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

 

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#30WildBooks Lawrence, otherness and Moby Dick

30dayswild Moby Dick

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust are hoping to increase our understanding of the value of nature and issues facing wildlife by suggesting 30 books to read throughout June (#30WildBooks). One writer not on their list is DH Lawrence. If he were to be included in a future campaign I would recommend Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923) which, based on his experiences of the Mediterranean and the American Southwest, explores the poetry of nature and the otherness of the non-human world. But pick up any work by Lawrence and you’ll find a writer completely connected to his immediate environment. His Midlands novels explore the destruction of “the country of my heart” and the dehumanising effects of industrialisation, whereas his debut novel, The White Peacock (1911) includes references to over 140 different plants, flowers and trees.

“Under the froth of flowers were the purple vetch-clumps, yellow milk vetches, and the scattered pink of the wood-betony, and the floating stars of marguerites. There was a weight of honeysuckle on the hedges, where pink roses were waking up for their broad-spread flight through the day. Morning silvered the swaths of the far meadow, and swept in smooth, brilliant curves round the stones of the brook; morning ran in my veins; morning chased the silver, darting fish out of the depth, and I, who saw them, snapped my fingers at them, driving them back.” The White Peacock.

Lawrence’s short stories Adolf (rabbit) and Rex (dog) explore his childhood relationship with animals. In Adolf his father brings home a nearly-dead rabbit he’d found on his walk home. Through pure tenderness the rabbit is saved but goes on to cause havoc in the house, leaving droppings on saucers while helping itself to the sugar pot, much to the displeasure of his house-proud mother. Rex explores the naming of a dog donated to the family by an uncle. Like Adolf, the dog disrupts the order of the house and the mother wants him out. But he returns, “wagging his tail as if to say ‘Yes, I’ve come back. But I didn’t need to. I can carry on remarkably well by myself.'” It’s classic Lawrence, forcing us to see things from a different perspective.

One book on the Wildlife Trust’s recommended reading list is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Lawrence helped establish Melville’s reputation after an essay published in Studies in Classical American Literature in 1923. It’s an incredible piece of literary criticism about the “tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical- transcendentalist sort” and the #30WildBooks project gave me the opportunity to revisit it once more.

Moby Dick quote

You can feel Lawrence’s excitement reading this seminal book. It’s like it’s written in real time, becoming more frenetic as he jumps on the ship with Ahab on “the last great hunt”. He’s intrigued as to the symbolism of this “warm-blooded” and “lovable” Leviathan and suggests that the reason the whale was never worshipped by the South Sea Islanders, Polynesians, and Malays, was because “the whale is not wicked. He doesn’t bite. And their gods had to bite”.

Lawrence is fascinated by the other and how people change when placed in isolation. Here is it the wilderness of the sea that has a profound effect on Captain Ahab’s character.

“For with sheer physical vibrational sensitiveness, like a marvellous wireless-station, he registers the effects of the outer world. And he records also, almost beyond pain or pleasure, the extreme transitions of the isolated, far-driven soul, the soul which is now alone, without any real human contact.”

argonauts new

Lawrence analyses the “incredible crew” on the Pequod, exploring their relationships to each other and the outer world. They make The Argonauts seem like “mild lambs in comparison” as they’re “a collection of maniacs fanatically hunting down a lonely, harmless white whale.” Never one to overplay things, he is equally irked by “the sonorous mysticism” that “gets on one’s nerves”. As much as he recognises the novel as being unequalled in terms of “esoteric symbolism” it is also one of “considerable tiresomeness”, accusations that could equally be levelled at Lawrence’s later work, particularly The Plumed Serpent (1926). Kettle black, etc.

Lawrence’s is always able to see things from the non- human perspective: “Moby Dick, the great white whale, tore off Ahab’s leg at the knee, when Ahab was attacking him. Quite right, too. Should have torn off both his legs, and a bit more besides.” Touché .

Lawrence being Lawrence, he uses Melville as a prism through which to explore his own favourite topics, most notably; blood consciousness, the spinal cord, primordial cultures, spirituality and the obligatory bromance. This was picked up by critic John Middleton Murry: “He is not concerned with Melville in and for himself, in his own quiddity. Melville exists only as a paradigm for Lawrence. But the projection of himself that Lawrence makes by means of Melville is amazing (…) It does not matter in the least whether this is a true interpretation of Moby Dick: its importance lies in the self-revelation of Lawrence.”

It’s all about me…

Damn right.

Biographer Andrew Harrison (2016) takes this further, suggesting “the attempt to understand the Americans and, through them, his own work, implied an incipient desire to imagine an audience for (Women in Love).”

One other area of controversy is Lawrence’s assumption that Ishmael does not survive the wreck of the Pequod. Research by JoEllyn Clarey (1986) suggests this was because he was using the original English edition of Moby Dick that omitted the epilogue. Things are never simple with Lawrence, are they?

RELATED READING

  • 30 Wild Books to Read in June (dawnoftheunread.wordpress.com)
  • Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust website (nottinghamshirewildlife.org)
  • DH Lawrence – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (xroads.virginia.edu)
  • Charles Olson, Call me Ishmael (San Francisco, 1947)
  • Michael J. Colacurcio, “The Symbolic and the Symptomatic: D. H. Lawrence in Recent American Criticism,” American Quarterly 27 (1975): 488. 28/Chase, p. 24.
  • Ren Wellek, “The Literary Criticism of D. H. Lawrence,” Sewanee Review 91 (1983): 598-613
  • JoEllyn Clarey “D. H. Lawrence’s “Moby-Dick”: A Textual Note,Modern Philology Vol. 84, No. 2 (Nov., 1986), pp. 191-195