Wednesday, July 27, 2011

BOOK TO FILM: Can We, Should We, Improve Henry James?

Ben Chaplin as Morris Townsend 1997

How to make a movie from the work of a brilliant writer, how intimidating is it to alter even a single sentence of the great Henry James? And if we do, how can we live up to his high standard?

Henry's brother William was a pioneer in psychology, and Henry himself is famous for creating characters and situations which hinge on psychology.

However in his novella Washington Square, though the characters are quite carefully and fully drawn with the interiority of psychology, nonetheless James created his villain with his motives black and white with scarcely gray. So often, the power of a tale rests on how well the villain is drawn. Dare I say that the entire novella fails because the villain needed more ambiguity.*

Henry James
Intimidation from a man
dead a century?

How could the Old Master of psychology make such a grave psychological mistake? Or am I judging by modern standards? Dare we alter his story to our taste? And how?

It was produced for Broadway and twice for Hollywood. The black and white nature deeply bothered all three of those writers/directors (four actually), and they all did something about it, yet keeping fairly faithful.

James is a bit difficult to dramatize as so much of the "action" happens inside people's heads. To dramatize him requires made-up scenes. But even the made-up scenes remain faithful to the original. Is this reverence? Is it intimidation from a man dead a century? James does look fierce in his older photos, and I can imagine moviemakers tip-toeing around, hoping not to rouse the giant asleep.

Further down is a beautiful song video from the 1997 movie

Henry James young, if he ever was

James's Washington Square novella is not a nice story, though written with all the subtle wit, irony and insight to make it worth reading. One of his pieces that James liked the least and readers the best. A simple, cowlike daughter, Catherine; her overbearing father Dr. Sloper who has a distaste for her he manages most of her life to keep veiled; and a handsome cad of a suitor. Great set-up.

James's text makes it very clear that Morris is only looking for a rich wife, as the father rightly guesses.

Morris's open selfishness does not work for our modern sensibility. We want him to remain an enigma from start to finish. Whether he's simply a fortune-hunter, we can be almost sure- but not entirely. We need that crack in the door to pull us along. Since Morris is, unfortunately, the most interesting character, without his ambiguity the story fails entirely.

A great triangle.
photo robert clayton pioneer theater co

First it was adapted for Broadway in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. The storyline was little changed but gave Catherine more backbone.

The first screen adaptation was directed by William Wyler in 1949 and was one of Montgomery Clift's first movies. The screenplay retains the dramatic shape and feel of the stage, as it was written by the original Broadway playwrights. Wyler made an agreement with them to make only the smallest changes.

Morris pays a call on Catherine

The playwrights did allow Wyler to remove some lines that made it just too clear that Morris is a fortune-hunter. So apparently Wyler wanted Morris to be more ambiguous, and I imagine that had he not been bound by the playwrights, he might have done so even more.

Critics claim that the real reason the lines were removed was because the producers did not want to make Montgomery Clift's character too hateful, bad for his budding career.

But I find it significant how Wyler defended his choice: he claimed he felt it was Henry James's actual intention. (If only Wyler had felt that way about the father, who he makes too cruel.) As if Henry James- of all people- was incapable of saying what he meant! Giving credit where credit may not be due. However, I find it amusing because when I read the story, that's exactly the same way I feel: Oh surely James didn't mean to say that! Surely he intended something else!

The playwrights's script interpreted James's ending to be about vengeance, and they took that to its dramatic height, with Catherine leaving Morris banging futilely at her door. This ending preserved a black and white quality and did not suit the characters. It did, however, make good drama and won Olivia de Havilland an Oscar.

The third try was Agnieszka Holland's 1997 movie. It restored some subtlety missing in the high drama of the 1949 movie. Many points which bother us in either the novella or the 1949 movie have been taken care of better. Catherine is not quite so simple, the father not quite so cruel, and as for the dastardly fortune-hunter, well, more on him in a moment.

Carol Doyle was the screenwriter for Agnieszka Holland's 1997 movie, and one scene- no, one LINE -which it turned out she invented- made all the difference in the world.

Catherine is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Morris by the astonishingly handsome Ben Chaplin, and Dr. Sloper by Albert Finney who can act with a simple eyeblink. Legendary Maggie Smith is reduced to flittering in as the silly aunt. Whereas people think of Jennifer Jason Leigh in sexy, dangerous roles, Leigh said that Catherine was actually the only character she played that she identified with, closest to her own personality.

