Friday, September 14, 2007

Movie Adaptations of John Fowles Novels

Four of John Fowles' novels have been turned into films: The Collector, The Magus, The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Ebony Tower. Although some of the movie adaptations are decidedly more successful than others, they are all of interest to the true Fowles devotee. Of course, none compare to the experience of reading the novels themselves!

The Collector (Columbia Pictures, 1965). Starring Samantha Eggar and Terence Stamp. Directed by William Wyler, from a screenplay by Stanley Mann and John Kohn (with an uncredited assist from Fowles).

Outstanding performances by the leads (Eggar was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar) propel the cinematic treatment of Fowles' first novel. As the butterfly collector who decides that collecting a beautiful college student would be even more fun, Stamp manages to both repel and evoke sympathy. An interesting film which does a nice job of capturing the subtle and simmering horror of the book.

The Magus (20th Century Fox, 1968). Starring Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn and Candice Bergen. Directed by Guy Green, from a screenplay by Fowles.

Fowles has called the film adaptation of his second novel "a disaster all the way down the line" and Woody Allen is quoted as saying that if he had his life to live over again, he would want everything exactly the same with the exception of seeing the film version of The Magus. Even Michael Caine, who played the role of Nicholas, once said that the worst movie he had ever been in was The Magus because "nobody could figure out what it was about!"

Probably the people who will most find it worth watching are those of us who have read and loved the book. For one thing, that's the only chance of understanding the movie (trying to compress Fowles' multi-layered 600-page novel into 118 minutes was obviously a huge mistake). And if you've already read the book eight times--switching back and forth between the original and revised versions--this at least gives you something new to sink your teeth into (think of it as a tiny, slightly stale after-dinner mint following an incredible 12-course feast). Note: Fowles himself appears briefly as a sailor in the opening credits.

A great movie is waiting to be made of The Magus (perhaps using the title Fowles first considered for the book, The Godgame), but it will need to be a Hollywood miniseries or British television production that runs at least six hours. How about this for casting: Ben Kingsley as Conchis, Jude Law as Nicholas, Charlize Theron as Julie and Jennifer Connelly as Alison. We'll have our people call Fowles' people.

The French Lieutenant's Woman (United Artists, 1981). Starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Directed by Karel Reisz, from a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

Beautiful cinematography and wonderful acting characterize this adaptation of Fowles' third novel--the result was five Academy Award nominations (including Best Actress for Streep). The movie mirrors the book's multiple points of view by having Streep and Irons shift back and forth between the 19th Century Sarah and Charles and the 20th century actors who are playing them. This is the first adaptation of his work that Fowles was pleased with, calling it "a brilliant metaphor" for the book.

The Ebony Tower (Granada Television, 1984). Starring Laurence Olivier, Roger Rees and Greta Scacchi. Directed by Robert Knights from a screenplay by John Mortimer.

This is a terrific adaptation--by British television--of Fowles' short novel, with Olivier magnificent as the cantankerous painter Breasley. His philosophical battle with the young painter Williams (Rees) and the presence of two beautiful young women echo scenes from an earlier Fowles novel; fortunately this is a far more successful movie adaptation (where was Olivier when The Magus was being filmed?!).



  1. oh, how we miss the magnificence of laurence olivier these days in such an adaptation as 'the ebony tower'. there is so little on offer anyway and if there is anything which might look even vaguely promising as a piece of drama it is usually spoilt by the lack of discipline and thoroughness in young actors (i could name some) who fail to do their homework, something that olivier could never be accused of. laurence olivier you are so missed.