Women In Love: Adapting DH Lawrence's famous novels

Thursday 24 March 2011, 12:03

William Ivory William Ivory Writer

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This is what I call squeaky bum time. A few days to go before transmission of the first instalment of my two-part version of DH Lawrence's Women In Love.

Some press coverage has started to emerge and plenty more will be lined up behind it. Not to mention the opinions of numerous academics and Lawrence experts the world over.

Squeaky bum? This is full on fear.

Rosamund Pike as Gudrun Brangwen in Women In Love

It's always like this as a production nears its airing, but my emotions around Women In Love seem particularly raw.

I think it's partly the time it's taken to write - a tad over six years by my reckoning - and partly the fact that it's my first adaptation, so I feel I need to be nervous for both me and dear old Bertie.

Above all, though, I'm anxious because I'm as proud of this production as I am of anything I've ever written. And I want people to engage with it.

Not because of a terrible and unedifying need for attention either (though clearly that is there) but because I want people to go back to DH Lawrence and read his books again.

And to do that, I need the audience to watch these films and realise that Lawrence is so much more than his popular image, which is of a man who was obsessed with sex and anti-women and... and that's about it really.

Because, the truth is, he's a brilliant writer who tackled many complex issues, who put women at the very core of so much of what he wrote, and who examined sex in detail.

Not because he was Dirty Bertie, as he has been dubbed, but precisely because he wanted to get away from the prurient arched-eyebrow approach to sex and the human body which so characterised (does it still?) the tutting English.

Rachel Stiring as Ursula Brangwen, Rory Kinnear as Rupert Birkin and Joseph Mawle as Gerald Crich

For Lawrence, all life should be an attempt to live outside the mind and the consciousness. He wanted people to find a way to transcend, to be truly free.

He suspected that death and the orgasm were the two occasions when this happened. So, naturally, much of his work focuses in on these two themes.

But it is not the sum total of his output. Far from it. And I hope you'll watch these two films and realise that is true.

One final thing, though. Don't sit there with a tattered copy of The Rainbow or Women In Love in front of you.

Everything which is in the books is in my films. But it's in there differently.

William Ivory is the screenwriter of Women In Love.

Women In Love is on BBC Four at 9pm on Thursday, 24 March. For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Listen to William Ivory discuss adapting Women In Love on Radio 4's Front Row.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I watched your adaptation this evening and I have to say did not have a particularly high expectation at first but I was transported completely by it. Previous adaptations of Lawrence have seemed too earnest and faithful to the text and the sex portrayed too 'accurately' I really liked the way you captured the intensity and passion of both novels (The Rainbow doesn't even seem like a novel to me more a treatise to an open expression of sexuality) and every characterisation was given so much time even though it is messy, a roller-coaster. I was particularly impressed by the wonderful Saskia Reeves as Anna Brangwen (even though we should be more drawn to the younger women) but maybe because I associate more with her time of life! I was crying in parts not with a maudlin sadness but because I think the protagonists were written so sympathetically and you could feel their passions deeply. And feeling in Lawrence's work is what life is about. I look forward to Part 2.

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    Comment number 2.

    I just finished watching WOMEN IN LOVE on iPlayer and really enjoyed the writing, the pace and the beautiful, aching language. I agree with the last contributor that the characters were very sympathetically drawn, despite not always being likeable. Your actors played them sensitively and, in close-up, there was such a clear sense of pain and vulnerability, without it ever being indulged. The humiliation of the two sisters, of Gudrun in the nightclub and of Anna on the roadside, were moments that were genuinely hard to watch.

    You talk about combating the tawdry stereotype of Lawrence; I thought you expressed through the characters' desires a deep need to connect intimately with someone - and this is how you quoted Lawrence - with a sort of transcendence, a freedom, I suppose, beyond language and convention.

