"The novelist is still a god, since he creates," John Fowles writes in one of the many asides that have made his novel, "The French Lieutenant's Woman," so difficult to adapt to the screen. "What has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing, but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle, not authority."
In addition to the asides there is a play between Victorian and modern times and the novel has not one ending but two: Fowles' freedom as a novelist has caused an 11-year headache in finding a way to bring it to the screen.
Not that his own freedom in writing was complete. The idea for the novel came when he had an image of a woman in black standing with her back to him. "I don't like historical novels," he says, "but she refused to become contemporary. Once I even tried to put her in an airport lounge."
But Sarah, his heroine, remained obdurately in the year 1867, standing on the Cobb, the jetty at Lyme Regis, which Fowles calls "that largest bite from the underside of England's outstretched southwestern leg." Fowles has lived in Lyme for 15 years, and it is where the film is being shot. Fowles, a burly, bearded, wary man, is pouring tea in his roomy kitchen. He runs the local museum -- fossils are to Lyme what saltwater taffy is to Atlantic City -- and enjoys the peace: "There's also kindness here, it's a caring community," he says. "At times it drives me mad."
The Spanish Armada was engaged off Lyme. Royalists and Roundheads fought here. Henry Fielding came not to write but to abduct Sarah Andrew of Lyme, who was on her way to church. Jane Austen arrived in 1804, and the result was "Persuasion." The Undercliff area, where the film company is at present shooting, is incredibly lush and rich in flora and fauna -- Dog's Mercury, Wood Sanicle, Enchanter's Nightshade, Fescue and Scurvy Grass, Wild Madder and Everlasting Pea, to say nothing of Roe Deer, Nightingales, Chiffchaffs and, alas, Adders.
The scene being shot in the Undercliff is the crucial one in which Sarah, all sincere guile, tells her square Victorian admirer, Charles, about her past. Fowles tries to ignore the filmmaking: "The original author can do nothing at this point," he says with unconvincing detachment.
Meanwhile, it rains, storms and spits hail. "Poor John, he keeps apologizing for the weather," says the director, Karel Reisz. "The fact that we haven't had one day without rain for four weeks is bad luck. We just have to keep our nerve." Reisz has the upbeat tone he must have used in his early days as a schoolmaster urging his boys to football, scriptures, math, German -- "anything, whatever room I was sent to."
Even before "The French Lieutenant's Woman" was published in 1969, Fowles, who had been badly burned by films of his books, was looking for a director. Karel Reisz was his first choice but Reisz had just been through the unhappy experience of "Isadora" and did not want to do another period film. "Period pictures are jolly difficult because you spend half your time serving the period," he says.
Reisz directed two of the best British films of the '60s, "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" and "Morgan," and more recently worked in America on "The Gambler" and "The Dog Soldiers." When he was offered "The French Lieutenant's Woman" a second time, he accepted: "I had despaired of making a film in England again," he says.
"Karel is the best British director," John Fowles says. "Also, he's very painstaking and patient. It was clear that a whiz-bang director would be in trouble from the start."
Just as many directors had been rumored to be doing "The French Lieutenant's Woman," so its alleged stars ranged from Vanessa Redgrave to Glenda Jackson. It was Reisz who boldly thought of Meryl Streep, who had not yet won her "Kramer vs. Kramer" Oscar. Reisz had seen her playing "The Taming of the Shrew" in Central Park.
"She was so cheeky, so free. She has a range of temperament that is very rare, and a sort of daring. The story is about a character who is a foot off the ground, and you need an actress who is also a foot off the ground, who is able to play large, beyond day-to-day naturalism."
In the book Sarah is brunette with, says Fowles, dark, exophthalmic eyes. In the film Meryl Streep wears a red wig and is at the moment concentrating heavily on four pages of dialogue. The part is especially hard, Reisz says, because she is playing it in English -- "English-English," he amends.
Fowles is pleased to have an American play his Dorset heroine. He had often thought of her as American in her independence and freedom from convention. While Charles, the male lead played by Jeremy Irons, is a Victorian -- "a man struggling to overcome history" -- Sarah transcends her period, learning, as Fowles says in an epigraph from Matthew Arnold, that "True piety is acting what one knows."
Although hardly a feminist document, the book has had great appeal to women. "I suppose we got money for this one because of the reputation of the novel and because of Meryl and because there's a general feeling in the air that the timing may be right," Karel Reisz says.
"I am believed to have great understanding of women, not that my wife agrees," Fowles says.
Fowles has not so far been lucky with the films of his book and claimed he wrote his latest novel, "Daniel Martin," so that it could not be filmed. "It's now with Sydney Pollack. We've had script trouble with that, too. He was going to try Joan Didion. If she's wise, she'll say no, scream no." h
The film of "The Magus" was an abomination although he wrote the screenplay himself. That, he says, taught him not to interfere. "The Collector" was his first novel to be filmed. "I don't think it is one of William Wyler's best films, but he is a director I respect. I do feel angry about 'The Magus.' I don't feel angry about 'The Collector.'"
Four writers tried "The French Lieutenant's Woman" before Harold Pinter, working closely for a year with Reisz, came up with a screenplay that both Fowles and Reisz find superb. One good thing is that it is not too faithful to the novel.
"I've always suspected producers who say, 'I love your book, I'll respect every word,'" Fowles says. "You have to like the original work very much, well enough to do a variation on a theme, to drop certain aspects to bring in others," says Reisz. "You don't do a novelist a favor by making a precis of the novel."
What can a film bring to a novel? "Pleasure and entertainment in a different form," says Fowles. "What this film is going to bring is Harold Pinter's contribution, which is very interesting, and Meryl's part."
"The limelight must be a little bit on Meryl. I'll be interested to see how it comes out. It's her first really big part. It's like watching a horse in the Grand National. I have a bet on her. An American won the Grand National this year," Fowles adds. "Maybe that's a good sign."