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Henry James at the Movies

With a decadent sensuality,The Wings of the Dove reaches for the galleries.

Alan A. Stone

Henry James, it is said, wanted most of all to be a playwright. Hooted off the stage and out of the theater by a London audience at the first night of his play Guy Domville, he never gave up the dramatic, even melodramatic, impulse that was central to his literary genius. He believed that "the divine principle is a Key" that fits the locked chambers of both narrative and drama. It is no surprise then that there have been so many attempts to translate James's fiction into theater and film, including some by James himself. He tried, for example, to make his successful novel The Americans into a play; but it was greeted in London with less than modest enthusiasm, and certainly did not earn him the celebrity status he so desperately craved. Though James was prepared to blame the low-brow British theater audience for his failure, he was simply a terrible snob, who lacked the common touch a playwright needs to reach the galleries.

The most avid readers of his novels will concede that his "superior roundness" is sometimes too arduous even for the initiated. Reputation always had it that his brother William was a philosopher who wrote like a novelist while Henry was a novelist who wrote like a philosopher. James would have been mortified by this verdict. He put down George Eliot for being more philosopher than artist, and was particularly critical of her philosophizing in Middlemarch. Writing to a friend, he confided that he wanted his novels "to have less `brain' than Middlemarch; but (I boldly proclaim it) they are to have more form." James's style seems philosophical to casual readers, however, because of his attention to an often intricately beautiful form and his penchant for ambiguity. So despite James's dramatic proclivities, any contemporary adaptation has to find its own common touch and select from his subtle and ambiguous prose a plot capable of holding an audience that would have walked out on the master.

James's fiction was never a great popular success in America, and during the years of economic and political turmoil between the great wars he lost almost all of his American readership. He was rediscovered in the 1950s by critics who were not put off by the fact that James wrote approvingly about a world of privilege and seemed not to care about social injustice, and who took the filigree of his sentences as a measure of his genius. A generation of readers exposed to his novels in college literature courses have since remained loyal.

The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team (Remains of the Day, Howard's End) captured that audience and widened their art-film niche with a movie adaptation of James's The Europeans in 1979. That film ruffled no literary feathers, as its stately images seemed to illustrate James's style. The same team were less successful a few years later with an adaptation of The Bostonians, a novel promisingly filled with the sexual politics of the late twentieth century but one that contradicts many of the stereotypes about James. Like several of his other early novels it was published first in serialized form for a British magazine audience, and featured an array of eccentric Bostonian characters. James, a New Yorker, knew full well that nineteenth-century Boston Brahmins were more crackpot than the staid figures they have become in retrospect, and his novel is full of such characters: Brook Farm socialists, with their utopian community where Fourier's radical theories about sex were known, if not openly practiced; Harvard Medical School physicians, with their ether parties and interest in mesmerism (the novel's heroine, Verena, is the daughter of a mesmerist physician who brings out the charismatic in her by putting her in a trance); Mary Baker Eddy, winning coverts to Christian Science and its faith healing; and Boston's abolitionists, with their fanatic moral fervor that stoked the suffragette movement with religious passion. The novel's strong undercurrent of sex and social climbing provides a setting in which the line between what is socially acceptable and what is not is up for grabs. But the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team, instead of giving the audience surprising crackpots and James's satire, turned The Bostonians into another beautiful period piece; they seemed determined to give James loyalists a film that would not disturb the mummified remains of their literary Pharoah.

Creative film-makers have recently taken much more radical liberties with James as they try to reach a new wider audience; the past season alone saw three film adaptations by intellectually ambitious directors. Two of the world's greatest women film-makers have tried their hand at James, and for good reason. His female characters are complex, interesting, and have power. The central figures in his stories, they often seem to be the author's alter ego. The first film to appear was Jane Campion's version of The Portrait of a Lady--the touchstone of James' literary achievement. Campion's previous films (Sweetie, An Angel at the Table, The Piano) had all been about women, and with each one she seemed to grow in stature. Portrait was to be another jewel in the crown. But the raw originality of the Campion who made The Piano proved no match for Henry James--her film was a beautiful but compromised muddle: half James, half Freud.

Then came Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square: The most theatrical in form of James's work, it might even make a serviceable libretto. William Wyler made an excellent film version in 1949, with Olivia de Havilland winning an Oscar for her performance as the heiress who is gulled by a fortune-hunting suitor. Cherry Jones recently recreated the role on Broadway with considerable success, earning a Tony award in a version that at least in places seemed true to James. Like the plays of his great contemporary, Chekhov, James's fiction has a characteristic melancholy and Washington Square ends on a sad whimpering note. If James has a recurring preoccupation it is the failure to achieve shared consciousness--for him the essence of human intimacy and the necessary predicate of love. James uses his literary genius to dramatize moments of failed or lost connection. This is also a great theme of Chekhov's: solipsism is as central to his Uncle Vanya and The Sea Gull as it is to James's Washington Square. It was the dramatic heart of Cherry Jones's Broadway adaptation. The audience was made to realize--just as the heroine does in the play--that she and her suitor never had a genuine meeting of minds; as a consequence, she will be alone for the rest of her life.