    I don't know. I'm no scholar, or paperback-touting expert. I remember reading The Prussian Officer for A-Level and feeling like his stories opened a door for me, but since then my interest in literature has drifted. I don't read anymore. I don't expect to find things in novels and stories. I don't look. Your adaptation reminded me of what it felt like to read Lawrence for the first time.

    That seems to me to be a great measure of success. Thank you.

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    Comment number 3.

    It's strange how everyone, since the start, has wanted to trash David. And now this - a complete trashing of Women In Love. So, Rupert Birkin is a closest shagger of soldiers, Gerald a complete rot, and all the 'women' (for their were no women in this dramatization, unlike in the novel) passive responders of nothing. No. First, there is no sex in the novel (except the sex of words), Second, Birkin is cantankerous and misanthropic, Cerald is like steel, breakable (also puritanical!), Ursula, strong,sensitive, Gudren, desperate, deathly, tragic. It's a book about people, not gendas, not sex per se, not anything about anything except people! Read the dam book and get the sex out your head!

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    Comment number 4.

    And if you are the author of this sneaky, envies but well lubricated attempt at nihilism - exactly what the novel confronts and, in its own way, overcomes - through the love of Rupert and Ursula - then you are found out, once and for all.

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    Comment number 5.

    Actually, it's worse - it's homophobic - because in the novel Birkin is not 'the man' that Gerald is - one of it's central motifs - but rather sensitive, intelligent, hesitant, he must, therefore, be a homo. Or are you taking your cue from Russerl's outrageous attempt at outrage?

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    Comment number 6.

    Thank you so much for this. It's really gratifying. And I, too, was keen to make the Anna and Will strand really sing because, like you, it resonates at my time of life! Thanks again.

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    Comment number 7.

    A response to blatny93...sorry it didn't wet your whistle as they say but to respond to the accusation that the show was homophobic in its treatment of Birkin, I just have to explain that my reason for portraying Birkin as a gay man trying to be straight, was Lawrence's description of him:"He (Birkin) wanted all the time to love women. He wanted all the while to feel this kindled, loving attraction towards a beautiful woman that he would often feel towards a handsome man. But he could not." I thought that suggested a homosexual preference. I also thought that when DH Lawrence wrote:"it was for men that he (Birkin) felt the hot, flushing, roused attraction which a man is supposed to feel for the other sex" he was suggesting again that Birkin had homosexual tendencies. And finally, when Bert wrote "vividly, months afterwards, he (Birkin) would recall the soldier who had pressed up close to him on a journey from Charing Cross to Westerham," I similarly felt he was suggesting Birkin was actually gay but struggling to cope with it. Maybe I miss read that. I don't think so.

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    Comment number 8.

    Sorry. My first blog was to Serendipity. And to Ciaran McConville, too, much thanks. If it made you feel about Lawrence then I am thrilled. That it made you feel as you did when you first read him...wonderful! Thank you!

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    Comment number 9.

    I registered especially so I could comment on this; it's years since I read any Lawrence and having seen last night's episode I'll be busting open the book box and digging out the novels, plays, poems and travel books that 'Bertie' left us this weekend! Your adaptation is superb, sir, and I was transfixed. Proper lives, proper feelings, looked like a dream although events occasionally akin to a nightmare for the characters...no-one else ever wrote like Lawrence, and I'd forgotten that, and you've reminded me. So thanks for that and all congratulations are due to you and your adaptation.

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    Comment number 10.

    What a drab ,dull, dreary unimaginative television Lawrence portrayal this is. So hard to muster any sympathy or empathy with or for any of these characters - an expensive look on screen certainly, costume, design make-up ,lit in a soft dreamy haze, everything the BBC does superbly and has done for decades. This one sleepwalks through leaden literary dialogue tries so hard the earnest actors struggling even with sex and decadence in London. . . .

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    Comment number 11.

    Dear WOS,

    Thanks for the comment. Really thrilled to think you're going back to your Lawrence collection off the back of our first episode. To me this is the point of any adaptation; to re-invigorate the interest in and the debate around a great writer's work. Terrific!

