Even though I’m a lady, I don’t often watch what many critics refer to “women’s films” and typical romantic films tend to bore me to tears. It’s always bothered me that I’m supposed to enjoy An Affair to Remember (1957) more than The Dirty Dozen (1967) simply because of my gender. Apologies to the film’s legions of fans, but I find An Affair to Remember to be one of the most insufferably boring movies that Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr ever made and I love Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. On the other hand, if I come across The Dirty Dozen playing on TV there is a good chance that I’ll probably watch it.
So why in the world did I spend 95 minutes of my life watching the first film adaptation of a Harlequin romance novel recently? I could blame my fascination with the talented actor Keir Dullea who stars in Gerry O’Hara’s film Leopard in the Snow (1978). Keir Dullea is the reason I initially wanted to see Leopard in the Snow, but after I did a little background research on the movie my curiosity was piqued and I plunged into this romantic drama without reservation. I was curious to see a feminine approach to what I assumed might be some sexy ’70s style entertainment.
Harlequin novels are published in association with Mills & Boon, which is a well-known publisher of romance novels for women that has been going strong for roughly 100 years. They were originally based in Britain and Canada, but in 1971 they started releasing their books in North America. When Harlequin first debuted they published romantic novels with very little erotic content except the occasional kiss or caress, but after they discovered that their steamier novels were selling the most, Harlequin introduced a second line of books called Harlequin Presents. This second line of books from Harlequin highlighted the work of three popular British romance authors who were responsible for some of the publisher’s most sensual novels. One of these authors was Anne Mather (a pseudonym for Mildred Grieveson) who wrote the original 1974 Harlequin Presents’ novel Leopard in the Snow.
It seems only natural that the popularity of the Harlequin Presents line would lead the book publishers to attempt a film adaptation based on one of their earliest and most popular novels, and in 1978 Harlequin decided to produce a film version of Anne Mather’s Leopard in the Snow, which Mather also wrote the script for. Unfortunately for the book publishers their first foray into feature-length movie making was a financial and critical flop. Harlequin was so disappointed by the poor response to Leopard in the Snow that they didn’t produce another film version of one of their books until the 1994 TV adaptation of Cheryl Emerson’s Treacherous Beauties sixteen years later. Harlequin continues to release television films based on their novels, but Leopard in the Snow is still their only theatrically released film.
I’m not sure what the Harlequin Presents tagline was in 1974 when Leopard in the Snow was first published, but according the official Harlequin website it’s currently:
“Meet sophisticated men of the world and captivating women in glamorous, international settings. Seduction and passion are guaranteed.”
And the original film poster for Leopard in the Snow featured the line:
“Remember when a good love story made you feel like holding hands?”
The 1978 paperback and original film poster for Leopard in the Snow
Since I’ve never read the original novel, I can’t tell you if the film is a faithful adaptation of the book, but I can tell you that the movie features very little “glamour,” “seduction” and “passion.” It’s also not the typical kind of romance film that would encourage lovers to walk out of the theater “holding hands.” As a matter of fact, the film contains very little romance and no sex, so it’s not too surprising that it was a box office disaster for Harlequin. If potential viewers walked into a movie theater believing any of the advertising associated with the book imprint or the film, they were probably going to be a little disappointed. On the other hand, the film takes a surprisingly serious and somewhat unsentimental approach to adult romance.
Leopard in the Snow begins with a pretty upper class London girl called Helen (Susan Penhaligon) getting lost in a snowstorm while she’s driving in the bleak British countryside. Helen’s rescued by an attractive American stranger with a bad limp (Keir Dullea) named Dominic , who happens to be out walking his pet leopard… in the snow. Helen returns with the American back to his country home and as the plot slowly unfolds we discover that Dominic is a reclusive ex-race car driver who was involved in a terrible accident that left him crippled and killed his brother. Helen is told by Dominic and his faithful manservant (Jeremy Kemp) that it’s impossible for her to leave due to the snowstorm, so she finds herself trapped with the cranky Dominic and his pet leopard for days. Instead of romance blossoming between the two strangers, Dominic is strangely cruel and flat out mean to Helen at first and she seems frightened of him and immediately tries to leave. Keir Dullea has always played odd, thoughtful and strangely compelling characters so I wasn’t too surprised by his performance as Dominic and his rather brutal treatment of the helpless young woman, but it seemed really out of place in a “romance” movie.
Things take an even stranger turn when Helen finds out she’s being held against her will. Dominic refuses to let her go because he’s afraid that people will find out where he is. You see, ever since his race car accident he’s been hiding out in the British countryside and doesn’t want to be bothered by pesky reporters and fans who seem to think he’s dead. Naturally the relationship between Dominic and Helen becomes even more uncomfortable and strained. It isn’t until Helen finally succumbs to her captivity and accepts her disturbing situation that she begins to exhibit any real feelings for Dominic. This makes the poor girl’s romantic feelings for her captor seem like they’re fueled by a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome instead of love.
