Moll Flanders

Daniel Defoe’s  1722 satirical novel, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, featured the true account of a girl from the eighteenth century who was morally ambiguous, Moll was a rogue, someone who lamented breaking the ten commandments, yet she did it anyway. Immersed in a Christian world, she was held captive by its expectations. Poverty led to thievery which led to corruption and it molded her into a sinner. It is one of the first novels an author created a female anti-hero.

As a satirist, Daniel Defoe is ranked among the best and shines brightly next to Jonathan Swift with his 1726 masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels and Peirre Choderlos de Laclos, who in 1782, published his damning satire of the French elite by introducing the manipulative pair, The Marquise de Merteuil and The Vicomte de Valmont. This epistolary novel became a perfect period film in 1988.

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Dangerous Liaisons, 1988, Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer

Daniel Defoe’s satire explored this ethical struggle between one’s instinct to survive and Christian purity, and the character, Moll Flanders, was the subject of his experiment. Unfortunately, there is no film adaptation which brings to life Defoe’s wit and complicated heroine in my estimation.

In 1965, Kim Novak and Dame Angela Lansbury starred in a farcical film of Moll Flanders. It is too ridiculous for me to appreciate.

Moll Flanders was an opportunist, a shrewd businesswoman, and an adept thief. Moll’s proclivities instigated a gender controversy since in the 1700s, women were generally considered more virtuous than men. Moll Flanders could steal like a man. She used her gender as a shield to hide behind to give her the advantage. Once she noticed a child who wore a gold necklace; she escorted the child to an alley and slipped it off the child’s neck without hesitation or discovery. Her accounts are reprehensible, but her cleverness begets admiration.

Moll Flanders was an expert manipulator because she vowed to be self-reliant. She refused to be at the mercy of a male. When she became a widow, she vowed to be wealthy since it bought her freedom. Monetary gain was the principal goal behind her marriages. Vain and promiscuous, Moll committed many sins, yet we still end up liking her. She beat the system. Her sins seem forgivable because she clawed her way up from the bottom of a prison cell at infamous Newgate Prison in London and rose in status to an elite member of society. Defoe’s satiric message? Money might bring prestige and a certain kind of freedom that has been equated with superiority and virtue, but it’s likely to be a facade behind which corruption and greed flourish.

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Interested in historical prisons? Newgate Prison has quite a horrible reputation. I enjoyed this article about the history of Newgate Prison at Peter Berthoud’s blog found HERE.

Why is it difficult to create a good period film like Dangerous Liasiaons, Amadeus, or Elizabeth? Usually the costumes are superb but something seems lost in the translation. I have seen more mediocre period films than good ones. What do you think? 

31 thoughts on “Moll Flanders

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  1. I’m not generally a fan of period films but I do enjoy Dangerous Liaisons. It’s saucy and sarcastic, a great movie with plenty of excellent performances, and it gives two of cinema, and literature’s great villains a chance to shine.

    1. Hi Alex, Yes–I love Edith Wharton and Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence is awesome. Not so much with her other adaptations. I still haven’t gotten around to watching Belle. Many liked it; many others didn’t. 12 Years A Slave was worth watching.

  2. Alex Kingston was great as Moll Flanders on TV in the UK. She was possibly the definitive Moll!
    I love all those period pieces, and ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ is wonderful. We are lucky here, as we have all kinds of period dramas every year, and we can feast upon them. Almost literally…
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    1. Well, it figures you British should do the best job with your own literary heroes! I like to watch BBC America, but I don’t have the opportunity of time to watch much. Alex Kingston has the loveliest blue eyes.

  3. Though we all knew Defoe, Moll Flanders wasn’t studied in any schools that I saw up here in Canada. Probably considered too Adult. I surely do appreciate what knowledge I have of the Classics so I wonder what is happening in schools these days. ?? Flanders definitely got by most of us so thank you for the review.
    “Difficult”? I don’t know why? It’s always on the Director. Maybe they just can’t match the inspiration of the book. (Great Gatsby anyone?). Then there’s the writing/screenplay. Then there’s the casting. Good filmmaking is a damn tough collaboration. A lot of projects like this seem to work better in a mini series? Just guessing.

