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I recall from my lit. classes in college that Daniel Defoe is often considered the first novelist in the English language. (His Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders followed Cervantes’ Don Quixote by a century or so.) Moll Flanders was written in 1722 and portrayed society in 18th century London with a nearly journalistic detachment from the tribulations of its eponymous heroine. Moll is more than a person in the novel; she represents an entire class of people, and the same is true of all the characters in the book. Defoe tips toward the sentimental, though, by giving the downtrodden Moll an upbeat ending. It’s the desire to entertain, finally, that lets him bend reality, and it’s the same desire that gives such vividness to this video adaptation.
1996 was apparently a good year for Moll Flanders revivals. This version, which aired on Masterpiece Theater was not the only Moll that year. A version with Morgan Freeman in a role created for him came out that same year, and, from what I’ve read, it wasn’t any good. Sources say that it was rancid with heavy moralizing and bad acting.
The Masterpiece Theater version, on the other hand, is quite good. Moll is played by the fetching Alex Kingston, and there’s plenty of skin to keep the allure running high. She has a sculpted, lovely face and fabulous ta-tas. The part is well acted by her; she doesn’t stand in front of the character she’s portraying, even when she turns to address the audience through the camera. Often, she turns her focus right onto you, the viewer, to say “Well, what would you have done?” It’s not just that this question to the viewer always underscores a particularly difficult rationalization; it’s interesting because her visage, dead on, is intense, and her delivery is cold as a steel knife in a chilled ham.
The story is that of a prostitute’s child, born in prison, but adopted through a lucky twist by a local magistrate. Raised with conditional love as an illegitimate step-child, she loses her innocence by falling in love with her adopted brother, who is the 18th century version of a player. Meanwhile, her other adopted brother, has fallen in love with her. But he’s the 18th century version of a dweeb, so she doesn’t recognize or care that his love is earnest. Falling for Lord Rake, she comes quickly into ruin: She is first impregnated, then booted from the family. But Lord Dweeb upsets his family by asking for her hand, and she consents to marry him. In this she learns not to trust people, and that she can, by renouncing love, live a comfortable life on the wealth of men.
Thus, when Lord Dweeb passes away, Moll embarks on a string of wealthy husbands, luring them to marriage by posing as a wealthy widow, even when she’s on the verge of destitution, and then readily giving them good sex. Fortunes and Misfortunes well describes her path through the husbands. They go from riches to rags again and again, and many in rather unlikely circumstances. But, as the novel was written as a testimony of the times, the fateful coincidences can be overlooked for the larger goals of the book.
Besides being a zeitgeist work, there is also a continuing theme of The Wheel of Fortune, the way in which peoples’ luck turns and turns again. Wealth blows in like warm weather and blows away again in the winter of poverty. Love blossoms and is trampled, and blossoms again. Moll journeys hither and yon across England and makes two trips to the colonies in Virginia. The whole story is about ups and downs.
When Moll grows too old to lure men as easily, she becomes a thief and a prostitute. She demonstrates natural skill for it, and even in the fallen state of sin, she has her highs, both in the amount of wealth she steals and in the notoriety she wins in London’s underworld. Her last love is a highwayman who also traverses the grand fluctuations of fortune in the criminal life: adrenaline rushes, giddiness over ill-gotten booty, fear of capture, despair at captured compatriots, religious despair, and addiction to crime.
Though this adaptation is loyal enough to the original--considering that more than two and a half centuries have passed between the original writing and this version--there are some changes. Masterpiece Theater, having delivered a faithful telling throughout, embellishes the very end for a more exciting and uplifting finale than in the book. Though the producers do a careful job in trying to recreate the fashions and settings from way back, they also take a lot more liberty than Defoe would have in portraying sex and sexuality. Also, the cinematic comments on gender roles are certainly tinged with a twentieth-century sensitivity.
But all told, it’s pretty nice that one can watch Masterpiece Theater, something so evocative of the high-brow, and be so thoroughly entertained at the same time. Could you imagine that an adaptation of a 18th-centuryfiction would include such hot action?
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.