminist, a book which lays bare the power structure of family life and how money, class, and power function to destroy ethical individuals; the film deliberately makes visible and emphasizes the cruelty of Lovelace's male hegemonic code; a parallel is set up between his and the prostitutes' behavior to Clarissa and that of the Harlowe family to capture a central element of Richardson's meaning in scenes of assault. It is a product of the period where a good deal of the criticism was written by women and was feminist. It's not uncommon for film-makers to be influenced by the critical view of a film at the time. To put it plainly, the film says a girl not only has the right to say no to sexual encounter and way of life, means it when she says no, but has a necessay and natural obligation to herself and her sanity, not just her bodily integrity, but her ability to function as an independent human being, to be able to dictate the conditions under which she'll say yes, to make her own terms and make them stick and let those who want to use her compromise with her first.

The art is magnificent. The experience of the film is a confluence of sophisticated uses of film epistolarity with masquerade that works to make the dramatic narratives (sequences of images) subjective and electrifying cynoscures of deceit. I've catalogued 55 different specific uses of letters thus far (up to Part 4, Episode 2 of the film, right after the rape), many of these as occasions for an ensuing dramatic scene, where the letter is itself not a sincere outpouring of a heart, but rather a performance, calculated and maneuvering (this is a more modern take on letters than we find in Richardson's typically; it's conscious of the danger and destructiveness of the distance between the consciousness and reality of a person and what he or she writes down on paper), and from the time of Clarissa's entrance into the brothel masquerade (I'll call it), downright lies. Papers is everywhere in this film: wills, cards, maps, marriage licenses, deeds of property (the final scene ends on Uncle Anthony removing his from the family group) are all configured into the action too. In several long sequences, voice over is used to accompany a switching back and forth of scenes while the letter is read, thrusting the action into a past which is present and affects the viewer/reader as a letter read. (The first use of this in the BBC mini-series that I've located is the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park where however the letters are by Fanny Price and outpourings of a sincere heart remembering back.) The famous high budget of the film (literally a couple of million) and number of costumes is justified by the film's art which seeks to shock the viewer at high points when one of the actors in masquerade costume moves to a room where Clarissa cannot see them, and flings off a wig to show a bare skull, rangy filthy grey hair (the ratty hair a startling contrast to the beautiful wigs), and their expression changes from one of decorous courtesy, concern, cooperation, to jeering hard contempt and appetite. The performance of Diana Quick as the false Lady Betty preparatory to the rape seems to me a high and clinching moment of the film's meaning .She is fearful and to my mind reflects the modern world of anonymity and performance as viewers today might experience it in the world's marketplace and pathological family life.

This modern filmic art is supported by a use of motifs from the eighteenth century beyond that of letters and masquerade: I will show that in a number of the invented scenes (of which there are, as is characteristic of film adaptations, even of the apparently faithful or transposition type), Nokes and Barron have availed themselves of their knowledge of eighteenth century art. For example, in the novel we are not shown Anna and Clarissa's close friendship or conversation while Clarissa visits Anna early in the book. In the film we are given three long scenes where their conversation echoes and anticipates conversations between female characters where the women present themselves as not wanting to marry at all, and offer reasons why they do not. The scenes between Clary and Anna work analogously to those in Shirley's Hyde Park, Isabelle de Charriere's _Caliste ou lettres crites de lausanne_ and Jane Austen's _Emma_. When Lovelace wrings the neck of a gorgeous bird, Nokes is remembering Windsor Forest where a gorgeous bird is brought down by a hunter and the reader is deliberately shocked and grieved by the cruelty of the careless action. Only Lovelace is not careless; his is a deliberate desire for triumphant destruction. A central use of verse from Cowley, imitations of the Highmore's illustrations (brought vividly to life), two songs from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, especially "Remember me," the use of stage like motifs (characters listening in at doors, found standing behind doors, in he case of Lovelace funnily at his expense) function to recreate central aspects of 18th century art in modern sexual terms.

