While babies are box-office gold filmmakers will avoid grasping nettle on abortion
Everyone seems to love Bridget Jones. The cinema was full - 98% female - and the audience laughed, clapped and empathised with Bridget (the fabulous Renee Zellweger) and her zany antics. She drinks a bottle of vodka at a rock concert, falls on her face in the mud, and then falls into bed with a hunky stranger in his yurt.
Bumping into her ex at a christening party, she slugs back the wine and he slugs back the whiskey and the next thing they're deep into the four-poster bed, and, as one American critic so reticently puts it, "nature duly takes its course". What a lark.
And thus we have the very popular new movie Bridget Jones's Baby. But wait: why didn't producers Working Title consider a film called Bridget Jones's Abortion? Look at the facts. Bridget is 43; she's got a big job at a London TV channel; she carries around a dolphin-friendly female contraceptive indicating she wants to avoid a pregnancy; and she can't figure out who's the daddy.
And yet, in this whole scenario, the one word never, ever mentioned is "abortion". The more euphemistic allusion to "choice" isn't even brought up.
This is completely unrealistic. There were 185,824 terminations of pregnancy in England and Wales last year, and the biggest rise in abortion statistics was among women over 40 who, like Bridget, had become unexpectedly pregnant. There's a high chance that a real-life 43-year-old London singleton, pregnant by reckless accident and by ambiguous paternity, would have gone straight to the abortion clinic. And that it would surely have been suggested to her.
But no. The matter is never brought up. Bridget though comically confused, and her usual adorable ditzy self, is soon undergoing an early ultrascan, briskly encouraged by Emma Thompson as the no-nonsense doctor, and waving at the small human image on the ultrascan screen: "Hello baby."
Her predicament and the interaction of the putative fathers (Colin Firth as the stuffy Englishman, Patrick Dempsey as the genial Yank) are part of the gag. A movie called Bridget Jones's Abortion, would have ended there and then. No development, literally and narratively. That's one reason why film-makers shy away from the topic, and even TV writers are keener to keep a pregnancy going - because it provides more storyline development.
In the American drama series Homeland, the ruthless, neurotic CIA agent Carrie Mathison also gets pregnant, although with no desire for a baby. But there's more story potential in having her continue the pregnancy, so she does. In the compelling French series Spiral, tough, driven Paris police chief Laure Berthaud keeps flunking opportunities to pursue an abortion - missing a train to Amsterdam for a late termination - until everyone, including herself, gets involved with the expected baby. Soap operas introduce abortion as a dilemma, but they usually prefer to develop the storyline by ushering forth the baby.
So story is one reason why baby rather than termination is the preferred option. It makes for both better comedy and better drama. The second reason is that babies are box-office: movies about babies make money (Juno, Knocked Up), whereas movies about abortion are seldom hits. There was an American film last year about abortion called Grandma - an acerbic grandmother (Lily Tomlin), helps her teenage grand-daughter find the funds for an abortion - and although it was nominated for awards, it struggled to get widespread release. In terms of audience popularity, the film flopped.
In 2004, the social-realist director Mike Leigh made the acclaimed, Vera Drake, about a back-street abortionist in the Fifties, who sincerely believed she was just helping young women "in trouble". Imelda Staunton gave a superb performance, but I remember watching it in a sparsely-attended cinema.
The blatant truth is that audiences like stories about babies, and they are, for the most part, averse to stories about abortion. It can be - and is, currently, here - a political debate, and it is a debate around which there will always be personal and ethical issues. But in story, in fiction, in movies, drama or poetry, it has been remarkable by its low appearance level. There are some well observed and thoughtful short stories - Beached by Jennifer Farrell, in the recently published Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015 is a sensitive and rueful account of an abortion remembered in middle age; and Ian McEwan's latest novel, Nutshell is told from the sympathetic viewpoint of the unborn/foetus (both words are used).
Because of the amazing new developments in embryology and fetology, I believe we will soon see more focus on the drama possibilities around pregnancy. Surrogate pregnancy opens many dilemmas: what happens when the surrogate changes her mind halfway through? Depicting pregnancy has been magnified visually by the ultrasound scanner: even Mr Fintan O'Toole, the columnist for the Irish Tines, would find it hard to disparage Bridget Jones as "zygopathic" (his word for those who support the Eighth Amendment, which in Ireland introduced a constitutional ban on abortion by recognising a right to life of an unborn child) when our heroine waves "hello baby", and the baby, to the audience's delight, seems to wave back.
Mary will speak at the Institute of Ideas debate on the morality of abortion on Saturday, October 22 at the Barbican in London, instituteofideas.com