OTI Online
Fall 1996

Bad Girls Badly
By Kathi Maio

I'M ALWAYS HAPPY TO LEARN THAT A FILM has been adapted from a novel. Most novelists still know how to tell a story. And many retain the ability to create characters who talk and act like real human beings.

Not so your average writer of original screenplays. Today's screenwriters are cartoonists. They substitute action sequences for plot, and their characters are as flat as the figures in a comic book panel. (This trend will probably only worsen - the growing, male-targeted, international box office favors the universal language of the big boom over talking heads whose English words must be dubbed or subtitled.)

But female audiences still prefer a plausible story line within which fully realized characters actually converse with one another. So it's no surprise that some of the most successful so-called women's pictures in recent years - Fried Green Tomatoes, joy Luck Club, Little Women, Waiting to Exhale, Sense and Sensibility - have been based on well-loved novels.

A good screen adaptation is tricky business, though. Just ask Demi Moore about last year's Scarlet Letter. Or take a look at Pen Densham's adaptation of Daniel Defoe's 1722 female picaresque, MOLL FLANDERS.

Admittedly, Defoe's novel is far too jam-packed with "adventures" to be viewed as realistic. As the book's original subtitle indicates, it is the memoir of a woman who was "Born in Newgate [Jail], and...was Twelve year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, [and] Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia." Not exactly an ordinary life, but that's the greatness of Moll Flanders. Under the guise of telling a fantastical rogue's tale, Defoe (who himself had known poverty and imprisonment) was able to challenge some very real everyday issues of his time - and of ours. Through Moll, he censured a British society that reduced human worth to wealth. And he decried women's particular peril under such a system.

His Moll wanted only to be recognized as a "gentlewoman," which to her simply meant making a decent living, dignity intact. But men thwarted her modest dreams. And so, Defoe's Moll becomes an all-out outlaw. She's a loose woman and a gold-digger. She's a pickpocket and a shoplifter. She rolls drunks (sleeping with them first, if she has to). Although she never steals candy from a baby, she's not above taking a necklace from a small child.

Still, Moll is never violent or mean-spirited. She is simply a survivor. And a magnificent one at that.

If only Pen Densham (who also wrote Kevin Costner's Robin Hood) could have done as well by his protagonist. But this filmmaker obviously doesn't trust a modern audience to appreciate the good woman inside the proverbial bad girl. Therefore, both as a writer and director, he reduces Defoe's glorious scamp to a plucky victim.

Oh, she starts promisingly enough. As an orphan girl, Moll (Robin Wright) takes her knitting into the confessional, so she can impale the groping hand of an abusive priest. Alas, that is her one moment of rebellion. After that, Moll becomes your basic goody-two-shoes - and just as uninteresting. (Wright tries, but there's no spark in this screenplay, and she is not a particularly fiery performer to begin with.)

After her escape from the convent school, Moll lives with a kindly woman (Brenda Fricker), until unreasonable guilt about the fate of the woman's shrewish daughters drives Moll into the brothel of a heartless madam, Mrs. Allworthy (gleefully played by Stockard Channing). There, Moll is befriended by the madam's servant and former lover, Hibble (the always dignified Morgan Freeman), and suffers and drinks.

Things look bleak until a shy artist (John Lynch) buys her services as a model. Together, the two find a true love worthy of a Harlequin romance. But when their idyll proves short-lived, poverty-stricken Moll (now a mother) falls into the clutches of Allworthy again and is separated from her child.

Everything magically comes right in the wash of an Atlantic shipwreck, however. By the end of the movie, Moll is dancing with Hibble and her daughter on the shores of her new world.

HOW SWEET. HOW DULL. AND FINALLY, how very sexist.

As it turns out, Defoe's early-18th-century sensibilities are much more feministfriendly than those of his 1996 counterpart. Like Kitty Wells, Defoe realized that there is "a man to blame" for every honky-tonk angel. His Moll is "ruined" by faithless lovers and dissolute husbands. It is women - notably a midwife/abortionist/ fence she calls her "governess" - who really love and support her.

The opposite is true for Densham's Moll. The artist character provides her with the redemption of perfect heterosexual love, and Hibble protects and defends her like a noble knight. Mrs. Allworthy - the out-and-out villain of the piece - is the woman who mercilessly dominates and exploits poor, sweet Moll.

Excuse me if I question Pen Densham's take on gender politics. And race, for that matter. In the very last scene of his Moll Flanders, the heroine frolics while, in voice-over, she spouts a quasifeminist moral about "all men and women [being] created equal." Sounds good. But we've just seen Moll's black servants (obviously slaves) preparing her a feast at her Virginia plantation. Give me Defoe any day.

FOR THAT MATTER, CARL HlAASEN'S 1993 novel STRIPTEASE is much preferable to Andrew Bergman's movie by the same name. Although, give Bergman some credit, he tried to stick closely to his source material. But that's part of his problem. Hiaasen's novel was a complex brew of thriller, comedy, domestic drama, and corporate/political expose, which the writer's voice pulled together brilliantly.

Writer-director Bergman doesn't come close. His film tries to be several disparate kinds of movies all at once, and it ends up schizophrenic.

The basic plot remains: Erin Grant (Demi Moore) is a mother fighting her pill-popping thief of an ex-husband (Robert Patrick) for custody of their young daughter (Moore's own, Rumer Willis). To earn legal fees, Erin takes a job as an exotic dancer at the Eager Beaver, where she attracts the unwanted attention of a degenerate politician and puppet of the giant sugar corporations, Congressman David Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds). Murder and mayhem ensue.

MUCH HAS BEEN MADE OF THE FACT that Demi Moore got $12 million to get naked in this film. (Fact is, she is never nude and rarely takes off her top.) As for the money, more power to her. I'm drawn more to Moore's husky-voiced, street-smart athleticism than I am to the frail sweetness of the Julia Roberts types of Hollywood. But Moore's very toughness works against her effectiveness in Bergman's modification of Hiaasen's hero.

Once again, the filmmaker wants to soften a strong woman. So Bergman has Erin feel repeated shame over dancing. And he has her get teary-eyed (with violins swelling, yet) as she embraces her little daughter. Even though Demi Moore is more than capable of playing a likable woman who (in Hiaasen's words) is "out to do some damage," Bergman's Erin is, like Densham's Moll, a plucky victim with male protectors - a bouncer, Shad (played perfectly by Ving Rhames) and a homicide cop (Armand Assante).

Ironically, the one place where Moore displays her natural toughness is the one place Erin wouldn't. Real-life "strippers" get their audience (i.e., marks) to tuck a twenty in their G-string by delivering the illusion of friendly, feminine, sexual availability. But Moore's dance numbers are gymnastic routines delivered with cold authority. She looks aloof, even angry. I loved it. But in a real strip club this woman would make lousy tips. In fact only once does the film show Erin taking tips. (More prettifying, that.)

Making Erin a put-upon paragon isn't a big deal. But making nice-nice with the slimeball villains of Hiaasen's story is. Bergman upgrades Darrell from a stalking psychotic into a zoned-out doofus. And he makes the congressman's political and sexual corruption seem like harmless fun. But there is nothing harmless about the man's world Erin Grant inhabits. If Andrew Bergman had acknowledged that fact, he would have made a better movie.

In an interview in Buzz last year, Robin Wright said that things would not really change in Hollywood until there were more women writers: "When I read scripts written by men, there's always something missing in the female characters." Amen to that, my sister. Male novelists can sometimes get it right. But when guys adapt a female fictional hero for the screen, she invariably loses something in the translation.

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