Adapting the Master
by Caitlin O'Neil
Six top producers, directors and screenwriters tell why they chose Henry James
Modern filmmakers often take liberties when they bring Henry James novels to the screen. Would the master have approved?
James spent his own middle years dramatizing his work, penning stage versions of two of his most successful novels as well as several original plays. "I find the form opens out before me as if it were a kingdom to conquer," he wrote to Robert Louis Stevenson. The kingdom he saw before him was one that promised riches and wider fame, and he understood that he might have to modify both his stories and his sensibilities to claim it. But in the end he was unable to bridge the gap between literature and popular entertainment. Audiences dubbed his plays too literary, the critics not literary enough.
Considering James's own failed efforts, one wonders what he would make of the modern parade of film adaptations. Since 1947 no less than 30 versions of his novels and stories have been offered up to intrepid moviegoers. And, just as James changed his work for the stage -- in the case of The American, giving the story both a comic twist and a happy ending -- filmmakers have often altered his stories in bringing them to the screen. In doing so they have faced the same challenge that James himself confronted: how to turn his stories inside out; how to draw out the rich interior psychology of his characters in a way that is dramatically satisfying.
Given the difficulty of the challenge, why is James so attractive to filmmakers? While his complex prose has become legendary, his stories are often structurally strong and classic, melodramatic plots populated with finely drawn characters that are perfect for the big screen.
"What I love about James is the way he describes characters," says Paul Unwin, director of The American. Agneiszka Holland, the director of Washington Square, agrees. "There is a complexity to his characters and the choices they are confronted with," Holland says, "and also very sharp and ironic descriptions of the paradox between what society asks from us, how society sees us, and how we want to see ourselves.... That is exactly what attracted me to the character [Catherine Sloper, the heroine of Washington Square] and made her modern: a woman who has to find herself in the abstraction of expectations and roles of society, men, and other people."
A century after James wrote his classic tales, his approach to storytelling serves as a counterpoint to mainstream modern culture. Surrounded by an image-driven society that emphasizes style and attitude, we've become intrigued by the elusive interior world lurking beneath the slick surfaces of daily life. James captures these shadowy, subjective realms perfectly. In his work, action of the shoot-'em-up variety common in American blockbusters is scarce. Important events are intangible, occurring as subtle shifts in characters' awareness, perceptions, or judgement. And while James's language describes these psychological atmospheres quite precisely, filmmakers can only evoke interior worlds by depicting the very exterior that separates us from it. The most imaginative filmmakers, however, are undaunted by this challenge.
"The internal monologues are very rich, providing a lot of material that you can make into scenes," says director James Ivory, who, with producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has taken on no fewer than three of James's works (The Europeans, The Bostonians, and the soon-to-be-released The Golden Bowl). "The material is there to guide the adapter along in all sorts of ways, and actually does provide you with clues and even raw material for scenes, which then make the story clearer to a viewer."
To convey James's lush interior musings, Ivory relies on "a mosaic to create a big idea which James is developing in many, many paragraphs." Taking advantage of the other tools at his disposal -- music, acting, sets, costumes, lighting, cinematography -- he pieces together a scene that invokes rather than recreates James literally but still preserves the rich subtext beneath the story's surface.
What film offers, says screenwriter Hossein Amini, who received a 1997 Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Wings of a Dove, is the chance to provide that subtext through not verbal but visual cues. "I think that film as a medium is so well suited to subtext," Amini continues. "You're able to tell two different stories at the same time, which I think is the essence of James's kind of work.... Image, music, dialogue, and all of those can be working against each other, which is, in a way, what James's prose often does. There are three or four ideas going on at the same time, which makes a film so tempting to try, to capture some sense of that. But I still think it's almost impossible to capture what he does with his prose."
Ivory found the task of capturing James's prose was simpler with his first James films, The Europeans and The Bostonians, because "they weren't these large-scale stories like the world of his last books. The Golden Bowl is much more sophisticated than those earlier stories, and so it was harder to adapt. When you get to the last books, they are very oblique kinds of tales, very sophisticated, but still full of wonderful images, wonderful scenes, and wonderful characters," says Ivory. "The situation of The Golden Bowl is something you can instantly grasp, and it's a very strong, simple kind of plot. But the presentation of it on the page is not simple."
