Getting the Big Picture: Henry James on Film

By Cutchins, Dennis | Literature/Film Quarterly, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Getting the Big Picture: Henry James on Film


Cutchins, Dennis, Literature/Film Quarterly


Getting the Big Picture: Henry James on Film Adapting Henry James to the Screen: Gender, Fiction, and Film. Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2006. 297pp. $50.00 paper.

Henry James's works do not particularly lend themselves to adaptation. They tend to be light on plot and action, heavy on things like characterization and internal monologue, and it's difficult to show the internal struggles of a character like Isabel Archer or Merton Densher on the screen. It might surprise many of us, dien, to learn that there have been more than two-dozen film and television adaptations of James's texts, many of them produced in the last twenty years. Laurence Raw, in his Adapting Henry James to the Screen: Gender, Fiction, and Film, suggests that one of die reasons filmmakers are interested in James is mat his texts are timely, particularly when dealing with questions of sexuality and gender. Raw argues that James's literary texts, far from being unfilmable, "have provided filmmakers widi a rich source of material to comment on die present through the past" (12).

Don't look for a new dieory of adaptation in diis book. Adapting Henry James is not a theoretical text; radier it is a thorough and careful analysis of films and television productions adapted from James's fiction. Although he does not discuss every James adaptation ever made, Raw does discuss most of diose that are readily available, and a few diat are fairly difficult to find. He analyzes twenty-eight film and television adaptations of thirteen James texts. Most of die essays are short, around nine pages in length, including notes. The brevity of die essays, however, makes them ideal for classroom use. Because of its breaddi, die text perhaps does not go into as much depth as some readers will want, but die essays reveal an impressive knowledge of James's historical contexts, as well as a solid understanding of Hollywood filmmaking, particularly the Hollywood of die nineteen-thirties, 'forties, and 'fifties. Raw's knowledge of die film industry of this period is extensive, and his discussion of censorship issues is enlightening.

This book takes a popular culture approach to the texts. In the author's own words, die book "focuses on questions of context-those elements that might be assumed to go 'with' or 'alongside' the text" (2). In creating diese contexts Raw answers die call of theorists like Robert Stam and Thomas Leitch for studies of adaptations diat acknowledge and account for die economic and practical aspects of creating adaptations. Raw, for instance, notes die role Olivia de Havilland's successful 1944 suit against Warner Brothers played in The Heiress, an adaptation of Washington Square, arguing diat de Havilland was chosen for the role of Catherine Sloper based in part on the public perception of her as a capable and empowered woman. In this context, Raw identifies one strain of James adaptations he calls "women's films." These adaptations, he argues, are primarily "designed to promote marriage and motherhood," but he also notes a more feminist set of adaptations, like The Heiress, that draw into question traditional gender roles (2). Raw's gendered approach to these adaptations is not arbitrary, but rather reflects James's own mediation "between gender, sexuality, culture, and narrative" (5). Raw notes that many "revisionist adaptations of James's novels 'de-repress' them in sexual and political terms, and thereby release their latent feminist spirit" (2). He suggests that adaptations of James's works designed for mainstream film release and for US network television broadcast are typically women's films, seeking "to reinforce dominant ideologies in the hope of attracting larger audiences," while BBC and PBS productions have usually "offered more radical interpretations" of the literary texts since they were not forced to attract large audiences and were tiius freer to experiment (T).

Raw's breadth of scope is impressive. …

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