â€¢ For years people said there could be no satisfactory film of that greatest of English novels, Henry Fielding's 18th-century masterpiece Tom Jones. The reason: the most delightful feature of the novel is not the story but the author's comments on the story, the infusion of his own personality into the warp and woof of the. story, placing, as it were, a frame around the events themselves, without which the film would be of far less interest.
When the film was finally made, though one missed Fielding's introductory essays on his characters and his inimitable style, one could believe that the film had provided the closest cinematic equivalent of what film itself could not render. For example, instead of the author's tongue-in-cheek essay upbraiding Tom for his sexual escapades, in which he wishes to "spare the gentle reader" the next scene but is driven to include it nonetheless in his devotion to truth, in the film our hero starts to disrobe and then throws his hat over the lens of the camera so that the audience cannot see what transpires. The film wasn't the novel, but it was about as successful an adaptation of it as a work translated into another medium can be.
For years people said there could be no satisfactory film of John Fowles's novel THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN because the 19th-century love story was interlaced with 20th-century comments. Without that component, the film wouldn't do justice to the novelâ€"but how to render this in film? The director, Karel Reisz, suggested a solution to scriptwriter Harold Pinter, who, with his obsession with time (he has written a screenplay about Proust's masterpiece on time, Remembrance of Things Past, which has never been produced), ran with the idea that found a solution: have the same actors be characters in a 20th-century story alongside the Victorian story.
This attempt to provide a cinematic equivalent, however, is not as successful as in Tom Jones. The 20th-century story is hardly interesting at all, and when it is injectedâ€"always just when our absorption in the 19th-century one is at its heightâ€"it comes as an irrelevant and annoying disturbance. Nor does the 20th-century story in any way illuminate the other one, save to add a point that everyone already knows: contemporary mores are quite different from Victorian ones. I for one would have found it much more satisfying to have just the 19th-century story and let the rest go; it wouldn't have "done justice to" the novel, but a film isn't a novel, and a film must stand on its own, not being indebted to the novel when the debt becomes a dead weight.
Nevertheless, this is a film very much worth seeing. For one thing, Meryl Streep finally has a film role worthy of her talents: her subtle shading of characterization, the quality of utter revelation in her facial expressions, are so perfect that she might as well be given an Academy Award now and have done with it. Second, the scenic backgrounds in Dorsetâ€"especially the charming coastal town of Lyme Regis, which has never lost its 19th-century qualityâ€"are rendered so superbly that one would be willing just to watch the scenery even without the characters. Third, the atmospheric touches are repeatedly achieved with imaginative master strokes, such as the scene in which he first sees her, remote and mysterious, standing veiled at the end of the pier. The Victorian settings are so beautiful to watch that one is sorry when it's over and one has to pull oneself back into everyday reality.
Most puzzling to many viewers will be the apparent implausibility of some of the heroine's actions, such as her sudden disappearance after her hopes in finding and loving him at last seem to be realized; her behavior often seems deliberately perverse, like that of a closely parallel caseâ€"Sue, in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. In both cases, the behavior seems (to me at least) psychologically explainable in terms of a strongly masochistic component in the heroine's personality, the result of early and devastating frustrations; however, this avenue is not explored, and most persons unacquainted with textbooks of abnormal psychology will leave the theater wondering "why she did those crazy things." But even if they feel this way, the film will still be worth their while for transporting them into another century and a love story as searingly intense as the screen has seen since the film classics of 30 years ago, A Place in the Sun and Devil in the Flesh.
â€¢ ARTHUR contains many trenchant and sarcastic lines, most of which are delivered by John Gielgud, who steals the show. For the rest, the spectacle of a multimillionaire playboy (Dudley Moore) who is perpetually soused incites just enough revulsion to prevent some viewers from being convulsed with laughter at his antics. Liza Minnelli does an uncharacteristically restrained bit of acting in a role that fails to close several credibility gaps. If one-liners turn you on, this film is for you; but since the humor is almost all verbal, this made a better stage play than it does a movie.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts was recently published by Prentice-Hall.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".