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    Comment number 12.

    And Neville, on the same theme, I hope that you, also now, will dip into Lawrence's novels again to remind yourself of just how vibrant, colourful, fecund, visceral, and downright good old Bert is(which clearly I failed to convey!). Shame to leave him with a sour taste in the mouth!

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    Comment number 13.

    Dear William Ivory - do forgive the unintential 'sour sounding' comments' you obviously are an experienced screenwriter. Confess to not being a DH Lawrence admirer, so morbidly depressing and moribund, although he does bridge the period of 'enlightenment' for women. Was it not a difficult literary and dialogue challenge for tv adaptation ? Many speeches heavily narrative rather than action led.

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    Comment number 14.

    Just watched the first episode this afternoon. I have only a vague memory of the film but I was intrigued by the relationship between the two sisters, as Gudrun reminds me of one of my best friends in her attitude to life and love, whereas I am more like Ursula. It seems to me that, as in the case of the film adaptation of "Atonement", everything was beautifully shot and designed in order to alleviate the essentially tragic nature of what happened to the girls in this episode: a miscarriage and rape in Ursula's case, abandonment and public humiliation in Gudrun's.

    I'm looking forward to when the sisters meet Birkin and Gilbert, it feels like there will be fireworks of both the physical and mental kind.

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    Comment number 15.

    Dear William,

    Two things. First, thank you for this blog, a wonderfully engaging response from a writer to the reactions of his audience. Second, thanks for opening Lawrence anew in the adaptation. My mental 'Lawrence world' is drab, grey and essentially Edwardian (albeit, chronologically, not necessarily so). It's a mental world of cramped rooms, cramped thinking and cramped people. You, though, have opened up Lawrence to light, to spontaneity and vibrancy of the type that was within reach of Lawrence's contemporaries. Thanks for shifting my point of view. Maybe, just maybe, I'll get back to the novels again soon. For now, though, I am obsessed with Gissing (why can't anyone adapt Gissing without an overwhelming diet of the dour and no light and shade, by the way?) and the late Victorian realists (like Pett Ridge) - a slightly earlier melancholy!

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    Comment number 16.

    What a disappointment - surely there is enough story in both books without adding the adaptors own bits - why is the mother Anna not Lydia and English instead of Polish. Where is the child Anna that Tom was attached to? Lawrence had a yearning to have a blood brother relationship with a man such as his friend John Middleton Murray and that is the need he gave Birkin - there was no desire to have sex in a toilet with him. Why is Hermione criticising his manhood? There is no incident like that in the book- why is Birkin now preaching in church and not a school's inspector. Poor old Diana was bumped off without a gasp - Too compressed and too many liberties and why cast the blonde as Gudrun and the dark one as Ursula - this isn't Lawrence's book but William Ivory writing his own one

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    Comment number 17.

    I was looking forward to this production. A good reworking of this novel is so overdue. Please can you tell me what your Birkin and Ursula do for a living? Hermione, in a scene which I must have forgotten was in the book describes Birkin as being 'in the church'. Does that mean he is a vicar? I am a fan of D H Lawrence's and thought I knew the book, but obviously not.

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    Comment number 18.

    You've captured the essence of Lawrence and just how well he understood women and our emotions. But it's not just about women...Lawrence played out a need in some of us to walk the path of danger, even if it means self destruction because to feel and love to the extreme is to truly live. You've brought to life the fact that Ursula and Gudrun are both true to themselves and throw caution to the wind, whereas Saskia Reeves' character, Anna has lost that joie de vivre and freedom to duty and domestic necessity. It's raw and gritty, yet intensely sensitive - a wonderful adaptation and I can't wait to see the second one. You've some a long way since Lady Bay!

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    Comment number 19.

