- The French Lieutenant's Woman is a 1981 film staring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. It was directed by Karel Reisz and adapted by playwright Harold Pinter. It is based on the novel of the same title by John Fowles.
In the original book, the author is very much present - constantly addressing the reader directly and commenting on his characters, and on Victorian society in general, from his Twentieth-century perspective. A direct adaptation would have required a continual voice over.
Instead, the film creates the effect of the 19th Century society looked at from a 20th Century perspective by using the literary device or conceit, story within a story, in which one story is told during the action of another story. Mise en abyme is the French term for a similar literary device.
The 19th Century Victorian story is a film being shot in the present and the actors portraying the two Victorian characters having a love affair in their actual life, with the film shifting constantly between the two centuries. And though the actors are not bound by Victorian mores in their actual present-day lives, their affair still presents hard dilemmas since each is in a relationship to somebody else.
Also, instead of trying to create a literal translation of the novel's alternate endings, Pinter's screenplay adopted a more cinematic approach by having the characters' story ends one way, the actors' another.