At home, on a movie screen

Adaptation

At home, on a movie screen

When Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew was published in 1897, the movies were in their infancy and there’s no evidence that in the 19 years of life that remained to James he ever cared a jot for the new medium; it wouldn’t have met his standards.

The movies have since avenged that slight in a way that seems at least arguably Jamesian: They have paid his work the tribute of their attention. Dozens of adaptations of his delicate fictions have been produced since his death, all trying (and most failing) to capture something of his essence, the elusive beast in the verbal jungle.

The latest filmmakers to venture into the murk and tangle of James’s world are Scott McGehee and David Siegel. What Maisie Knew isn’t the most obviously daunting works in the canon. It’s relatively short, and the plot, seems straightforward: the drama revolves around the shifting affections of Maisie (Joanna Vanderham), as she is passed back and forth among her divorced parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) and other grown-ups, all of whom claim to have her best interests at heart.

The trick, of course, is figuring out which, if any, of them actually do; it’s a lot to ask of a child. Like most of James’s best fiction, What Maisie Knew is about the subtle workings of power, of influence — of sway; as always in his work, the machinations are terrifying.

Filmmakers have decided to do away with a good deal of what makes James’s worldview so distinctively dark: they have updated the story, eliminated one of the novel’s most important characters (the moralistic governess Mrs Wix) and, while respecting the complexities of their young heroine’s predicament, drastically reduced the ominousness of the original’s tone.

This must be the sunniest Henry James movie ever made. Purists may squawk, and they’d have a point. The movie doesn’t ‘get’ him because he can’t be gotten, really, in any medium other than the one in which he so meticulously laboured.

Practically every filmmaker who has set out in search of James has ended up somewhere else, either by design (like McGehee and Siegel) or by inadvertence, lost among the tendrils of the writer’s lush consciousness. The more closely a film tries to follow him, it seems, the farther afield it goes.

Those who have stuck most faithfully to the plots of his novels, like in The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984) and The Golden Bowl  (2000), or the gentlefolk of the BBC — who have recently bundled a few of their earnest attempts in a DVD set called The Henry James Collection — have tended to bring forth dramas without drama, because the action in James rarely matters much. Everything that counts is under the surface, in the tortured, painfully refined minds of his characters, and James wasn’t, for all his gifts, very good at inventing situations that could show an audience, rather than tell it, what lay beneath his people’s words and gestures. He was a notoriously unsuccessful playwright.

Showing, instead of telling, is what movies are supposed to do, and you have to wonder what possesses a filmmaker who turns the last page of, say, The Portrait of a Lady or The Wings of the Dove and thinks it would make a hell of a picture. Even the most intelligent attempts to be wholly faithful to his stories and his characters — films like Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller (1974), Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady (1996) and Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square (1997) — seem finally to bump up against something stubborn and unyielding. In the absence of strong, clear dramatic action James’s leisurely plots can feel frustratingly irresolute, and the characters, so evocative on the page, can become downright puzzling on the screen. Moviegoers aren’t noted for their patience.

What’s fascinating about James’s adaptations is how starkly they draw the aesthetic battle lines between the narrative arts of literature and film. In the writer’s own lifetime, the contest was unequal, but, as he knew, the balance of power in any relationship can shift in the course of time, and the movies’ sway over the imagination of the public has increased exponentially in the recent past.

Like it or not, film has altered our idea of how stories are told. So the most effective way for a film to honour this great American writer is to take as a given that he will never be at home on a movie screen. The best James movies are generally those that have treated his stories and his people as strangers in the land of cinema, and have forced them to observe the customs of the country. When William Wyler made his version of Washington Square, called The Heiress (1949), he worked not from the novel but from a stage adaptation.

And instead of trying to find visual equivalents for the nuances of James’s prose, Wyler adds his own sorts of embellishments and complications to the basic story of a timid spinster, her overbearing father and a suspiciously ardent suitor.

Wyler understood dramatic construction as well as any director in film history, and he also appreciated the almost subliminal effect that visual conventions can have on the viewer’s experience. So, at strategic points in The Heiress, he alludes to the familiar style of horror movies: the storms, the shadows, the figures lurking at the edges of frames. The Innocents (1961), directed by Jack Clayton, takes that style yet further, for the good reason that its source material is the classic 1895 ghost story The Turn of the Screw — a tale that, because of its genre, isn’t quite as inhospitable to film as James’s work usually is.

The built-in ambiguity of the ghost story made it the only form of popular fiction in which James could be entirely himself, and in The Turn of the Screw he applied the supernatural to the kind of interpersonal power struggle that in his other works is painfully mundane: the story is about a governess and a pair of malevolent ghosts vying for influence over the minds of two young children. It’s the Gothic version of What Maisie Knew.

The Innocents is, as it should be, mighty disturbing — both in a shocking, horror-movie way and in that queasily ambiguous Henry James way. There’s at least as much horror of the latter, more difficult, sort in Iain Softley’s Wings of the Dove (1997), which is based on one of James’s saddest, cruelest novels. It’s the story of a pair of English lovers who befriend and deceive a wealthy young American woman with a fatal disease: again, a tale of the betrayal of an innocent in which the characters’ best impulses and their worst seem inextricable from one another, indistinct even to the people themselves.

Softley and the screenwriter, Hossein Amini, daringly simplify the novel’s baroque design and turn The Wings of the Dove into, of all things, a kind of period film noir, with the scheming Kate Croy (played to a perfection of Jamesian ambiguity by Helena Bonham Carter) as its obligatory femme fatale. That isn’t James, of course, but it’s in James, if you’re looking hard enough for a way to film this most unfilmable of writers.

What else can you do? Once the movies came along, something changed in Henry James’s world, which was the world of literature, and you can almost hear him say, as Kate Croy does at the end of The Wings of the Dove, “We shall never be again as we were!”

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