For Amini, one of the joys of adapting James is the challenge of distilling the master's intent. "In the script for Wings of the Dove, there were very few scenes that actually appear in the novel. They are pretty much all invented," he admits. "But what James does give you is these incredible characters and this extraordinary motivation that they each have, so it makes the scene relatively easy to write." And, while he acknowledges that he had to guess at what those characters' actions might be in a given situation he had invented, he says, "You have such strong psychology at work that actually it becomes good fun to write because you know the characters so well. And then when you try to adapt to a lesser book, or write your own stuff, you sort of realize quite how much work has gone into James's characterization."
Keeping (or Losing) the Faith
"We are as anxious as the critics of the newest school to hail the advent on our stage of literary men," a British critic remarked after seeing James's adaptation of The American on the London stage in 1891, "but it is on the condition that they bring their literature with them." This admonition still strikes a chord for many modern filmmakers: Can James's stories migrate from the arena of high art into the realm of pop culture without being stripped of their sophistication? At some point in the adaptation process, each creative team must decide whether they will attempt to adapt James "faithfully" or reinvent him fundamentally. Because one could argue that even James wasn't faithful to James, the importance of fidelity may be overemphasized. But the challenge of capturing James's tone does seem to inspire many filmmakers to try, especially when they feel their predecessors have missed the point. Before deciding to make Washington Square, Holland watched The Heiress, a version of the same novel featuring Olivia de Havilland that was filmed during Hollywood's golden age. "I thought that it was exactly the opposite of the character James described; that the philosophy of the character, and the philosophy of her destiny, is very different in the original Washington Square. That is why I thought that I could do it. I imagined that I was doing it faithfully to James.
"When directors appropriate material, they think they are being faithful," Holland continues, "but mostly they try to translate it into their own sensitivity, which is not necessarily the right sensitivity. It's very difficult objectively to judge if I was really faithful or not. In my opinion I was, but of course somebody can decide that I wasn't."
Other filmmakers focus less on fidelity and more on reinventing James. "My background is in theater," says Unwin, director of The American, "and I always used to argue when we did Shakespeare productions that you could never be faithful to the original and you couldn't do it any harm. Henry James's novel is going to be there.... What you have to do is to get inside and find what it is about that story that speaks to you and your audience now. What I was taken by in the de Bellegarde story was how families lock together, how they damage each other, how they hold each other down, which is a kind of almost Ibsenesque story."
Where Unwin saw Ibsen in the family drama of The American, Amini took his cues from film noir in The Wings of the Dove. "This story seemed similar to films like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past where you have these lovers colluding and slowly destroying themselves in the process.... [My script] was heavily influenced by film noir -- everything from the staccato dialogue through these meetings in murky, Venetian courtyards and corners. It had very much a sort of that plot."
In making The Europeans, The Bostonians, and The Golden Bowl, Ivory drew on his own body of work, which already had themes found in James's work. "Our Indian films were very much about outsiders in India, and India as viewed by outsiders, and so forth," says Ivory. "Those stories were in a way like Henry James's. Someone comes from the West, usually a girl, gets involved, usually romantically, with Indians, suitable or otherwise, comes to a bad end or doesn't come to a bad end. It was an area of storytelling that we had already worked in. And so there was already a propensity to do what you might call a cultural clash film."
Another facet of James's appeal to filmmakers may derive from a fundamental misunderstanding. "I think that a lot of the production decisions are made based on the success of Jane Austen adaptations," says Holland. "They saw that it's something similar, because here you have a period love story, there you have a period love story. But I think that James is very, very different from Jane Austen, whose work was something like the romantic comedies of today. James is much more complex, dry, cold, dark, and painful."
Fiona Finlay, producer of The American, agrees with Holland's assessment. "[Jane] Austen is more optimistic about people's natures. And even [Charles] Dickens has got an optimistic feel; that in the midst of evil there is good. I'm not sure Henry James believes that. I think he actually thinks that evil triumphs over good.... If you want to be true to the spirit of the book, that is true to the spirit of the book."
Transforming the Story
No matter how loyal the filmmakers' intentions, James cannot be transplanted intact from novel to film. Decisions have to be made. Characters are lost; subplots fall by the wayside; scenes are played up or dropped out; and attitudes are updated to resonate with the sensibilities of a modern audience. The motivation behind these changes is one James would understand well: a play for drama that can hold the wandering attention of a popular audience. While there is room to digress in literature, in the theater stories must maintain their momentum.
"If the novel is a poem, the film is a telegram," says Michael Hastings, screenwriter for The American. "You've got to take the general focus and go with it, and some things have to fall by the wayside... Some characters do have to drop off the table. I mean, I have 90 minutes or something. The reader has hours."
