The movie “What Maisie Knew” has been commonly understood as being an adaptation of Henry James’ 1897 novel that shares the same name. That work chronicled the bitter tale of a daughter caught between two parents in a custody battle between her biological parents. On April 18, 2014, actress/musician Ronee Sue Blakley sued Carroll Cartwright, the film’s co-writer, alleging that the recent film adaptation of the piece was actually a defamatory portrayal of the former couple’s contentious custody battle that lasted over ten years.
In pertinent part the complaint read, “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.”
At least in theory, Blakely’s suit puts forth a claim commonly referred to as “libel in fiction” – i.e., a legal claim which can arise if readers or viewers recognize that what they read/view actually refers to a real person. Further, those familiar with the film and Blakely’s history would certainly be able to draw some similarities between the two. Although the film version of “What Masie Knew” wasn’t 100% faithful to the original, Blakely’s complaint asserted that the changes were merely a “literary device for disguising [Cartwright’s] ulterior purpose of defaming Blakely while attempting to shield himself from liability.”
Blakely’s suit is seeking over $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages for “extreme and outrageous conduct” intended to cause Blakely “severe emotional distress.”
Though Cartwright hasn’t yet commented on the filing, he previously made comments to the effect that his personal experiences aided him in adapting the James novel into film, stating “When I got myself into a custody battle, years after having read What Maisie Knew, it came to mind as something I could relate too and bring up-to-date without much trouble . . . . It definitely resonated with what I was dealing with in my life.”