Rough sex gives way to romance in the 2015 adaptation of Lady Chatterley

Just another pair of traditional romantics.  BBC Pictures/Hartswood Films

The following article was published on 7 September 2015 in The Conversation. Here Andrew Harrison of University of Nottingham asks viewers to be cautious of Jed Mercurio’s adaptation of Lawrence’s iconic novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover as it “reinforces precisely the traditional values that Lawrence was trying to unpick”.The Conversation

The latest adaptation of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover has predictably prompted significant media interest. Strong and contradictory reactions appeared in the newspapers weeks before it aired (on September 6). The Sun called the BBC film “so steamy it borders on porn”, while the Telegraph noted that the sex scenes are “soft-focus” and expressed surprise at the omission of the novel’s infamous four-letter words.

Its writer and director, Jed Mercurio, must have anticipated such responses. In producing another adaptation of this iconic novel he knew that he stood either to outrage viewers by the inclusion of sex scenes and four-letter words, or to disappoint them by their omission. The Guardian cited his own reaction to the issues at stake:

It did not feel that today we would be breaking new ground if we were to use those [four-letter] words. If you want to use certain words you have to justify them, and it did not seem relevant … The idea was to tell this as a love story, a love triangle – to concentrate on the emotions of the characters.

On one level, Mercurio’s assertion of his right to focus on those aspects of the novel which seem to him most “relevant” is wholly justifiable. Lawrence wrote three versions of the novel between 1926 and 1928, and viewers are arguably more likely to be familiar with previous adaptations by Just Jaeckin (1981), Ken Russell (1993) and Pascale Ferran (2006) than the written source. Perhaps an adaptation should be judged on its originality.

But this adaptation not only departs from the original text, but also reinforces precisely the traditional values that Lawrence was trying to unpick.

Constance Chatterley (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER), Clifford Chatterley (JAMES NORTON)
BBC Pictures/Hartswood Films

Soft edges

As ever, it comes down to sex. In the novel, Lawrence’s unflinching depiction of the life of the body – and the fragility and tenderness of sex – is presented as a counterblast to the damaging abstractions of industrialism and modernity. But Mercurio’s film resolutely sidesteps this in order to tell the straightforward story of Constance Chatterley’s choice between her crippled aristocratic husband (Sir Clifford) and his virile gamekeeper (Oliver Mellors). To make that choice a tad more interesting, Sir Clifford is depicted in a much more sympathetic light than in the novel and Oliver Mellors is made far less complex and compelling.

Lawrence’s novel examines in great detail the difficulties Connie faces in reaching out to Mellors, an educated man in his late 30s disgruntled by his past sexual experiences, who has moved among the officer classes during the War but deliberately chooses to speak the Derbyshire dialect and take up an isolated working-class life. Mercurio passes over Mellors’ estrangement from his wife in a flash and class is dealt with in very 21st century terms: as something rather irksome which can be overcome if only you set your mind to it.

In the novel, Mellors is initially reluctant to involve himself in an affair with Connie, and he uses his dialect to distance himself from her: he has been hurt in the past, and he is sensitive to being patronised or used by his employer’s wife. In this film, any doubts the very young gamekeeper has are quickly overcome and his righteous anger at the ruling classes does not unduly affect his relationship with Connie.

Oliver Mellors (RICHARD MADDEN)
BBC Pictures/Hartswood Films

Into the sunset

But perhaps the most striking thing about the adaptation is the way it champions romantic love. Lawrence was constantly trying to redefine the terms of marriage and relationship. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover he shows two damaged individuals finding a connection in spite of themselves – through their physical tenderness for each other. Mellors dislikes mouth kisses and Connie comes to share his hatred of masturbation. They bond through their conflictual and shifting desire for each other and through their dogged opposition to the world as it is. There is no happy ending – only some blessed hope that they will be able to make a life together despite all the practical barriers they must overcome.

D H Lawrence.

In contrast, Mercurio’s film gives its audience exactly what it wants on a Sunday evening: romance, straight and simple. His Mellors is quite happy to kiss Connie on the mouth, and is not averse to giving her oral sex too. Flames dance around the screen when they first have intercourse. If Lawrence’s stated intention in writing the novel was to enable “men and women to … think sex, fully, completely, honestly, and cleanly”, Mercurio seems content to provide romantic escapism.

