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Screenwriter Sued for Making Henry James Adaptation Too Personal

Ronee Sue Blakley, a musician and actress once nominated for an Academy Award, says she was defamed in "What Maisie Knew" by the father of her child.

What Maisie Knew Toronto Film Still - H 2012
"What Maisie Knew"

If literati and legal scholars got together to dream up the most provocative lawsuit, they could hardly do better than the one that has just been filed over the 2012 film What Maisie Knew.

When the movie came out, it was described by almost everyone as an adaptation of Henry James' 1897 novel of the same name. But according to Ronee Sue Blakley, the film wasn't so much inspired by 19th-century American literature as a late 20th-century custody fight.

VIDEO: Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgard Star in First 'What Maisie Knew' Trailer

Blakley is a musician and actress best known for an Academy Award-nominated role in Robert Altman's Nashville. In the 1980s, she had a romantic relationship with Carroll Cartwright. Together, they had a daughter, Sarah, and then a legal battle over the child that lasted more than a decade.

Cartwright would go on to co-write What Maisie Knew, about a young girl who becomes a pawn in a bitter fight between her mother (played by Julianne Moore) and her father (played by Steve Coogan). Moore has described her character Susanna as an abusive mother who neglects her child.

Cue Blakley's new $3 million defamation claim against Cartwright.

There's a genre of defamation law known as "libel in fiction," wherein if readers can recognize what they see as referring to someone real, then statements made about this person can be actionable. "If Susanna had been an entirely fictional character, this lawsuit would never have been filed," says Blakley's lawsuit filed in L.A. Superior Court. "But that is not the case. Cartwright, who co-wrote the screenplay of the Film, has admitted that it is closely based on his own first hand [sic] personal experience of a lengthy and acrimonious battle for the custody of his daughter, Sarah."

The complaint then gets to the crux of the lawsuit. "Cartwright wrote the screenplay to further his own feelings of hatred for Blakley by maliciously and falsely portraying her as a selfish and uncaring mother, when in fact she was a devoted and loving parent. This false depiction of Blakley has damaged her reputation and caused her to suffer severe emotional distress."

VIDEO: The Cast and Crew of 'What Maisie Knew'

Although the lawsuit says the complaint is "very simple," a judge's future analysis invites an extraordinary literary deconstruction. Henry James' own novel is also about a daughter in the throes of a custody battle between her biological parents. But the lawsuit says the novel and film aren't exactly the same and that Susanna is really a "thinly disguised portrait of his antagonist" in a real-life custody fight. Of course, adaptations are rarely 100 percent faithful, but here, the description of the film as an adaptation is said to be merely a "literary device for disguising [Cartwright's] ulterior purpose of defaming Blakley while attempting to shield himself from liability."

The lawsuit builds the case that Moore's character is "of and concerning" Blakley. Among the evidence is the choice of character name (Susanna compared to Ronee Sue), character physical appearance (Moore and Blakley are said to share features like height, hairstyle and dress), character occupation (Moore's character is a musician) and more.

What Maisie Knew contains the typical disclaimer that one sees in many films: "The persons and events in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual people or events is unintentional."

Blakley, represented by attorneys Alexander Rufus-Isaacs and Neville Johnson, believes that is untrue. Cartwright couldn't be reached for comment. A judge will soon be reading Henry James and searching for inspiration.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner