Saturday, April 23, 2011

Filmic characters

The world deserves a  full-length biopic of Mary Wollstonecraft. I laid out the elevator pitch a fortnight ago, and last week, with the help of more exclamation marks than I usually produce in a year, explored the movie's blockbuster potential. Today I will outline the main influential characters in Mary's life, and how these might best be handled on screen.

  • Mary Wollstonecraft -- passion & reason mixed. Heroine of the English Enlightenment who offers a spirited defiance to the establishment. Lady's companion,  governess, teacher, businesswoman. Journalist & historian of the French Revolution.  Novelist. Political writer. Also a sexual rebel, with significant love affairs. This is one of the few characters that will need double casting; we need to see her as as a child (12 ish?) and also as an adult who can span the ages from 25, her arrival in Newington Green, to 38, her death.
  • Birth family -- alcoholic spendthrift father. Doormat mother. Spoilt elder brother, the only one to be educated. Five younger siblings, especially two pretty, impractical sisters, Eliza and Everina, for whom Mary makes herself responsible. (Later, they bankrupt her business by squabbles.)
  • Jane Arden -- Mary's first formative friendship, within a secure family that valued education, but she did not fully return Mary's possessive love. Arguably, Mary fell in love with her father's library.
  • Fanny Blood -- Mary's second "best friend" (and more?). She opened Mary's mind, and the two planned to work and live together in a female utopia.
  • Mrs Burgh -- a widow who gives Mary & Fanny the capital & contacts to open a school for girls in Newington Green. Substitute mother figure. Fairy godmother.
  • Bevy of beautiful maidens at the boarding school. Studious & pious, but pretty & witty & gay.
  • Dr Richard Price -- the minister of the church there. A man of eccentric mannerisms and a preacher of revolutionary equality, who invited Mary into his social circle, where luminaries moved:
    • John & Abigail Adams -- 2nd president of the United States
    • Thomas Paine -- radical pamphleteer
    • Joseph Johnson -- publisher who becomes a father figure to her, supporting her career financially, socially, and practically.
    • Henry Fuseli -- society painter; Mary fell in love and proposed a menage-a-trois; his wife was horrified; Mary left the country, humiliated.
    • Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Tallyrand (1st PM of France), etc.
  • Gilbert Imlay - tall handsome American adventurer in Paris. Fathers Mary's child & runs away. An utter heartless cad. Hiss boo.
  • The companion Mary takes to Scandinavia, on the quest for Imlay's missing treasure ship. In reality, a nursemaid, but could be reformulated as a young woman socially closer to her, an acolyte or former pupil.
  • William Godwin - writer & philosopher.  Falls in love with Mary via her writing.  Fathers her other child. Risks losing all his friends by marrying her. A true heart.

Artistic licence

A few items cry out for the light hand of change; "a little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation, " as Saki said.

Her best friend was christened Frances Blood and known as Fanny. Can it be called bowdlerisation, to return the name to its original state? I refer to her as Frances, of the Irish Bloods, finding it safer. 

One distinct possibility is to amalgamate Frances and Jane. The friend of childhood can be presented as the same person as the partner of young adulthood. Two actors for the two ages, obviously, but one name and one story.

I can't really see how to combine the two father figures, the Newington Green minister Richard Price and the City publisher Joseph Johnson.

The fairy godmother, Mrs Burgh, can come into the story more times than the one crucial intervention we know about.

When Mary sets off for Scandinavia, at Imlay's request to search for his ship stuffed with revolutionary French silver, she goes "alone" -- meaning without a gentleman. She took her baby, which was a surprising decision, and a maid to care for the infant. In reality, this attendant was no one of historical importance. But for Mary: the Movie, she could become someone much closer to our heroine, a social equal or near to it, someone to confide in. Wouldn't it be appropriate to make her a former student? A young woman at a loose end, looking for a chance to hang out with her mentor. And why not make her the daughter of one of the Abolitionists that Mary hung out with -- in fact, why not make her the daughter of a slave? Bingo, a black character with a speaking part, without bending historical truth too much.

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