It is generally assumed that Moll Flanders was written by Daniel Defoe. (Or, to give it its proper name, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother) Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent; you’ve got to love eighteenth century titles.) It was, however, published anonymously, the book’s premise being that it was the autobiography of the woman in question. It was shocking in its initial publication, as the title clearly indicates. It is also, frankly, a master class in how to talk around your sex scenes.
Moll is not her real name, but she says you would know her real name and that she prefers to keep it quiet. She was born, as per title, in Newgate; her mother had pleaded her belly and been allowed to give birth. Moll sourly points out that England, unlike say France, made no real provisions to the children of its condemned. She is eventually taken in by a woman who is paid to raise the indigent children of a county she ends up, for reasons. From there, she is taken in by a wealthy family; one brother seduces her, and the other marries her. Her life is made even more complicated by the death of that first husband and the goings-on to keep a roof over her head and food in her belly.
In the 1965 version, Moll is Kim Novak. Her birth and upbringing are somewhat different, though there are the two brothers. She is widowed. She hires herself into the service of Count and Lady Blystone (Vittorio De Sica and Angela Lansbury, of all people), and on the way to London with the baggage, the carriage is robbed. Highwayman Jemmy (Richard Johnson) is persuaded that she’s Lady Blystone and a widow, and he decides to woo her for her money. The count and lady are about as poor as everyone else in the story, so there are all sorts of goings-on involved.
In the 1996 version, Hibble (Morgan Freeman) is sent to retrieve Flora (Aisling Corcoran) from a Catholic orphanage and bid to read her the autobiography of her mother. Moll was raised in a nunnery, abused by the priest, and eventually taken in by Mrs. Allsworthy (Stockard Channing), the madam of an upscale brothel. Moll agrees to sell her virginity and becomes a sex worker herself. Only she did so in the hope of raising herself to become a gentlewoman, and she falls into despair and alcoholism until she is Rescued By The Love Of A Good Man, namely an artist (John Lynch) who initially hires her as a model.
And if you’re wondering what that last has to do with anything, well you might. It’s not actually a terrible movie. But neither it nor the ‘65 are hugely faithful to the plot of the original novel. It’s clear the ‘65 wanted the prestige of being connected to the original work, as it was hoping to draw on the success of Tom Jones, itself based on a work of literature. But while it starts not terribly far afield, it rapidly goes off the rails. There is a Jemmy in the book, to whom she is married and with whom she ends up, and they do both con one another into believing the other wealthy, but that’s as close as we get.
In fact, title notwithstanding, the novel’s Moll is not what we’d think of as a sex worker at all. She’s a wealthy man’s mistress, and she strongly conflates the two herself, before her first marriage. One of her lovers was married to a woman since institutionalized, and this is one of the things she counts. The man leaves her due to a religious reawakening that sends him back to his wife. Moll does sleep with men to whom she is not married, and does indeed inadvertently marry her own brother, but she does so because she needs to keep herself fed and clothed, as established.
The ‘65 is probably the worst of the three. The whole thing is played for laughs. Moll is never shown in an outfit that doesn’t bare her breasts to about a millimeter above the areola. (Well, when she’s an orphan child played by Claire Ufland.) There’s a depressingly extended sequence where she is chased around by the count. The shortened version of her life with the nameless family involves her being constantly assaulted in one way or another not just by both brothers but by the father as well. She’s pawed at by a banker played by George Sanders. Sure, they get married, but the honeymoon scene is excruciating.
There’s a lot of political and social stuff in the book that of course don’t make it into either movie. It’s also been argued as to whether Moll’s rise in status has to do with a belief that The Poors Are Just Like Us or a belief that The Poors Are Less Interesting. Moll’s goal in life is not to be a servant, which is understandable. Certainly it would be difficult to explain the entire history of being transported to the Americas in that little time—the woman on whom Moll is based, Moll King, was transported to the Americas three or possibly four times. But these are adaptations that are trading on the “fame” of the novel, which is interesting given how obscure it is.