"Damnable Feminization"?: The Merchant Ivory Film Adaptation of Henry James's the Bostonians

By Sorensen, Sue | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

"Damnable Feminization"?: The Merchant Ivory Film Adaptation of Henry James's the Bostonians


Sorensen, Sue, Literature/Film Quarterly


A novelist as difficult and lavish as Henry James promises mixed blessings and prodigal impossibilities for the screen adaptor. An exceedingly visual and dramatic stylist who delighted in complex imagery and uncertain point of view, James might appear to be an ideal source only for expressionist, indeterminate dreamscapes. More likely, he might frighten away film directors by the sheer pyrotechnic literariness of his work. Yet director James Ivory, with his longtime partners producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has twice filmed James novels, in versions which are relatively straightforward and realist. They may sacrifice some of James's brilliance and abundance in the process of compression and clarification, but they fairly represent James's dialogue and intention.

As Neil Sinyard emphasizes in his book Filming Literature, a film adaptation is essentially an act of literary criticism. Both Merchant Ivory films elucidate James's themes but provide for the filmmakers' views of their source texts and their subjects. The results are satisfying and intelligent. Necessarily less sunny, charming, and ironic than their E.M. Forster adaptations, the films The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984) are earnest works. Those who see Merchant Ivory's literary films as "costume pieces" (Lane 121) or as reverent and accurate embalmments (Lorsch 144)1 are surely not reading these films with sufficient care. The film of The Bostonians in particular is not only a viable realization of a formidable text, but is also a much-needed response to a century of critical readings which have seen the novel as an attack on women and lesbians.

Along with the opening title and credits of The Bostonians, an organist plays "America," or "My Country 'Tis of Thee." The particular version is by Charles Ives, and it is a set of increasingly bizarre variations on the tune, a mad showpiece for organ. Variations are precisely what we will confront in this story of several personalities vying for the love of one young woman. This organ, with four keyboards, is perfectly suited for counterpoint, and signals the fact that simultaneous stories and characterizations will unfold and intertwine. Furthermore, the organ is an appropriate symbol for Verena Tarrant, who is a voice played upon by other people who manipulate her just as the organist "pulls out the stops." The shots of the organist's bouncing feet provide a slightly ludicrous tone for the credits sequence, raising the possibility that the story is satirical. Some critics have seen Henry James's novel as a satire, but in Ivory's film the serious and dramatic qualities of the story overshadow the satire.

In his 1884 essay "The Art of Fiction," Henry James put forward an artistic creed of openness, flexibility, and liberality. "Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints," he writes (187). Dismissing critics whose narrow Victorian maxims were stifling the growth of the novel, James took as his watchwords freedom and sincerity. The artist's primary duty is to make the subject interesting; any other prescription is open to debate. "Humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms," wrote James (194), and "art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions" (198).

While "The Art of Fiction" certainly has as its prime subject a theory of artistic creation rather than any thematic or social message, it is tempting to apply James's daring and generous tone to the specific human situations of his novels. In all of James's fiction, characters find themselves with difficult moral choices to make, or they are compelled or controlled by others. The apparent topic of The Bostonians-feminist politics particularly and sexual relations more generally-is an especially sensitive one. Interpretations of the author's position on these matters have differed vastly since the novel was first serialized in The Century in 1885. …

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