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'Unforgivable Love' Resets Steamy 'Dangerous Liaisons' In 1940s Harlem

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."

Interview Highlights

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.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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