Saturday afternoon, it was The Three Stooges, The Bowery Boys, Westerns with Randolph Scott. When I was old enough to get into movies at night, I saw most of what was playing, more Westerns, Biblical epics, musicals with Dan Dailey and Donald O'Connor. I grew up on the movies, and loved them, though I haven't always kept up. I find them expensive, and my impression is that most are made for teenagers, as perhaps they always were. Sometimes I drop in at one of the rep cinemas, and recently I found myself in a small rep cinema in Charlottetown watching something that called itself Moll Flanders. A note at the beginning should have warned me. The film was based, it said, on the character from Daniel Defoe's novel.
Things begin in some sort of orphanage run by nuns. Nuns? In England, where it was illegal to be a Roman Catholic for many years, where a king was driven from the throne at least in part because he was RC. In the opening shots, a child is dragged about and introduced to a man who is to take her somewhere. She is the daughter of Moll Flanders, and as she is being taken on a journey, she is compelled to read her mother's memoirs. Her mother too, it seems, was brought up in an orphanage run by nuns. As a pretty young girl, she has her breast squeezed by a lecherous priest who leans into the confessional to do the dirty deed. In England? See above.
It was about this point that I considered walking out, but I had arranged to meet friends at the end of the movie, and I had nothing else to do but wander the streets of Charlottetown, so I stayed. I watched and reflected, as it all went from bad to worse.
Now anyone who was brought up on The Three Stooges should know enough not to take movies too seriously, but the film was written and directed by Pen Densham, who has, I believe, some kind of reputation. Written and directed: a personal film. There's no rule that says an artist can't make free with earlier works-Shakespeare did it all the time-but to get away with it, the new story must be of some interest in itself. Well, Moll Flanders has the wonderful Morgan Freeman and a cute little girl, but apart from that it is the most intolerable tissue of clichés that I ever hope to see.
The thing that struck me was the historical provincialism of the piece. People dressed up in funny clothes, but the attitudes were a mixture of contemporary vulgarities and confused and melodramatic assumptions about some presumed hypocritical past. There is the scene in which Moll-portrayed by the willowy Robin Wright-is taken in by a respectable family, and, listening to music, begins swanning about in a willowy fashion and declaring, "I have more sense of self than you."
Then Moll finds herself in a brothel, a garish, Victorian-looking sort of place, and once she decides to give her body to the business-I can't remember why he didn't then she did, something to do with the wiles of Stockard Channing-we are treated to a series of shots of aged and ugly men lowering themselves onto the lens, leering. Later she finds true love with a crippled artist (this gives her a chance to take her clothes off to pose for him: all very willowy), whose parents turn out to be rich and therefore hypocritical. They own a brewery, naughty things.
I wonder if anyone any longer believes that the past might have been different, a foreign country where things were not just mildly exotic but truly alien, a challenge to our sense of what it is to be human. That eighteenth-century discovery, which made possible the invention of the historical novel by Sir Walter Scott, may be in the process of vanishing, along with other achievements of the Age of Reason. Of course, movies have never been noted for the accuracy of their historical sense. What matters is the costumes. Wasn't it John Wayne who said, in his marvellous three-word units, "Truly this was. The Son uh God." Tom Marshall used to claim that there was a Biblical epic in which, in the heat of battle, one character cried to another, "Here come the Sodomites." I grew up on that stuff, and I loved it, but there was about Moll Flanders a kind of sentimentality and self-pity unlike such mere delightful silliness. I remember the 1960s version of Tom Jones, which caught at least something of Fielding's high spirits, but of course that was the 1960s when sex was thought simple as food and just as good. Now the spirit of the time would have us believe that everything is poisoned.
After two or three hours, the movie finally ended, and when I got home I pulled out a copy of Defoe's Moll Flanders just to see if, after twenty years or so, I had completely forgotten it. No priests, no brothel, no ugly old men. A great bare novel; that's Charles Lamb's phrase. After the grimy sentimentality of the film, what is striking is the hard cleanliness of it all. The novel is, more than anything, about money, but it makes no apology for that. "I knew that with money in the pocket one is at home anywhere." Like all the heroines of her time, and some time later, Moll is caught in the contradiction between sex as a pleasure and sex as a commodity. She must sell herself in the best market not because sex is ugly-she likes it just fine, though she falls for the wrong brother-but because the world is hard, even though hers is populated with many decent people.
It's possible that Pen Densham never read the novel at all or never finished it, for while it's often described as a novel about a prostitute, Moll is more accurately described as an adventuress, and for the greater part of the book she is a bold and ingenious thief; "the greatest artist of my time" is how she describes herself. The film panders to, or grows from, a bargain basement parody of feminism and misses the real possibilities of a novel where the strongest characters are women. Moll's strength, of course, is not of a moral sort. She abandons her children when they stand in her way, and though she occasionally claims to feel sympathy for those she has robbed, it doesn't stop her from doing it again. She talks about the "boldness of spirit" of those she meets when she's finally imprisoned, and it's that boldness of spirit that characterizes her.
All in all, the prisoners in her account of Newgate reminded me strongly of the Canadian prisoners I taught years ago. Boldness of spirit, yes. Is it my own form of historical provincialism, to see the present in the past that way? One of the puzzles in reading any book is to work out when we should be finding our way to the book's territory, when we can legitimately use it to illuminate our own, how much loss of self is needed to see the past. I was taught that the point of the great books is that they force an escape from subjectivity, but it sometimes appears that we now live in an age of justified subjectivity, where the only valid question is "How do you feel?" Recently, of course, the canon of books we need to know has been called into question, but while the question of what is included in our view of the past is a valid one, the idea that we should confront in books only what flatters our preconceptions can only lead to a progressive narrowing. Provincialism of one sort or another. To imagine anything beyond the bounds of the supreme self has always been hard work. That dreadful movie of Moll Flanders was probably nothing more than a dreadful movie, but insofar as it had any pretensions to seriousness, its sentimental corruption of a great bare book is a symptom of something darker. L
David Helwig is living in Belfast, P.E.I. He is the author of, most recently, A Random Gospel, a book of poems published by Oberon.