Holland's film adaptation makes James's lonely heiress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into an awkward pants-wetting child who is traumatized by the psychological abuse of her odious father (Albert Finney) and the rejection of a fortune-hunting suitor (Ben Chaplin). Together these men destroy the young woman's self-esteem. Instead of achieving a telling moment of realization, the heiress, dressed in white, chases her fleeing lover's carriage down the street. Screaming hysterically, she falls in the mud in utter humiliation. But Holland's heroine is a survivor who recovers her pride and finds a substitute for intimacy in providing other people's children the love she never herself was given. The notion that a woman, no longer trusting the love of a man, can go it alone and find a redeeming love in children is an upbeat feminist sentiment not to be found in Washington Square. It is Holland's attempt to supply James's missing common touch, but it is a bit like giving King Lear a happy ending. In her two great Holocaust films--Europa, Europa and Bitter Harvest--Holland found hope in the spirit of desperate Jewish survivors, but her Washington Square simply imposes it on James's lonely heroine.

The Wings of the Dove--along with The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, one of James's three late and great novels--has previously inspired successful stage adaptations, but this, to my knowledge, is the first film version. The director, Iain Softley, seems to have gotten much of his cinematographic inspiration from The English Patient (as Louis Menand shrewdly pointed out in his unsparing review in The New York Review of Books). But that does not quite explain away the extraordinary achievement of transforming James's magisterial novel into a compelling screenplay--particularly when the novelist himself had lamented the many facets of character development he felt compelled to omit. James prophetically described several of his most important characters as forced like great actors to play small parts for the sake of the drama. Softley's film adaptation has two great actors, Michael Gambon and Charlotte Rampling as Kate Croy's father and aunt, compress their characters even further so they become little more than their screen presence. Quite unlike the characters James described, both convey an aura of perverse and decadent sensuality. Rampling looks like she is on her way to an orgy and Gambon like he has just come from one. This sensuality is the warp that Softley and playwright Hossein Amini have given to James's novel. Out of it they have miraculously woven a coherent screenplay that pays homage to America's most refined writer: the film has destroyed the novel to save its spirit. Devoted readers of James who share his sublimated sensibilities will find it difficult to credit this judgment. His original characters are barely recognizable on the screen: there is no sex in James's novel, and Kate Croy (played by Helen Bonham Carter) was never meant to be the psychological center of the novel, as she is of the film. But Softley's creative gamble was much greater than Campion's or Holland's, and the result is a far superior film.

James described his novel as having been written about the character Millie, an American millionairess. Like many social snobs, James was awed by great wealth and saw it as empowering. An empress of wealth, Millie is the dove whose wings touch Katy Croy and her fianc Merton Densher. James had long imagined a novel about a young "person" who was "conscious of a great capacity for life, but early stricken and doomed, condemned to die under short respite, while also enamored of the world; aware moreover of the condemnation and passionately desiring to `put in' before extinction as many of the finer vibrations as possible, and so achieve, however, briefly and brokenly, the sense of having lived." This, mind you, is not a sentence in the novel, but comes from James' introduction to the American edition. But imagine 500 pages of such prose and you will begin to have a sense of The Wings of the Dove and the cultural sacrilege involved in making such a text into a series of images accompanied by a few hundred lines of dialogue. And it is not just the high art of James's language that had to go: taken out of its literary context, his psychology is precious in every unacceptable sense that word has today. James understood the nuances of social interaction but kept his literary distance from everything vulgar about the human condition. Making a film of The Wings of the Dove and giving it a decadent, sensual--that is to say vulgar--cast seems as far from James as one can get. Yet it is a successful rendering.

James himself understood that the artist had to cast his "spell upon the simpler, the very simplest, forms of attention." And this film's spell draws the audience's attention to the Jamesian obsession with the failure of shared consciousness--a theme as central to The Wings of the Dove as it is to Washington Square. Here it is even more sadly melodramatic because the English couple Kate Croy and Merton Densher do have the true meeting of minds, the connection, that makes "perfect" love possible.

James goes to considerable length to make the couple's connection palpable to his readers. The novel begins with a meeting between Kate and her father. The perfect appearance of an English gentleman, he is in truth a liar and a penniless ne'r-do-well whose daughter expects nothing from him but exploitation; he does not disappoint. Next we meet her sister (like many of the novel's other characters, she does not appear in the film) who seeks to use Kate to her own selfish advantage. Kate's father and sister think of her only as a means to their own ends. Self-righteous takers, the idea of emotional reciprocity does not enter their minds. They throw Kate at her rich aunt in the hope that the results will benefit them financially. The rich aunt, as it turns out, wants Kate as an entertainment against the loneliness of her old age--someone who is presentable in proper society, whom she will marry off to a great man. None of these three characters seem capable of human intimacy nor do they appear to want it. Against these relationships Kate encounters Merton Densher. James portrays the instant connection and desire: "It wasn't, in a word, simply that their eyes had met; other conscious organs, faculties, feelers had met as well." This vocabulary of organs, faculties, and feelers is as explicit as James gets about sexual attraction.