The new film adaptation of The American contains several striking changes from the book, the most obvious being the film's opening sequence. "We did talk a lot about the opening because we originally had it just as it was in the book, at the very end," says Producer Finlay. Director Unwin says the move was made to heighten the drama: "It was all an attempt to give the audience an experience before they met Christopher Newman, and to give them a kind of tension. Where is this character going to end up? Is he going to end up back where we started at the beginning of the film? Is it going to be as dark and mysterious as it appears to be? I felt that placing the secret at the beginning would give us that trajectory."
Once viewers are launched alongside the American Newman into the almost gothic world of the de Bellegardes, another key departure from the book occurs at a pivotal plot point: Newman gains possession of a long-hidden letter, proof of a skeleton in the family closet. In the film, Newman hands the letter over to Madame de Bellegarde in exchange for her promise to permit his marriage with Claire. She then burns the letter in his presence and only afterwards betrays her promise. In the novel, Newman never yields possession of the letter. After threatening to expose the family's scandal and carrying the letter around for months, he finally accepts that revenge can never recapture Claire and burns the letter himself.
"Michael had said to me that he put in the scene with Madame de Bellegarde and the letter to heighten the drama of the whole thing. That moment in the novel is without conflict. It's just Newman, burning the letter," says Unwin. "In making a film like this, you have to create moments that focus the overall conflict. What I tried to create is in the book, but it is spread very, very thinly. To dramatize the film, we made a high-octane version of it."
Undressing the Intimacy
The American makes another fundamental departure from James that many James adaptations embrace. While sex is never explicit in James's work -- passionate partners seldom exchange so much as a kiss -- in film after film based on his work, lovers take the big screen by storm. In the case of The American, Noémie and Newman tumble into bed together, and Claire finds comfort in American arms.
"In all fairness, I have slept through some Henry James adaptations," says Unwin. "They can be so rarified, so held back and uptight and respectful of James's temerity and kind of coolness.... We looked at James's temerity with the whole subject of sex as a weakness, and didn't perpetuate it in our adaptation of it.... It's not to diminish James in doing it; it's simply to find another way of expressing what you think he's expressing."
When modern filmmakers adapt classic works, the stories often become more sexually explicit, and fans often get upset. They don't like to see their beloved book changed; the characters they know would never have kissed or slept together. Finlay acknowledges the difficulty but argues that modern audiences may have an image of the past that is not entirely accurate. "It's interesting that people do have to say, 'No, that would have never happened.' It's difficult to tell, isn't it? I think people have ideas about what happened in the past that are not necessarily all true."
The sexually explicit scene at end of the film version of The Wings of the Dove was "the reason I really wanted to do the adaptation," says screenwriter Amini. "I got to this scene in the book where they are facing each other, in a room just talking, but the dialogue somehow seemed much, much darker and more sexual than the place they were in and the way they were speaking it. So it jumped in my head that you could so easily transpose exactly the same dialogue with these two people in bed finding out that the love is no longer there. The moment I thought of that scene -- and it wasn't gratuitous -- for me it was absolutely, it was essential to that whole adaptation.
"If we had played that scene with them talking across the room, I'm not sure it would have worked. I don't think it would have been intense enough for the cinema and a modern audience, because I think it would have been quite jarring to have them standing stiffly talking. I think that's where those 100 years or so make a difference. I don't think he [James] would have been able to write it.... It felt a bit bold, but I think we have been totally true to the spirit of the scene, and in a way I think we made it more accessible and hopefully startling to a modern audience."
Capturing the Essence
While critics and devotees may argue that sexing up James on screen is gratuitous, filmmakers don't seem worried. In the end, the pleasure to be gained from James is had by sitting in a room with him and enjoying his company, whether you are curled up with his books or in a darkened theater watching an adaptation unfurl on screen. Filmmakers who have had an enjoyable experience reading James take on the challenge of filming his work to bring that feeling alive.
"When you get to the end of the book, there was that feeling that you have taken something from it, and you feel absolutely unique because you're sitting in your room alone reading that book. It's hard to capture," says Amini. "The adaptation becomes an effort to capture that particular kind of sensation. And his work is so ambiguous that you sort of feel, 'I've got a sort of very particular take on this.' I find that really exciting."
Hastings also points out that no matter how many times James is interpreted, the true spirit of his books will remain inviolate between the covers. "James is trying to often invoke extraordinary experiences and presences in the air. It is a mysterious and beautiful quality he's got as a writer. It can never be denied. That's always there if you've got the time and the patience to read it."
Caitlin O'Neil is a producer for WGBH Interactive.
For more information on the films mentioned in this article, visit the Henry James filmography.
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