Their lives were the stuff of great drama - so why did the screen versions make these women seem pathetic? By Teresa Grimes

Dora Carrington, above (photograph: Hulton Deutsch/ Partridge) was compelling and charming. Emma Thompson, far left, plays her as downbeat, even dour

Six years ago I made a film about Dora Carrington for Channel 4. Although it was primarily a documentary about her work as an artist, I was fascinated by her personal life. She married but didn't want to be married, disliked femininity yet had important female friendships, was attracted to lesbianism but maintained a kind of bisexuality, and loved a man who would have preferred her a boy. She was a misfit, and her story expresses dilemmas familiar to many women.

Christopher Hampton's new film follows closely on three others fictionalising the personal lives of famous cultural figures: Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, a study of Dorothy Parker; Tom & Viv, charting the tortuous marriage between TS Eliot and Vivienne Haigh- Wood; and Shadowlands, about CS Lewis's marriage to Joy Gresham. All provide rich material for a film: they offer good stories with sensational and tragic elements. They are about passion, desire, doomed love - and deal with odd and unlikely relationships. They reflect contemporary concerns with sexuality, morality and the difficulties of relating. Yet still they reduce women to secondary, conventional roles.

Every woman reaches a sorry end: Carrington commits suicide; Gresham dies from cancer; Haigh-Wood is incarcerated in a mental institution, Parker in lonely, alcoholic old age. The slant put on these events is questionable. These are films by men that portray women as suffering and vulnerable.

Hampton opens on Lytton Strachey travelling to the house where he first sees Carrington, whom he imagines a boy. Our heroine is thus introduced as the object of a man's - albeit mistaken - desire. Had a woman written the film, would we have met Carrington through his eyes? Hampton seems more interested in Strachey, andJonathan Pryce's performance dominates.

Carrington was contradictory; her published letters express her confusion about "what it means" to be a woman. Although she had a depressive side, she was also, many said, a compelling person of charm and vitality. Emma Thompson's portrayal, however, is downbeat, almost dour: one can't understand why men keep falling in love with her. And by not mentioning Carrington's bisexuality, the film simplifies her difficulties with conventional relationships.

Carrington is structured as a series of vignettes, with "chapter headings" introducing scenes in which successive passionate, heterosexual men rant and rave, making violent displays of their love for Carrington and the naturalness of their desire for her body. Carrington is passive, reactive, caught in a situation beyond her control, wishing only to safeguard her love for Strachey. Such helplessness is a misrepresentation: Carrington loved Strachey deeply, but with more than mere self- sacrifice. He couldn't return her love sexually, but the arrangement gave her emotional and practical independence; it was less oppressive.

Shadowlands offers a love story. Anthony Hopkins's CS Lewis is a mild, courteous academic; the real one was an argumentative, domineering bully interested in sadomasochism. Debra Winger, as Joy Gresham is a feisty, no-nonsense, but essentially good-humoured American who breathes fresh air into his dusty world. Reports suggest Joy was in fact caustic, belligerent and demanding. The film suppresses their unpalatable aspects for a gentle picture of two old people in love, never questioning the story's most perverse aspect - that Lewis can only really love Joy when he knows she is dying. This Joy Gresham exists only to bring humanising femininity into a man's life. The film is Lewis's story, his emotional journey.

Tom & Viv has honourable intentions - to tell Viv's side of the tale. It is sympathetic to her tragic dimensions: the misunderstanding of her medical condition; the fatal effects of the drugs she is prescribed; the horror of her 10-year imprisonment in a mental asylum. Miranda Richardson's Viv is brittle, edgy, and brimming over with terrible vivacity. In contrast, Willem Dafoe's Eliot is taciturn and withdrawn but essentially kind: a serious man unable to cope with his wife's eccentric behaviour. He seems reasonable and sane, Vivienne's "hysteria" overblown and extreme. Many of the film's intimate moments concern his psychological agonising. His point of view is subtly privileged; with Viv we are detached observers.

Mrs Parker & the Vicious Circle also overdoes the bruised vulnerability. Little mention is made of Parker's politics, and Jennifer Jason Leigh's slurred drawl means the inspired bon mots are barely heard. Less a gutsy, talented woman than a self-pitying, alcoholic wreck, she lurches from one disastrous relationship to another. The film wants to probe the psyche of a creative artist and sophisticated modern woman - an audacious, outrageous groundbreaker. Of all four it comes closest to allowing a woman complexity: to have chaotic emotions, to be edgy and difficult and a pain. Yet this Dorothy Parker is ultimately vulnerable, desperately in need of a man's love and protection. And so her life becomes a tragedy, her success overshadowed by masochistic pain and self-abasing anguish.

Although each film has a strong, central female role, and carefully portrays how men can be insensitive, selfish and cruel, the male characters ultimately get off lightly and the films seem distant from the women they are supposedly about. It's as though the film-makers thought they were making films sympathetic to women, but something has gone awry.

All these women were disadvantaged by inequality with men. But the films shy away from really exploring how power affects close relationships between men and women. In emphasising pathos and self-sacrifice as peculiarly feminine qualities, other more interesting tendencies are undermined: resilience, individuality and integrity.

n `Carrington' is on release from 22 Sept