The ardent and intensifying connection between these two young people is remarkable, particularly because it is a supremely fastidious relationship in which every generous measure of consideration is given and reciprocated. James once wrote that instead of trying to portray the relationship between his heroine and other characters he would, "place the center of the subject in the young woman's own consciousness." Here in The Wings of the Dove the consciousnesses of Kate and Densher are mirror images containing each other's subject. James's beautiful analogy is that Kate trusted herself to climb a ladder set up against a garden wall to look within; when she did she met Merton mounting a ladder from the other side. These well-met lovers who have everything but money set James's stage for Millie's entrance. The enchanting millionairess conquers London society and the perfect couple with her enormous wealth and vibrant enthusiasm--and the possibility of being mentioned in her will. And, as James has it, when the whirlpool of Millie goes under it pulls Kate and Merton with her. Millie's attraction is so intense that others cannot discriminate among their own motivations in being drawn to her. When she dies and leaves a fortune to Densher, the wings of the dove will forever separate the lovers. The letter from Millie's American lawyers is a gift that comes at Christmas (the religious symbolism of the title is part of the novel's craft). The complications of the gift as James described them are "tragic, pathetic, and ironic." Densher wants to marry Kate, but his character is compromised by the windfall, and, as Kate realizes in the last pages of the novel, he cannot give his word that he is not in love with the memory of Millie. The last line of the novel is Kate's "We shall never be again as we were!" The wings of the dove have banished the miracle of love that once lost can never be rediscovered.

There is surpassing art and beauty in this story, but James' readers can reach its summit only after years of preparation. Of course the story is about much more than feelings of love and loss. The Wings of the Dove, like all James's best work, cannot be reduced or forced to surrender its ambiguity. Still, Kate's lament is at the novel's heart and that is where the film takes off.

The film is decidedly about sex, and sexual intercourse is all too often the enactment of the human passion for a shared experience--but without the experience itself. Kate and Merton's (Linus Roache) last interchange takes place in bed, with Kate Croy's nude body astride that of her lover. Quite unlike James's heroine, the film's Kate seems to know exactly how to sexually satisfy her lover and herself simultaneously. Yet at that very moment we recognize on her face--as she does--the sense of having lost her sentient connection with Densher, that "we shall never be again as we were!" It is the vulgar version of James's beautiful sad vision but it is his vision.

The film is in fact more about sexual passion than reciprocal love--and yet it is a twentieth century love story. From its opening scenes--when Kate and Merton seemingly meet like total strangers in the London tube and almost immediately share an explicitly sexual embrace-- the screenplay builds on sexual reverberations. Kate's Aunt seems to be preparing the young woman for the life of a courtesan rather than a socialite, and her dissolute father spends his time in crowded pubs and opium dens. Kate, though passionately in love with Merton, throws him at her friend Millie (Alison Elliott) with the idea that Millie will fall in love with him and leave him her fortune when she dies, thus enabling Kate to marry him. The film focuses on the complications that ensue when the passionate Kate begins to fear she is losing Merton, and Millie learns of Merton and Kate's relationship.

The Kate of James's novel has the character of a Jane Austen heroine, whereas Helena Bonham Carter's performance gives Kate a sultry and mysterious quality--a woman of the world who occasionally acts on impulse. She is not an entirely sympathetic character, but her life is full of risks and in the end she is the tragic figure who gets what she wants and loses everything in the process. Densher by contrast is of a more decent nature, drawn to Millie out of sympathy and not self-interest. He and Millie have a great Jamesian moment when they are reconciled before she dies. Merton is worried that Millie believes that all his affection has been part of a plan to get her money. He comes to her full of apologies about which woman he loves--and in fact he is not really sure himself. Millie's words make everything he was prepared to say seem foolish. She had assumed that all three of them were beyond such selfish limitations of their love--she loved both Merton and Kate. Millie is given very few lines in the film to establish herself as the wings of the dove (indeed, the film sacrifices most of the meanings James gave to the title). But this scene, like Kate's moment in bed, suggests some of James's sad understanding of love and loneliness. Loyalists may say that there is not very much of Henry James in this movie, but the ghost of his genius can be felt in it, and this is a version of James that may at last reach the galleries. If he were to come back to life, the famously disdainful James would perhaps despise all of the films made from his novels, but he would no doubt relish the celebrity status he is finally finding at the movies.

Originally published in the February/ March 1998 issue of Boston Review

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