The 1782 French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses — a steamy story of aristocrats behaving badly — has been told many times over the centuries in adaptations for the stage and screen. A new retelling, Unforgivable Love, has just as much betrayal and bed-hopping as the original, but in a new setting: glamourous, 1940s Harlem.
Author Sophfronia Scott says she was inspired to set the story in high society Harlem by the story of Madam C.J. Walker — a wealthy, African-American entrepreneur who made her fortune in beauty and hair products.
"I just thought: Well, what if this decadent, beautiful story played out among the elite of Harlem?" Scott says. "People who went to the fabulous night clubs and listened to all of the wonderful jazz ... and wore the styles of Paris. I kept thinking about people like Lena Horne and the beautiful gowns that she wore in those movies. I thought: Let's tell that story that way."
On why she wanted to retell Dangerous Liaisons
The story is still relevant today. I truly believe that the characters in my story — Mae and Val — they understood the weakness of how we're afraid of our sexuality and they really manipulate people using that. We're still kind of afraid of who we are as our physical beings, but we can be very powerful, beautiful, self-actualized people if we do take charge of that physicality.
On the Valmont character — the archetype of the playboy who finds love
I have to admit I kept seeing Denzel Washington in my head as I was writing this — someone with such a blinding smile. But the thing that fascinates me about Denzel Washington's characters is that there is a vulnerability. ... I felt that at the heart of the character that there was something about him that made him vulnerable to falling in love. ... I felt no other version got to the heart of why this is. Why did this man fall in love? There's something about him that he knows that is just not right — that there must be more to life than just being able to pay people off and sleep with whoever he wants to.
On the effect Jackie Robinson has on Val
He sees Jackie Robinson cross the color line. He's present the day that happens in baseball and he starts to see, "Well, maybe there is a reason to be a better person." ... Robinson touches his humanity in a certain way. People are throwing stuff at Robinson, calling him all sorts of names, but he tips his hat to the crowd and he behaves in a very gentleman-like way. That touches Val. He realizes you have to live above this ugliness in the world.
On writing good sex scenes
I think sometimes writers approach sex scenes as something that they are trying to describe, but it's really about expressing what is really happening to a person. Not just the physical aspect but how it captures your spirit — when you really connect with someone physically. I don't know — I can't describe it other than to say I was just trying to be real.
On three female characters in the book being at different places with their sexuality
We have three different women at three different points. ... I loved being able to show that journey from all of these different angles. From a woman who is so skilled and seductive as Mae is ... [to] someone like Elizabeth who is a grown woman and beautiful and yet does not know who she is sexually. But then you have this young woman, Cecily, who is totally naïve — she is a teenager when we meet her. ...
It annoyed me, all of the other versions of Cecile [in Dangerous Liaisons retellings]. She's even made clownish. ... But I saw her as having such potential. I wanted to go into this story looking for potential for her. She even becomes her own hero in a way that I didn't even expect.
On her own physical confidence
I'm fearless in a certain way, in terms of my physical being, and I've been told that I can be intimidating. It's only an intimidation that comes of just being confident — the way I move through a room. ... Anybody can be like that. I've been on a journey to come to this point.
Sarah Handel and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited the audio of this interview. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In the new book "Unforgivable Love," you will find a lot of hot, steamy and dangerous liaisons. And it is, indeed, a retelling of the 1782 French novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." This version has just as much betrayal and bed-hopping as the original. But it's set in a glamorous 1940s Harlem. Author Sophfronia Scott joins us now. Welcome to the program.
SOPHFRONIA SCOTT: Thank you, Lulu. I am happy to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are so many versions of this book over the centuries. And I must say I've loved them all. This is the first time, though, this story of aristocrats behaving badly has been set in Harlem. Tell me about the world that these characters inhabit.
SCOTT: You know, I wanted to create a world that - where money wasn't an issue and to tell a story about the Harlem elite that you don't really hear much about. You know, I first learned about this particular society in Harlem through the story of Madam C.J. Walker, you know, who's one of the first black women millionaires, from her hair-care products and all. And I just thought, well, what if this decadent, beautiful story played out among the elite of Harlem, you know, people who went to the fabulous nightclubs and listened to all the wonderful jazz that was going on there?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And wore Christian Dior, yeah.
