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Edith Wharton on Film

Parley Ann Boswell

Publication Year: 2007

Edith Wharton (1862– 1937), who lived nearly half of her life during the cinema age when she published many of her well-known works, acknowledged that she disliked the movies, characterizing them as an enemy of the imagination. Yet her fiction often referenced film and popular Hollywood culture, and she even sold the rights to several of her novels to Hollywood studios.

Edith Wharton on Film explores these seeming contradictions and examines the relationships among Wharton’ s writings, the popular culture in which she published them, and the subsequent film adaptations of her work (three from the 1930s and four from the 1990s). Author Parley Ann Boswell examines the texts in which Wharton referenced film and Hollywood culture and evaluates the extant films adapted from Wharton’ s fiction.

The volume introduces Wharton’ s use of cinema culture in her fiction through the 1917 novella Summer, written during the nation’ s first wave of feminism, in which the heroine Charity Royall is moviegoer and new American woman, consumer and consumable. Boswell considers the source of this conformity and entrapment, especially for women. She discloses how Wharton struggled to write popular stories and then how she revealed her antipathy toward popular movie culture in two late novels. 

Boswell describes Wharton’ s financial dependence on the American movie industry, which fueled her antagonism toward Hollywood culture, her well-documented disdain for popular culture, and her struggles to publish in women’ s magazines.

This first full-length study that examines the film adaptations of Wharton’ s fiction covers seven films adapted from Wharton’ s works between 1930 and 2000 and the fifty-year gap in Wharton film adaptations. The study also analyzes Sophy Viner in The Reef as pre-Hollywood ingé nue, characters in Twilight Sleep and The Children and the real Hollywood figures who might have inspired them, and The Sheik and racial stereotypes.

Boswell traces the complicated relationship of fiction and narrative film, the adaptations and cinematic metaphors of Wharton’ s work in the 1990s, and Wharton’ s persona as an outsider. Wharton’ s fiction on film corresponds in striking ways to American noir cinema, says Boswell, because contemporary filmmakers recognize and celebrate the subversive qualities of Wharton’ s work.

Edith Wharton on Film, which includes eleven illustrations, enhances Wharton’ s stature as a major American author and provides persuasive evidence that her fiction should be read as American noir literature.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

I became interested in Edith Wharton’s relationship to popular film several years ago while I was researching another film project, and I came across a movie review in a 1930 issue of The New Movie Magazine, of a Hollywood production entitled The Marriage Playground. “Another study of divorce, based on Edith Wharton’s ‘The Children.’ ...

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Introduction: A Glittering Place

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pp. 1-16

In 1928, Edith Wharton (1862–1937) was invited to participate in a short documentary celebrating the accomplishments of several illustrious American women called Woman Marches On, to be produced by the Will Hayes Motion Picture Association. Through a letter to her American publisher, she declined the invitation, ...

Part One: Reading Wharton on Film

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1. Charm Incorporated: The Short Fiction

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pp. 19-40

Edith Wharton wrote Summer in 1916, from her townhouse at 53 Rue de Varenne in wartime Paris. In a letter to her friend Gaillard Lapsley, she explained that she had set the tale in rural Massachusetts and had used details from one of their outings to Pittsfield together: ...

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2. The Mechanical Terror: The Novels

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pp. 41-74

Two years after Wharton took Charity Royall and Lucius Harney to see a movie in Summer, she published The Age of Innocence, a novel that afforded her the luxury of escaping the twentieth century almost altogether.1 Only in the final chapter does fifty-seven-year-old Newland Archer confront the instability of the new century. ...


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pp. 92-97

Part Two: Watching Wharton on Film

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3. Going Hollywood: The Thirties

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pp. 77-108

The dominance of popular American movies must have disappointed Wharton, who saw herself as one of the victims of the mechanical terror in the 1920s and 1930s. She had not always resented and feared the power of film, however. In 1918, she had commissioned a series of documentaries through the French armed forces on behalf of her many war charities. ...

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4. Wharton in Bloom: The Nineties

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pp. 109-142

The same year that Wharton vetoed the invitation to appear on-screen with Mary Pickford, Virginia Woolf delivered two papers in London that she would later publish as A Room of One’s Own. In these essays, Woolf suggested that the novel, one of the youngest art forms, would become the site of experimentation by women. ...

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Conclusion: Another Country

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pp. 143-174

Edith Wharton’s despair over the popularity of mass-movie culture during her lifetime was a despair shared by a cluster of other writers, including H. L. Mencken, William Dean Howells, Maxim Gorky, Aldous Huxley, and many others. In terms that sound strikingly like Wharton’s, Mencken described “movie folk” ...


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pp. 175-180


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pp. 181-200

Works Cited

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pp. 201-212


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pp. 213-220

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Author Bio

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pp. 244-244

Parley Ann Boswell is a professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, where she teaches courses in American literature and film studies. She is the coauthor of Reel Rituals: Ritual Occasions from Baptisms and Funerals in Hollywood Films, 1945–1995, ...

Back Cover

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pp. 245-245

E-ISBN-13: 9780809387465
E-ISBN-10: 0809387468
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809327577
Print-ISBN-10: 0809387468

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 11
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 246667558
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Edith Wharton on Film