By taking all the rough edges off the sex scenes and omitting the four-letter words, Mercurio has effectively removed those features of the novel which have made it so challenging, memorable and influential since its publication in 1928. Lawrence’s novel was addressed squarely and combatively to the England of his day. Mercurio’s film unashamedly passes over the battles it fought, finding them no longer relevant.

This is fair enough, I suppose: the film is quite effective and inoffensive as a conventional romantic costume drama. But as Mellors and Connie drive off together at the end of this adaptation, with Sir Clifford’s blessing for their new-found love still ringing in their ears, it is hard to erase from one’s mind Lawrence’s constant warnings against the bland prescriptions of a neutered and castrated modern consciousness.The Conversation

Andrew Harrison, Assistant Professor in English Literature, University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk garter

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent the relationship between Mellors and Lady Chatterley? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here

 

Student Essay: Kim Nguyen on controversy and Women in Love

Kim Nguyen is studying  English and Film Studies at Nottingham Trent University. She created her first ‘visual essay’ as part of a third year module called English and Creative Industries Project. The visual essay explores how Lawrence’s work continues to cause controversy long after his death through Ken Russell’s film adaptation of Women in Love.  

D.H Lawrence was an English novelist, poet, playwright, literary critic and painter. He was regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He was often described as a controversial writer whose work was constantly censored due to the explicit nature of his work. Controversy has been commonly associated with his novels however it did cross over to his other art forms including his paintings and poems which were also censored due to the topics that he touched upon.

As his career grew, D.H Lawrence began to receive negative reviews from the public, building an undesirable reputation from the scandal and outrage. His most infamous work was his last novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, however The Rainbow, published in 1915, was seized and suppressed under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act two months after publication. In Prosecutor Herbert Muskett’s words the novel was “in fact a mass of obscenity of thought, idea and action”. During these times lesbianism was unthinkable, and even talking about such desires was unheard of. There hadn’t even been a law to punish it yet! By the final chapters Ursula Brangwen’s sexual activities were frequent and directly addressed. Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the other hand was banned in the US until 1959 and England until 1960. Similarly to The Rainbow it was banned due to the graphic details of the sexual relationships it explored. His poetry was equally controversial, being censored due to his attack against politicians and the issues he raised about repression and imperialism. His work in all art forms emphasised the idea of freedom, demonstrated through nudity and nature in his paintings, as well as his novels and poetry. The controversy even continued after his death, when his novels were turned into films.

WomenInLove-1

Take Women in Love for example, the sequel to The Rainbow. Women in Love was Lawrence’s fifth novel. He began writing it in 1913, later completing it in Cornwall during World War I, before being expelled after unfairly being accused of being a spy. The novel was eventually published in 1920. Influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, Lawrence explored our connection to nature and the repressive, controlling aspects of our psychology and the way it bounds our society with rules and structure.

In 1969, screenwriter Larry Kramer and director Ken Russell came together to produce the first film adaptation of Women in Love. This came 39 years after Lawrence’s death yet was still causing controversy and raising questions about decency. The film became most notable for its ‘Japanese wrestling scene’, making the film the first to show full frontal male nudity. The film connected with the sexual revolution and bohemian politics of the late 1960’s and helped challenge Hollywood conventions. Russell uses film as an explicit medium to fully demonstrate Lawrence’s descriptions of the sexual acts and the relationships that individuals had with one another.  The film starred Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. The casting of Oliver Reed was particularly appropriate as Reed courted controversy due to his hedonistic lifestyle and rebellious attitude towards prevailing morality. Alan Bates sported a beard which created a slight resemblance to Lawrence which fit well with his character Rupert Birkin as Birkin was a self-portrait of Lawrence.

kim at dhl
Kim visited Breach House last year and was shown around by David Amos and Malcolm Gray

Linda Ruth Williams, a professor of Film Studies at the University of Southampton, highlighted the fact that the film adaptation came about only two years after sodomy for men over 21 was made legal in Britain, so the timing of the film was not carefully planned as it was still a time when most people were only just beginning to accept these types of relationships. Needless to say, the reception of the film was not positive from all audiences.  After Penguin and the British Publishers won the famous trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 it became harder to prosecute on grounds of obscenity allowing film producers to turn their attention to more violent and sexual scenes. It paved the way for more creative freedom and expression. The persecution of D.H Lawrence, and the issues his work raises, has enabled future generations of writers and artists to explore these themes in more explicit ways.

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How do we represent the controversy that followed him throughout his life and continues to linger long after his death? Perhaps we can include some models of naked Japanese wrestlers that we can view through a peephole? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved. Submit ideas here.