    1. Hi JC, all poignant comments, thank you. The canon changed in American schools about 1985 to include voices that were silent or unrepresented in society. To make room for minority,gender issues many of the British texts — Defoe, Keats– were taken out of the curriculum. I have loved to hear of these new voices while traditionalists prefer the British greats. I love it all. Anyway, you are right about the collaboration of making a film. Very difficult in general, not necessarily just period films. Thanks!

  4. Another very informative blog post, thank you. Just as a piece of information, I studied Liaisons Dangereuses at university when I did French, and the dry flavour of it is way,way different from any modern film. Same kind of period, roughly, is “Tom Jones”, another wonderful “romp”, as they used to call them.

    1. Hi John, lucky you! I read a translated version in English and agree, it’s a dry version. In this case, I prefer the film. Yes, to Tom Jones; I know they were popular entertainment but when transferred to the screen as in the 60s version, it just doesn’t tickle my funny bone.
      That’s A-OK. 🙂

        1. I think we’ve all behaved the same way for eons; society, at present, allows so much expression it feels like propriety has gone out the window. I’m advocating we return to stringent, repressive Victorian times, but I do miss the days one was expected to display manners.

          1. I think a wide range of expression is fine. What I think has been lost is an appreciation and respect for our fellow human beings. I think a failure to display manners and honor those that do epitomizes that. Sometimes it feels as though narcissism rules the day.

          2. 🙂 I think of the Greek story about Narcissus and methinks it’s a human quality in conflict with another, that is, humans love beauty. The two seem to feed off of each other. We sure spend a lot of time admiring it, trying to hold on to it, trying to surround ourselves with Beauty. (I do anyway.)

  5. This sounds like exactly the kind of thing I like to read. Mr O works in the London Dungeon and they have a section dedicated to Newgate Prison.

  6. You already know I’m a big fan of period dramas 😉 Love Dangerous Liasiaons, Amadeus, or Elizabeth and of course all those Austen films & Jane Eyre but yeah, it’s tough to pull off this genre. I’m intrigued by Moll Flanders w/ Daniel Craig though, never thought he’s ever done a period piece!

      1. Is the girl Lena Heady? I like her too, that’d be an amusing watch, ahah. Hey, have u seen SHAFT btw? I just finally caught up w/ that, now the theme song is stuck in my head!

  7. What an educational post this is Cindy. Sad to say period dramas are some of the films I overlook the most. But perhaps that’s a subconscious decision. To me, I find modern tales that purport to reflect aged customs and traditions — beautifully mounted as they may be — surface-level evaluations at best. I have to say though that Belle was one recent exception. It was again, steeped in modernist obsession with dressing up very attractive people in the most form-fitting wardrobes as possible but the story that was told, along with the performances (esp from Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were compelling.

    I think I’m often driven away from historical/period films bc of the things you mention have gone wrong with Moll Flanders adaptation: they simply don’t get things “right.”

  8. I had no idea that Daniel Craig was one of the Moll Flanders films. I just can’t look at him on the front of the boxed set without laughing. I really shouldn’t, and, of course, now I’m so intrigued I’ve got to see this version.
    I’m a massive fan of historical films, and deeply critical when they aren’t satisfying. You’re so right, it’s a hard and oftentimes misguided step from book to screen.
    I do find so many worthy films from the BBC though. And I’ve adored most all the Austen films they’ve produced. Most Merchant Ivory films have gotten two thumbs up from me as well.
    Also, many thanks, Cindy, for the beautiful heartfelt words you shared on my post this morning. You have an incredibly special way of offering warmth and comfort. It meant a lot to me. Cheers

    1. I enjoy your weekend posts; you always have something relevant to say. I appreciate your comments, too! Have you seen Ralph Fiennes in ‘The Other Woman’? He plays Charles Dickens. I thought it marvelous. That’s the last fine historical drama I’ve seen. Well, that’s not true. I really enjoyed ‘The Imitation Game’. Wonderful, wonderful. Have a great week. 🙂

  9. How did I manage to earn a degree in English Literature without ever hearing of this story and thereby without knowing that it had ever been adapted into a film, much less multiple times? Hmmmm.

    Am I reading your summary correctly if I conclude this is a powerful feminist piece, despite being written long before feminism actually became a thing?

    1. Feminists love this piece, Josh, but I looked at it from the lens of a social historian. I admire Defoe for creating a strong female character. I admire the satire, the dark humour, and it’s an easy read considering it’s from the early 1700s. 🙂

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