    Well, can I first of all say to everyone who's posted: thank you for getting me involved in this blog. I now understand why my daughters hurry upstairs to log on to sites like this so readily: it's utterly addictive! Of course, for a man who gave up drinking ten years ago precisely because that addictive streak runs so strong, I shall have to ration myself or I'll be here all day and not writing.

    A couple of responses directly, if I may? Odette, we obviously crossed paths in Nottingham so a big thanks for keeping on the case of a Notts lad. And thank you for such kind comments. I was really touched.
    Gordonviolin: Ursula is a school teacher and Birkin a schools' inspector.
    Woundedpride. Thank you for your comments too. I love the image of cramped thinking. Very evocative. As to Pett Ridge, I am going to read some now, never having attempted his novels. Terrific. It's always great to find out people's passions and to be launched forward in some way by them.
    And Neville, nothing to forgive in your comments. If only reviewers and many viewers, dare I say it, watched what we work on with the same levels of engagement. Good or bad, the thing is to know that you have moved people in some way. So thanks for posting again.
    And talking of bad...Jacquee Storozynski...I'm sorry you were disappointed. To answer some of your points, though, can I re-iterate that I made Birkin clearly homosexual because in Lawrence's prologue to Women in Love, he makes it explicitly clear that this is what he intends. And he also lays out quite clearly that Hermione was taunted by Birkin about his use of prostitutes and the fact that despite his success there, he could not be aroused by her. Therefore, the scene where she mocks his impotency felt honestly generated to me, as a response to the cruelty (which Lawrence records) that he, Birkin, has dished out to her.
    As to why Anna is not Lydia and why she is English not Polish, I can only say that I did not have the space to render the whole of The Rainbow. And that is why Tom is not featured "loving" Anna. In fact, that is why I have made Will love Ursula because I wanted to keep the theme of overbearing parental love without having to incorporate such a vast and elongated time scale.
    But ultimately, I did it because I wanted to write the heart of the books. Not just turn every scene in the book into a film. There would be no point doing that. The books are majestic, as you obviously appreciate. And the beautiful story of Lydia, her dead doctor husband and her marriage to Tom, is astoundingly powerful. And it's there to be read. It can be bought tomorrow or loaned at the library. And people should do that. For me, though, the task was to write my RESPONSE to the books. So I dispute your last point and half agree with it, too. Because my film is Lawrence's two novels; I know in my heart and gut that it is. But it IS also my book. And that is why I got involved in the project: to let this great writer seep through my bones and out through my skin.

    Anyway, I'm off to the day job now. Thanks again, one and all!

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    Comment number 20.

    Brave man. I came away with mixed feelings. I felt that you over-egged the homosexuality and the sex, completely miscast Birkin, and mistreated the 'Water Party' chapter which, for me, is the most epic passage of writing you'll ever come across. But, in your defence, you have simply tinkered with certain aspects of the novel that I felt close too, so you can't be held to account for that. Much like the last two chapters of The Rainbow, I felt the last 10 minute montage was spectacular. If I was looking to do an adaptation, then I would have done something as esoteric and powerful as that - it was at that point that I felt relieved; here is a director who really felt the uncomfortable, but alluring, drive and passion of Lawrence's writing. You also incorporate that manic, avant garde milieu that Lawrence draws upon in Women in Love and I congratulate you on that. You touched upon it (with Birkin and Gerald conversation about Futurism) earlier, and I thought it was a really nice touch that you brought theme back at the end of the episode. The music was immense - I felt really uncomfortable.

    And finally, you drew upon the intimate nuances of character really well. So well in fact, that my wife - who has always mocked me for my love of DHL - was really drawn in. The portrayal of Anna and Ursula and Will was really touching and to focus on that particular aspect of The Rainbow, and play it out so well, opens Lawrence up to a new audience.

    Twice my wife has asked when the second installment is.... That eagerness is almost unheard of! So well done.

    Actually, one last thing. Did you base your adaptation on any of the earlier drafts (like The Wedding Ring, or The Sisters)?


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