1988’s Dangerous Liaisons Is Still the Best Adaptation of the Book

Dangerous romancesthe 1988 period drama directed by Stefan Frears and main role Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Therman and Keanu Reeves, set in late 18th-century France. The gap between the haves and have-nots is still widening towards a final breaking point, but not yet. All the country gentry has to worry about right now is their social standing and personal enjoyment. On this social battlefield we meet dueling rivals who seek to conquer and triumph over one another or other people through seduction, while the consequences of a life of debauchery, deceit and blatant unkindness loom dangerously behind them. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film, shot on location in many opulent French palaces, with beautifully detailed and period costumes. No wonder he received Academy Awards for both costume design and artistic direction that year. It’s also a well-acted film, with Close particularly shining in one of her biggest and least spoken roles. It was the first English language adaptation of the original novel and is still the best in the series.

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Les Liaisons Dangerousesthrough Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was first published in 1782, less than a decade before the height of the French Revolution. It served as both a timely, daring morality tale and a thrilling tale of seduction and revenge as the reader is presented with the letters exchanged between two fascinating, respected and cruel public figures. Pulling the strings are the manipulative Marquise de Merteuil and serial seducer Vicomte de Valmont, ex-lovers who become embroiled in a twisted competition while corrupting and breaking three innocent, naïve and virtuous youths for their own gain and pleasure. It remains an incredibly influential novel of outer abundance and inner emptiness, an early pioneer of “wealthy people who misbehave” in which we see echoes gossip girl, The Righteous Gems, and a plethora of reality TV shows. — and of course, it spawned a few customizations of its own. The best known is the 1999 teen drama Cruel intentions, who modernized the story by setting it in the Upper East Side of New York City and returning the main actors to the same youthful ages. This practice will be repeated twice more in a French Netflix film releasing this year, set in modern-day Biarritz with high school-aged characters, and in an upcoming prequel series coming to Starz in November that predates the original work a plays young Merteuil and Valmont.

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This practice is by no means new, Hollywood has a long tradition of adapting classic stories for teenagers who will likely need to read those classics for English class, by bringing them into the present day, aging the cast, or doing both at the same time. This is seemingly done to make the story more accessible to modern audiences, but can lead to overwhelming success if the right story is chosen and adapted well. clueless, a modernization of Jane Austen‘s Emma, is considered a classic in its own right, and 10 things I hate about you was so good that it fixed the controversial plot of Taming the Shrew. For lighter, more absurd stories, a high school adaptation works pretty well; Dangerous romances is not one of those stories and therefore something about Cruel intentions and the Netflix movie will play differently in a harmful way. A story about reputation doesn’t matter when in a few short years all the characters will graduate, go to college, and probably forget any of this even happened. As the old saying goes, “No one cares what you did in high school.” With a younger cast, audiences can have the thought in the back of their minds, especially when these young, impulsive and emotionally stunted people have money and power, that they can use that same money and power to wash away their flaws, unfortunately tends to in real life to happen.


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Because of this, it is crucial for the characters, particularly Valmont and Merteuil, to maintain their original ages as in the 1988 film. The insidiousness of these characters, which carries over to modern times, is that they are considerably older than the lovers they take. The two operate under the guise of being a mentor or matron, some might even say, a connection to the young and ignorant, fresh bodies they can manipulate and carve, exploit, corrupt and ruin to their liking. Their age matters too, as these two have become what they are now through time and experience, and countless successes as conquerors have made them proud enough to believe they can get away with anything. They’re not kids, they should know better, they probably know better, they just don’t care anymore. More importantly, they’ve known, fought and loved each other for decades.


This is the central relationship of the story, something that is not lost Dangerous romances. It is neither the redeeming, tragic love story between Valmont and the virtuous Marie de Tourvel nor the innocence of young lovers Celine and Danceny. The most compelling, tragic and important relationship in Dangerous romances is the one between Valmont and Merteuil. The book reads like letters sent between the two, and the 1988 film exemplifies this perfectly through even the tiniest exchange between Malkovich and Close. Every look, every little touch, the way they sit so close together, the way they relax, smile, sip tea, chat openly reveals their intimate story. It’s so clear, especially near the end, that they have very deep and complex feelings for each other. They love each other, they want each other, but still they destroy each other. The “good” ending, if there ever was a “good” ending to this story that doesn’t have heads cut off a few years later, isn’t that Valmont is redeemed from Tourvel’s love and Merteuil is shamed and dies alone, but Merteuil and Valmont, the two people who have the greatest mutual respect, understanding and even care between them and are finally reuniting. They are equals who should have stayed together and left everyone else to their own lives, but they can’t – not for any external reason, but for something inside them that forbids them to let the other claim them.


Perhaps the reasons other film adaptations are aging in the cast are more reasons for sympathy than modernization – particularly, and unfortunately for Valmont to the detriment of Merteuil. in the cruel intentions, The Valmont analogue is redeemed by the love of an innocent virgin woman and receives a heroic sacrifice acquitted, though in reality he is one of the more unsettling Byronic heroes. Malkovich still remains a slightly odd, maybe even slightly controversial, choice for the seductive, alluring manipulator, but the fact that he’s quite unconventional, a little alien at times, even camp in his delivery, was the right decision, to a degree to establish quality emotional distance. The audience should not feel a desire to support his actions, which sometimes border on or even amount to sexual assault, or excuse his actions because he is charming or attractive. He’s energetic, a little creepy, but more importantly, he’s beginning to realize that the man he’s become is as corrupt and empty as the French aristocracy was believed to be. On the other hand, the Marquise de Merteuil is much more complex than the one-dimensional, bitchy queen bee her younger counterparts are portrayed to be, her old age certainly helps, but despite Close’s history of playing violently unstable, villainous femme fatales, Merteuil is far more reserved . She thinks not of competing with other women, but of dominating the surrounding men, with Cecile and Marie De Tourvel being just a means to an end for her. They are both as wretched and amoral as the others, Valmont and Merteuil, both shaped by a world where appearances and reputation are all that matters, where purity and virtue are performative, and life by any means is a struggle for supremacy .


Dangerous romances is absolutely worth another look; There’s a reason the original story has persisted through the years. When you’ve got a damaged bad boy, a chaste angel, and a woman despised, it’s so easy to turn it into something almost entirely black-and-white (and quite misogynistic), a moral play on why it’s bad to have a sexually assertive woman to be and why love is redeeming and why one should stay good and virgin until marriage. The magic of this film is that it’s not easy. Neither ending is presented as a triumph over evil, one can almost feel sorry for the underhanded rivals, simply the shattered remains of people too late to save in a society that perpetuates the wickedness of others. Cruel intentions wins for Best Soundtrack of the precious few adaptations we get from this groundbreaking work, but Frear’s darkly alluring, deliciously scandalous, and faithfully adapted masterpiece stands above all.

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