SCOTT: Exactly. Wore the styles of Paris. I kept thinking about people like Lena Horne, you know, and the beautiful gowns that she wore in those movies. I thought, let's tell that story that way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to get to the physicality of this book in a minute. But I - you know, you are talking about how familiar this tale is. But in your version, lots of assumptions about the story are subverted. Let's start with the main character of the countess, who, in your book, is Mae Malveaux, and what sets her on a path of vengeance is the loss of her first love, who is a woman.
SCOTT: Yes. You know, I went into this rebuilding these characters because I was curious about them. And in the original novel and also in the Christopher Hampton play on Broadway, there's a moment where - you know, the whole thing is, you know, she wants to get this young girl seduced. But there's a moment in the play and in the book where she says, you know, if I were willing to cross that line, I would do it myself. And I just - whenever I see that moment in the play or read that, it was like, whoa, what is that about?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. Right. So the Valmont character in your book is Valiant Jackson. And he's such an archetype in books but also in our dating lives. We all...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's this idea - the playboy who finds love and can be rehabilitated, which, by the way, I think, is a complete myth. But your Valiant has a rich character development. Who was this character for you?
SCOTT: I have to admit I kept seeing Denzel Washington in my head as I was writing this.
SCOTT: Someone with such a blinding smile. And - but, you know, the thing that fascinates me about Denzel Washington's character is that there is a vulnerability about so many of the characters that he plays.
SCOTT: And I felt that at the heart of the Valmont character - that there was something about him that made him vulnerable to falling in love. And I never saw that in any of these versions. I felt no other version got to the heart of why this is. And that's why the Jackie Robinson event is key in this book - that he sees Jackie Robinson cross the color line. He's present the day that happens in baseball. And he starts to see, well, maybe there is a reason to be a better person. And that's sort of swimming around in his brain. But then when he's in the process of trying to seduce Elizabeth Townsend, he unexpectedly finds out that there is good in the world. This woman affirms it for him, confirms it for him. And she lets him see that there's not only good in the world. There's good for him. And it brings out something in him that he just does not expect.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does race function in the book for you?
SCOTT: You know, on a certain level, I wanted to write a book where that question wasn't there. And yet it still bubbles up, even when that, you know, wasn't my intention. Here's a man who has all the money in the world, and yet he knows that there is a limit to who he can be and what he can be. So why be good? But Jackie Robinson touches his humanity in a certain way. You know, people are throwing stuff at Robinson and calling him all sorts of names. But he tips his hat to the crowd, and he behaves in a very gentleman-like way. And that touches Val. You know, so he realizes you have to live above this ugliness in the world. And so even though I didn't intend to go that route, it came up anyway because that's what it is. It's here. It's all around us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sex - we have to talk about it...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Because, obviously, it's such a huge part of this story in all of its incarnations and yours in particular. I'm curious - how do you write good sex scenes? Because yours are good. I mean, how do you do that without sort of devolving into just sort of something a little bit pureaux (ph)?
SCOTT: Yeah, and cartoonish, right?
SCOTT: I think, sometimes, writers approach sex scenes as something that they're trying to describe. But it's really about expressing what is actually happening to a person. Not just the physical aspect but, you know, how it captures your spirit when you really connect with someone physically. So I don't know. I can't describe it other than to say I was just trying to be real.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The women in the book really own their own sexuality. And they are somewhere on a voyage of discovery. Others are simply claiming their ground on this. Was that important to have the woman really own their sexuality in this?
SCOTT: Yes. I loved being able to show that journey from all of these different angles, from a woman who is so skilled and seductive as Mae is. And then you have someone like Elizabeth, who is a grown woman and beautiful, and yet does not know who she is sexually. But then you have this young woman Cecily, who is totally naive. You know, she's a teenager when we meet her. And yet it's all one. It's like this - the same road, and all of these women are on different parts of it. And to see where it can take them, you know, where they choose to take this road when they're on it - is huge for them. You know, they change?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was there something personal that inspired you to take that journey?
SCOTT: I suppose I'm fearless in a certain way, in terms of my physical being. And I've been told that I can be intimidating. And it's only an intimidation that comes of just being confident in the way I move through a room. But to me, it's like, well, that's not just me. Anybody can be like that. And I've been on a journey to come to this point. So if I can show how this journey can turn out for other people, you know, maybe that can help. I don't know.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or inspire.
SCOTT: Inspire, yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sophfronia Scott is the author of "Unforgivable Love." Thank you so much. You're welcome, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.