Catherine pleading with her father

Instead of demons, Holland gives us humans. The screenplay leaves us to wonder if perhaps Morris has feelings for Catherine after all. Ben Chaplin as Morris was clearly playing his motives loosely; whether by Holland's instruction or not. By softening everyone's weaknesses, Holland takes the daring step of modifying the master, fine-tuning James's psychology.

You see, changing Morris changes the entire story. Is it right for a screenwriter to change so much? Doesn't she feel disloyal to the great James? How dare we make alternate suggestions to such a genius, are we up to it? Are we so vain as to think our writing as good?

Holland's Morris might be on the level, but then again. . . we never quite know. The ambiguity is the dynamic that makes the whole story most interesting. James's writing is fascinating, but just think how more fascinating it could have been! And yet how dare I suggest that?

she falls to her knees
in the library
Spoiler alert
The greatest stroke was the movie's ending. Catherine, who always believed Morris loves her, realizes that perhaps Morris is a fortune-hunter, although she's still not quite sure. She tries to force him into a confession:

Catherine: "Say it!"

Morris: "Say what? That I wanted you with your money? Is that so immoral? Would you want me without my attributes? You have money, I have. . . I have "this" (gestures to his beautiful face]. . . It was a fair exchange!"

"IT WAS A FAIR EXCHANGE!" What amazing writing! I went running to the novella itself to find those words. So beautifully expressed, the touch of the Old Master! Guess what, it wasn't there, Carol Doyle wrote that for Holland. The entire scene was not in the book, because in the book Morris left her by letter.

Doyle skews the entire story, right there in a couple of words. In the very act of confessing as he does- we are still allowed to wonder, is he really a villain? A cad he is, no matter how you play it. What I mean is, that even with the contractual hint of those words, is he really a villain?

That bit of dialogue I find astonishing. It remains the main thing I remember after reading the book and seeing both movies. I even find situations sometimes where I can use that phrase. "It was a fair exchange!" I think Henry James could have done that one! Bravo Ms. Doyle, dare I suggest, in my humble opinion I believe you lived up to him.

By inventing an entire scene and memorable dialogue, I do think that Carol Doyle was telling the great Mr. James, "You could have improved this." How often does a screenplay step in and improve a book?

To sweeten Morris, Ms. Doyle also included, without trace of a contract, a Morris who seems truly upset and sincere, as he leaves her:

Morris: For God's Sake! What do you think I am? I'm not good enough for you! Not nearly good enough! What do you want me to do?

Catherine Sloper: I want you to love me.

Here is a gorgeous song from the 1997 movie. It's a duet that Catherine and Morris play and sing together.

I thought it was too beautiful to be a modern song, but it is. Jan Kaczmarek, the composer for the movie, took a modern Italian poem and set it to music. The poet was Salvatore Quasimodo, who won the Nobel Prize in 1959. The words are below in both Italian and English. I looked at a few translations and chose my favorite though, considering the wide range of meanings I found, I have a feeling it is not quite adequate.

Life is what you Call it

Labour of love, sadness,
You evoke a life
That within, deep inside, has names
Of skies and gardens.
And were it my flesh
Which the gift of sorrow transforms.

Tu chiami una vita

Faticca d'amore, faticca d'amore, tristezza
tu chiami una vita
che dentro, profonda, ha nomi
di cieli e giardini
di cieli e giardini

E fosse mia carne
che il dono di male transforma
di cieli e giardini
di cieli e giardini

*James wrote the character of Morris Townsend from life, but only as someone told to him, not someone he met himself- perhaps that's the problem.

You can listen to Kaczmarek's entire movie score:

article abt Montgomery Clift:

1 comment:

Padrinodivino said...

Hi Eve,
Very interesting piece. To spin your article from an academic's point-of-view to a film guy's p-o-v, yes, absolutely, a screenwriter adapting James, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or anyone else you wish to name, has moral imperatives to accomplish two things: a)SHOW, not tell - movies are visual, cinematic, b) remain faithful to the tone and spirit of the source material.

Anyone could adapt a novella, novel, or play into a screenplay. The compact medium of a novella, however, means that the screenplay writer must expand upon what is already written, or come up with altogether new scenes. Tricky becomes trickier - downright treacherous, in fact. I don't think too many screenwriters set out to "improve" Henry James. As a part-time screenwriter with a strong background in film history and criticism, I can tell you that while we might think and act like we are "the shit,", the truth is, we have as much love and appreciation for a master like James, as anyone else does. As it is our first duty to "Show, not tell," sometimes we have to change, expand, or create altogether new sequences for even a master like James ...always, though, with a healthy respect for the source material. And yes, the additional line written by Ms. Boyer is stunning, improves upon the original. That's screenwriting!!

Love the song; glad you included the video!