Since its publication in 1782, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), has been adapted for stage, print, opera, television and film including Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988) starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman. Cruel Intentions (1999) relocated the action to modern-day New York and starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Selma Blair and Reese Witherspoon.
And now comes an eight-episode mini-series, Dangerous Liaisons, created by Harriet Warner starring Nicholas Denton, Alice Englert and Lesley Manville among others. When she came aboard this project, Harriet says she wondered what it was about the story that prompted the various adaptations over 300 years.
Speaking from Brighton in England over a video call, she says, “I returned to the book because I had to be sure that there was something new to say, especially in the medium of television where you have the luxury of time to explore character but also the scrutiny of an incredibly sophisticated audience.”
When Harriet looked again at the Laclos’ novel, she was struck by the universal themes. “It is about class, sex, power and desire and ultimately about a woman navigating a man’s world alongside this extraordinary, provocative love story. I thought, wow, these themes still feel very relevant.”
In terms of history, she says, we live in quite a divided time. “There is a gulf between the rich and poor. In a weird way, in terms of the political and the personal, there is a real connection still. That is the eternal power of Dangerous Liaisons. Humanity does not change, and that is why the novel still has such an impact.”
The contemporary route
Wanting the show to feel authentic to the period, Harriet wondered if she should go down the contemporary route a la Cruel Intentions or stay true to the time. “The only thing I did in terms of altering the period was to move it slightly later to make it the same as when the book was published, which is about 20 years later than when the novel is set.”
Staying true to the period is satisfying for the audience, she says it offers an escape into a hugely immersive world. “I did not want to put in anachronistic language. Camille (Englert) feels modern because of her character. The words should feel as if we could have taken them from Laclos text which in itself, feels modern.” The whole piece, Harriet says, has an energy that continues to live.
Eye for detail
When shooting a historical show, Harriet says one must ensure that every element is right. “All the little details must fall together so that your end result is a world that stands up to scrutiny; one that makes you feel you are in it so you can connect with these characters and follow the emotional, character-led story.”
Finding the heads of departments who can bring that vision to life, directors who know how to shoot and a cast that feels they are wearing the clothes and not the clothes wearing them, all contribute to an riveting experience according to her.
Letter 81 in the novel was chosen as the entry point in the series. “It is a mission statement for the show and Camille. It is written by the Marquise de Merteuil to Valmont. In it she describes herself as a construct. She has created a version of herself to manage the incredibly rigid patriarchal world of the nobility.”
While reading it, Harriet felt the Marquise did not share the values of that world. “It felt like she was trying to subvert them. In my interpretation of that letter, she doesn’t feel she is from that world. And therefore, where was she from? How did she get here? Why doesn’t she feel a part of that? That was so exciting because I suddenly thought maybe what we have is a prelude. And I can explore the beginning of this love story.”
Harriet felt the letter gives a structure for the show. “It takes these characters from innocence to experience, to the corruption of those characters that we meet in the novel. There is an end point, but I wanted to go on that journey with them to understand and connect with them in the way that I hope the audience connects with them.”
Prague for Paris
Since Eighteenth-Century Paris does not exist in any meaningful way now, she says Prague was chosen as a stand in for the City of Lights. “So much has changed post-Revolution. Paris of the time was unmapped. It was in its chaotic creation phase. Prague offered us a close version that and when augmented with our set builds, gave us a wonderful parallel for Paris of the time.”
With all the steamy scenes in Dangerous Liaisons, work was cut out for the intimacy coordinator. “Intimate scenes are hard for everyone. For directors, it is wonderful to feel that they can focus on the story that is being told through the intimate scene, without worrying about the logistics.”
It is reassuring for the cast to have a safe space, Harriet adds. “The role of an intimacy coordinator is not only to coordinate the scene, but to make sure that people feel heard and they are comfortable with what they are doing. We were very lucky with Ita O’Brien who did an incredible job and was key to the show.”
Dangerous Liaisons is currently streaming on Lionsgate Play