After Helen’s various escape attempts fail, Dominic finally lets her return home to her wealthy family in London where they’re getting ready to celebrate Christmas, but she begs him to let her stay. It turns out Helen’s got a handsome, stable and kind suitor at home who’s been asking for her hand in marriage, but she doesn’t want anything to do with him. Once Helen’s safe at home she can only think of the abusive and self-absorbed Dominic, so she finally decides to return to the place where he held her captive and throw herself at his feet. Following a few minor plot twists and turns, Leopard in the Snow ends happily with Helen, Dominic and his pet leopard literally walking off into the sunset… okay, it was actually more like walking out into a snowy winter landscape, but you get the idea. The title of the novel and film is a painfully obvious metaphor for the strange relationship between Dominic and Helen. I suppose either one of them could be seen as the “wild leopard” that needed to be tamed. Since the film is based on a Harlequin romance novel I expected a happy ending, but this cold and rather unusual film was completely unlike the passion-filled romance I expected it to be, and frankly that’s probably why I finished watching it.
I found the movie strangely compelling, mainly due to the lack of any strong narrative voice, which would have undoubtedly been provided in the original novel by the heroine. Since Helen’s voice is absent in the film except when she’s responding to other characters, viewers have no clear idea of what her feelings are towards her supposed love interest. I’m sure Susan Penhaligon’s rather low-key performance added to the odd feel of the film or maybe she was just having a hard time expressing what her character was supposed to be feeling, but the original novel was probably written from her perspective so readers would have had a clearer understanding of why she was attracted to Dominic. Without Helen’s voice dominating Leopard in the Snow, I was left wondering why she was willing to endure his cruel and controlling behavior. However, if a voice-over had been added to the movie it would have played out more like a Lifetime movie or an episode of Sex in the City, and I would have personally found it a lot less interesting to watch.
It’s really impossible to recommend Leopard in the Snow unless you happen to be a Keir Dullea completist. Gerry O’Hara’s lackluster direction is really uninspired. Much of the film was shot in Canada so the supposedly British countryside looks strangely alien at times and the occasional use of faux snow is distracting. The soundtrack by composer Kenneth V. Jones isn’t bad, but it’s pretty predictable and bland at times. The only thing really worthwhile about the film is the first half of Anne Mather’s script and Dullea’s odd performance as the crippled race car driver Dominic. Susan Penhaligon is really forgettable in her role, which is a shame since she’s a very pretty actress who I’ve enjoyed in other films. The lack of any real chemistry between the two leads definitely hurts the movie. Keir Dullea just wasn’t made for playing a romantic leading man. The American actor seems oddly out of place in Harlequin’s first film surrounded by an entirely British cast. He also doesn’t seem that comfortable with the leopard which he’s rarely shown with in the movie, but that’s not too surprising since he was supposedly almost mauled by the giant cat on the first day of shooting Leopard in the Snow.
Coincidently, Harlequin’s associate publishers Mills & Boon will be celebrating their 100th birthday in 2008 and recently there has been a lot of discussion among female critics and writers about the long-term effects of romance novels like Leopard in the Snow and how they shape or inform women’s romantic relationships and sexual behavior. Harlequin and Mills & Boon have been criticized for decades by critics who rail against what they see as “misogynistic hate speech” and “positive images of rape” in the books they publish and I’m sure plenty of people would be troubled by the way that the romance plays out in Leopard in the Snow, but Harlequin romance novels are written by women and read by women, so using a term like “misogynistic” to describe Leopard in the Snow and Harlequin romances in general, seems utterly absurd to me. It’s not a term I like casually tossing around when discussing movies and I find it impossible to use it when describing female focused entertainment.
In some ways Leopard in the Snow could be seen as a product of the ’70s and it would be easy to dismiss the original novel and film as presenting a dated representation of women and female sexuality, but at a time when movies like Knocked Up and Black Snake Moan are becoming critically acclaimed films, criticizing or dismissing Leopard in the Snow for the way it portrays its female characters seems ridiculous to me. Like all Harlequin romance novels, Leopard in the Snow should be viewed as a romantic fantasy told from a uniquely female perspective, which we rarely get to see in films. I personally think having a healthy fantasy life is essential to human development as long as it doesn’t interfere with daily reality, and Harlequin romance novels seem to enrich the lives of a lot of people even if they aren’t exactly my own cup of tea. Regular Harlequin readers would probably enjoy the film adaptation of Leopard in the Snow since the original novel appears to follow typical formulas often used by romance writers. Romantic entanglements with race car drivers seem to be a popular theme among Harlequin readers. The company recently created a successful new line of books called NASCAR Romances and it’s possible that Leopard in the Snow was one of the forerunners of this unusual romantic subgenre.
Leopard in the Snow was released on DVD by Televista in October and the film is currently available from Amazon. Like all of Televista’s DVD releases, the quality is rather poor so it’s hard to recommend. Hopefully another company will release a better print of the film in the future.
– Harlequin’s Official Site
– Mill & Boon’s Official Site
– Teach Me Tonight (A terrific blog devoted to intelligent conversation and scholarly research into romance novels)
– Keir Dullea Profile (Richard Harland Smith’s look at the film career of Keir Dullea)