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Dramatizing James: The Bostonians as a Film by Robert Emmet Long The Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of The Bostonians, which was released in New York in early August, 1984, comes as the latest in a series of attempts to capture James the dramatist existing within the psychological elaborateness of James the novelist. As long ago as 1949, Ruth and Augustus Goetz brought Washington Square to the screen as The Heiress, an effort that was creditable, but at the same time wasn't entirely James. The performances of Olivia de Haviland as Catherine Sloper, Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper were all memorable but, in the end, belonged to a sentimental tale. The strategies of melodrama, as Richard Poirier has pointed out, were richly present in Washington Square, yet were countered or "corrected" by James's subtlety and intelligence, so that the reader was drawn into a drama of "awareness." In The Heiress the audience was lulled by pathos. The Heiress was not the first film adaptation of James's fiction, but it can be singled out as a work that illustrates the problem of translating James to the screen —of remaining faithful to what James wrote while making it accessible to another medium. The problem can be noticed in later films based on James's work—in The Innocents (based on The Turn of the Screw), Daisy Miller (directed by Peter Bogdanovich ), and The Europeans (MerchantIvory ). Although it lacks the abstruse quality of The Turn of the Screw, its sense of entrapment within a reality that is like a haUucination, The Innocents was reasonably successful on its own rather different terms, as a restrained and visually elegant English country house chiller. Daisy MiUer and The Europeans, on the other hand, bogged down in their lush visual effects; their ponderous movement worked against James's wit, quick imagination, and play of mind. In their second attempt to reproduce James on screen, Ismail Merchant, as producer , and James Ivory, as director, have done much better. They have accomplished the seemingly impossible task of translating The Bostonians into film. The screenplay by the third member of their company, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, herself a novelist, brings together James's cast of characters in post Civil War Boston, and the essentials of the story, culminating in the debacle at the Boston Music HaH, are retained. Yet Jhabvala wisely refrains from adhering to James's novel strictly. The film becomes a variation upon, rather than an exact transcription of, the original. One of the most striking differences that can be noticed is that James's Boston and Cambridge, claustrophobic settings of frozen mud and wintry personal constriction, have become bright and spacious, visually attractive. James's stressful drawing-rooms yield to a partly out-of-doors world in which Verena is courted by the single-minded Basil Ransom, who wants her for "himself." The film assumes a muted lyricism when the setting shifts to Cape Cod, captured with rich painterly effect that makes one think of the New England scenes of Thomas Eakins. This visualization of New England in the 1870s implies rather different attitudes than those of James's novel. It suggests a more nearly normal, or even salubrious, life in the Boston of that time. The striking eccentricity of the characters has been muted, so that they belong less to a satire which is at times madly mirthful, at times savage, than to plausible everyday life. Miss Birdseye is less comic than James's depiction of her, which makes her at once a venerable monument and a joke. The newspaperman Mr. Pardon, and the little medical lady Dr. Prance, appear perhaps as misfits, but they are not grotesque ones. Miss Birdseye's parlor, where suffragist meetings are held, is no longer angular and self-punishing, but fairly civilized and inviting. So too the parlors of New York, where Mrs. Burrage, the Manhattan socialVolume VI 75 Number 1 The Henry James Review Fall, 1984 ite, sponsors Verena's public speaking. These drawing-rooms would perhaps have struck James as provincial, but they might well have interested Mr. Howells. The film supports the view of Howells that a social life worth...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 75-77
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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