If Henry James earned more prestige than profit during his lifetime, it wasn't by design. Early novels from The American to Portrait of a Lady made him famous, but failed to make him rich, and in the years following Portrait, his increasingly refined creations drew an increasingly rarified readership.
Approaching 50, compelled to write incessantly because his royalties were so thin and all too aware that his brother William had reached the zenith of his profession, Henry James felt his moment slipping. Seeking a last, best shot at riches and fame, he turned to the London stage, where the royalties from a single week of full houses might equal the advance for an entire novel.
It was the popular entertainment industry of his day, and he was frank about his intentions. Henry wanted a hit, and he was prepared for artistic compromise to get one. If that meant transforming tragedy into comedy, changing unhappy endings into happily-ever-afters, so be it. He was willing to do whatever was needed to fill the house.
On January 3rd, 1891, his theatrical adaptation of The American opened. Center stage, enjoying his first ovation, Henry had no way of knowing that this promising beginning would culminate in utter public humiliation four years later. Yet the failure of his hopes for a career in drama would prove another theatrical illusion. Within a half-century of his death, a series of gifted filmmakers from Hollywood to London have taken up his shadowy, atmospheric stories once again, convinced, as he was, that his novels are rich in theatrical potential and ready to earn wide popular acclaim.
The American as a Play
James's biographer traces the course of this dramatic adaptation.
Adapting the Master
Some of the world's most gifted directors, screenwriters, and actors have been drawn over the years to translate James's novels into films. What's the attraction?
Novel to Film
Follow a scene from James's 1877 novel to his 1890 play to the modern screenplay to the final scene as filmed.
A catalogue of films based on and inspired by James's work.
Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | A James Timeline
Teacher's Guide | Genius in the Family | Henry Wants a Hit!
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