Opinion | A case for ‘inaccurately’ adapting a classic

By Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger, Staff Columnist

After the recent adaptation of “Persuasion” resulted in catastrophe, the news of a straight-to-Netflix version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” did not exactly inspire much enthusiasm from fans of classic literature.

A period piece is difficult to get right in film format, given the number of things that can create a jarring viewing experience — wrong lighting, too-modern or inaccurate clothes, mismatched accents, an actor with very obvious lip injections or actors with too much of a 21st-century air to them, to name a few.

But worst of all is the recent push of hamfisted attempts to “update” a narrative in order to make it more appealing to modern audiences. Instead of reckoning with the obvious, ingrained classism of a period piece, these edits are very dialogue-heavy, interjecting pithy one-liners meant to show that the protagonists are “cool girl feminists.” Not only is the characterization inaccurate, it comes off as totally dissonant with the rest of the narrative. Not only is it a pretty stunning act of egoism on the part of the writing teams and directors, but it’s rarely pulled off in a way that doesn’t feel artificial, even if you decide to ignore the fact that the thematic changes inevitably distance the adaptation from the timelessness of the classic. 

I’m not really a purist when it comes to period pieces. It doesn’t send me into fits of rage when the clothing isn’t era-appropriate, and I don’t have the same worshipful relationship with Austen that many do. But even from my distant position, the condescension implied by these modernized adaptations is very difficult to get around. 

The adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s most controversial novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was released just four months after “Persuasion.” At first glance, the adaptations had too many parallels to inspire much confidence — the same streaming platform and a similar crop of actors already too recognizable from their previous roles. “Persuasion” had Dakota Johnson, famous for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was led by Jack O’Connell, whose face simply cannot be separated from his role in “Skins.” And, of course, the overly generous filters applied in postproduction that seem to signal both movies as Netflix industry specials. 

And yet, where “Persuasion” was a droll, infantilizing take on Austen’s most personal, most anguished novel that was ultimately clumsy but loyal to the plot and the characters, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is dazzling, earnest and contemplative throughout. It is a memorable second project from independent director Laure de Clermont-Tonnere that allowed the leads’ performances to shine through, all the while being thoroughly different in tone from its original source material. 

The controversy surrounding the novel is partly what has given it a place in literary history as a classic. Frank discussions of sex and sexuality characterize the body of Lawrence’s work, but “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” — which depicts an affair between a groundskeeper and a married woman after the first world war — was especially explicit and reliant on sex as a driving narrative force. When Penguin Books tried to publish it posthumously in 1960, they were met with a long, complex legal process where the courts sought to make the book illegal on the basis of the “Obscene Publications Act.” This, in turn, made the successful publication in 1961 a victory against literary censorship. The celebration of this eventually overshadowed the fact that the book is intermittently terrible. 

Sometimes you have to read a book two or three times to know if it’s really poorly written or just not to your taste. As such, I’ve come to think that D.H. Lawrence, while a very interesting person, was a condescending, long-winded narcissist with a deep distaste for women and a fondness for basing characters off of himself and entreating them with intolerable monologues. 

It’s not to say that his writing isn’t salvageable — it’s even exciting, and occasionally wrenchingly lovely. It’s not always unpleasant when his personal history shines through. In particular, his utter unwillingness to glamorize the war and his depictions of working-class England, charged with a mixture of pride and shame, are quietly thrilling now and were bolder still in the time when he wrote them. 

But his work, and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in particular, is hampered by ego, diatribes, his overpowering desire to shock and, notably, his overuse of “bowels.” His work is uneven, alternating between cynical descriptions of sex that imply a fundamental contempt for the intellectual abilities of women, and nearly missable lines that communicate such a strong belief in connection, between two people in their private intimacy and between working, exploited people as a whole. 

With all of this in mind, Clermont-Tonnerre’s adaptation of the novel is set apart by its desire to lean into the love rather than the tension between the protagonists and may allow Lawrence’s writing to again become part of a larger conversation about how and why we interact with media. In changing the characterization of the female lead, and excluding the monologues of misogynist vitriol from the male lead, Clermont-Tonnerre adds a layer of believability to the dynamic between the lovers, whose actions and commitment to each other in the novel were difficult to reckon alongside Lawrence’s paternalism. 

While I can see the appeal of the original narrative exploring a hedonistic relationship in the wake of such brutal destruction and amidst plainly illegitimate class stratification, Lawrence doesn’t manage to sell the crucial transformation of the relationship. And it is true as well, that Clermont-Tonnerre doesn’t fully manage to capture the most redeeming aspect of the novel, Lawrence’s plain and unflinching critique of the class dynamics after the horrors of the war. But the film comes close, and one of the fundamental premises of the narrative — that wealthy English people have exploited people for so long that they’ve been robbed of their emotional capabilities — is plainly clear. 

Some could say that the adaptation is dishonest, or that it is attempting a similarly ridiculous “update” as the “Persuasion” debacle, but the proof is in the work itself. The narrative loses nothing by not depicting a protagonist as fundamentally scornful of the woman we are supposed to believe he loves, by excluding his character’s multiple homophobic rants or by restricting the anti-Irish sentiments to the characters, and not to the work as a whole. 

Overall, it’s interesting to consider that meaningful stories can be extricated from the prejudice with which they were written. The importance of this book has lain primarily in the discussions of censorship and the classifications of art that it inspired, all of which have long grown outdated. But this adaptation’s careful removal of Lawrence’s cumbersome chauvinism has the potential to inspire larger conversations about the legacy of male writers and about what it means to adapt something with purposeful attention to not condescend to audiences. 

Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger writes about politics and international and domestic social movements. Write to her at [email protected]