Adapting One Historical Novel to Another: How to Make It Work

We’ve all been there: We read a novel, and wonder “How did the author do that?!” Sophfronia Scott has written just such a novel. Her book Unforgivable Love is a retelling of Dangerous Liaisons that will enchant and entertain readers with its historical flair. Here, she tells Bookish readers just how she went about adapting the original.

Unforgivable Love Sophfronia ScottIdeas are a dime a dozen—they exist in multitudes and any creative thinker knows there is no shortage of good ideas. Still there’s a fascination with ideas and they are considered scarce—that’s why authors consistently get asked how they found the idea for their latest work. But the idea is only the beginning. Two writers can start with the same basic idea and create entirely different products. I think that’s a much more interesting question: How did the writer bring the idea to life?

My latest novel, Unforgivable Love, is a retelling of the 18th Century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The original was an epistolary novel, written in 1782, and told a story of seduction and betrayal among the aristocracy. I set the tale against the glamorous backdrop of 1940s Harlem, with two wealthy people playing games of sexual intrigue to feed their sense of ego and power.

Essentially I took one historical novel and turned it into another historical novel. How did I make it work?

It’s all about the elements: understanding what makes a good story and building an interesting world in which the story can unfold. In order to do this, I couldn’t just retell the story. I had to create a new one.

Creating a story begins with characters. I chose to tell my story in close third person, giving voice to four characters and their inner lives.

Marquise de Merteuil became Mae Malveaux. Both characters are wealthy but they are also restricted by the conventions of their times. They act out accordingly. For Mae, I added aspects of her having felt something like love in her early years.

Vicomte de Valmont became Valiant “Val” Jackson. I sensed a vulnerability in this character that I wanted to explore. What makes him prone to fall in love? His story explores themes of race and class as well.

Madame de Tourvel became Elizabeth Townsend. My Elizabeth is just as virtuous as Madame de Tourvel but she also has a sense of not being complete somehow as a person, as a human being. She’s looking for meaning in her life.

Cecile de Volanges became Cecily Vaughn. This character, I think, has been given short shrift in the various adaptations of this novel. She’s often portrayed as clownish and awkward, but she’s also a character who makes a full journey from innocence to experience. I wanted to see how Cecily behaved once she began to act with agency.

Once I had my characters I had to create the world in which they lived their lives. For Unforgivable Love, I created social circles to suit the time and the African-American community.

Church: I had no doubt in my mind that the main social setting of this book would be in a church, especially since morals and virtue were going to be important themes. I modeled Mount Nebo Baptist Church, in size and influence, after the granddaddy of Harlem churches, Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Jazz music and night clubs: I used the setting of two clubs to illustrate the different classes. The Savoy Ballroom inspired the Diamond, Val Jackson’s club in my novel. The fact that the Savoy was crowded with people from all walks of life made me think about how Mae Malveaux wouldn’t be caught dead in such a place. That led me to create the Swan, a more refined setting for Mae and her cohort.

Fashion: I used fashion as another way to set Mae apart. I was particularly inspired by the designer Christian Dior’s “New Look” that was introduced during the time of my novel. The look was defined by a narrow waist, full skirt, and dramatic hats. One outfit with a yellow jacket reminded me of a costume worn by Glenn Close in the film Dangerous Liaisons and I knew I had to describe Mae wearing that Dior ensemble.

This is also a story about sexuality and how the way we wield it can be the deepest expression of our human nature. What happens when we take ownership of our sexuality? This question, I think, is why the story of Dangerous Liaisons is still so captivating today. We are still on this quest when it comes to exploring sexuality. It is the foundation that grounds Unforgivable Love, giving the reader a place to stand while at the same time launching him or her into this other world.

Sophfronia Scott hails from Lorain, Ohio. She was a writer and editor at Time and People magazines before publishing her first novel, All I Need to Get By. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and son.

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