Finally, it's a highly original woman's film in structure (soap opera aesthetics), themes, and the central use of women characters. I will show how Nokes and Barron have changed the presentation of Clary's mother to antagonist rather than the cowardly complicit woman of Richardson's book (who has sold her real inward peace to obtain superficial, easily set-aside outward pece) and makes the central enemies of Clarissa in the film the other women at the same time as the costuming of the women sets up visual likenesses with Clarissa. Diana Quick as Lady Betty functions as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Magic Flute, with Cathryn Harrison as Mrs Sinclair, a configuration of all that Clarissa is not as a human being. Bella's role is enlarged and sexualized (through suggesting she and James are incestuous). At the same time Anna's character is altered to make her a presence with an equal grasp on what is truly ethical behavior. This is not Richardson's teasing half-salacious Anna of the book, another presence who towards the end shows she has not understood finally what Clarissa's point of view is, and if in kinder ways, would similarly not give her space to exist in the way her personality requires. Hermione Norris and Saskia Wickham stand contra mundi and it is altogether fitting the film should end on Anna's somber compromised marriage with a walk afterwards by Clarissa's grave. The film could be seen as a women beware women and thus be interpreted as misogynistic, but that is the way of filmic art. I may say the prostitutes are nightmare figures not meant to be taken as real women, but expressionist configurations of what women are seen as, can become in a society which ruthlessly exploits their sexual bodies. So often in women's and all films there are scenes of a male slapping a woman hard on the face; this happens here, during the rape, but we for once have a counterpart scene, where Lovelace is strongly humiliated and the real Lady Betty slaps him hard across the face -- twice.

For me one of the flaws of the film is that not enough time is given for the later development of Belford's character when he becomes alienated from Lovelace and Clarissa's friend, protector, and adherent and finally avenger. I liked some touches: like in real life Jeffry Wickham (who plays Mr Harlowe) is Saska Wickham's biological father. The camera captures their similar features.

The film has been unfairly maligned for several reasons: the status of movies still inclines or allows as many viewers who want to to dismiss movies in the manner novels were once dismissed; with the exception of Cynthia Wall ("The Spaces of Clarissa in text and film," Eighteenth-Century Fiction on Screen, ed. R. Mayer), the reviews have taken literal fidelity to a verbal text as the criteria, so the film is slammed because it cannot do what a book does, while the critic does not study the film as a film to see what filmic art communicates and how. I will define the three types of adaptation (using a modified version of Geoffrey Wagner's terms in The Novel and the Cinema) and argue the film is a commentary: this type of adaptation is among the most misunderstood because it intends considerable fidelity, but attempt this through departures from the original which often include altering central pivotal events (an event perceived as crucial) and the way in which the events are presented dramatically, in order to comment on, critique or alter the author's theme by making emphatic or highlighting specific aspects of her original novel. It fools people because the characters are in costume and considerable literalist historical accuracy is attempted, and the film-makers are led to be somewhat disingenuous because the public, fans, and academics all continue to judge films by their memories of literal details in the book. Films are expensive commodities, particularly costume dramas. Ironically, because the film does convey the intense sexuality of the original book visually and sensually and replicates its extraordinary unself-conscious atmosphere of hectic trauma and psychological revelatoin without the intervention of guarded self-deprecating self-reflexity, it lays itself open to embarrassment and the kind of mockery that people resort to when they want to distance themselves from something that is threatening: in my view in the 18th century Shamela functioned this way.

My outline will (I hope) follow the line of argument above. I hope to have a power point presentation with stills, or if this is possible, play a couple of bits from the film, especially that of the masquerade at the moments when costumes are torn off. I think the script is very good, and mean to include a couple of transcriptions of scenes. Although I don't know that I will be able to include my favorite scene, but I send it along here for your interest with an accompanying still. It includes the title of my proposed paper:

After the rape, Part 4, Episode 2, Squence 5, Scene 10:

Between Sally and Deborah Clarissa is brought before Lovelace
Clarissa: "What further evils are reserved for me?
Women silent.
Clarissa: I find I am your prisoner"
He signals women to leave. He walks slowly around room and sits down.
Lovelace. "Madam. Clarissa. I am truly truly sorry." (Puts out hand.)
Clarissa: (Backs away.) "Don't touch me." (Revulsed expression.)
Lovelace: "I love you."
Clarissa: "Some new strategem."
Lovelace: "Believe me."
Clarissa: "Again? As I believed Captain Tomlinson? and Lady Betty? How you all must have laughed. Such a witty masquerade."
Lovelace: "Let me make amends."
Clarissa: "What? Can you blot out the past week? (Intense strain in her face.) "Am I or am I not at my own liberty now? Or is the pantomime not yet over? Once subdued, always subdued. Is that not one of your maxims? Well? Do you think to make me your whore?"
Lovelace. "No. My wife."
Clarissa: (Revulsed altogether.) "What?"
Lovelace. "Marry me."
Clarissa: (Looks down.) "Never." (Shakes her head.)
Lovelace looks down. He then tries to bully her.
Lovelace: "I warn you do not make me desperate. My patience is not inexhaustible. No other man will have you now." [No one but Anna takes seriously her expressed preference for a single life]
Clarissa looks at him with quiet scorn
Lovelace: (Angry.) "Depend upon it, madame, you shall be mine."
Clarissa: "Yours? My soul is above you, man. Urge me not to tell you how sincerely I know my soul is above you. I would not bind myself in covenant with you for a thousand thousand worlds."