- Henry James: A Discussion with Cynthia Ozick, Sheldon Novick, and Susan M. Griffin
What follows is the transcript of a conversation broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Writers & Company on March 29, 1998. The participants were Eleanor Wachtel, host of Writers & Company; Cynthia Ozick, novelist and essayist, who has described her early days as a writer as a (perhaps unfortunate) apprenticeship to Henry James; Sheldon Novick, a biographer of James and scholar-in-residence at Vermont Law School where he teaches constitutional law and history; and Susan M. Griffin, editor of the Henry James Review and author and editor of a number of works on Henry James.
There have been movies based on Henry James’s work going back more than fifty years, and we’ve certainly seen a recent cinematic appetite for literary classics, raiding the novels of E. M. Forster and Jane Austen, but now there’s a cluster of movies based on the work of James: The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, Washington Square; there are new versions in the works of The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl. Why James? Why now? Susan Griffin.
I don’t know that I have an answer to that. I think some of it is simply running out of Jane Austen and moving on to the next writer, frankly. But I guess I would distinguish between the work of someone like Campion or Holland, who are feminist filmmakers who turn to James, I think, specifically for that reason—because of the women characters, because of the depiction of women’s situations—and the sort of general Masterpiece Theatre-type adaptation. Wings of the Dove, it seemed to me, although I enjoyed it, was in a different category than those other two films. It was much lighter, much more commercial. [End Page 317]
Well, it seems to me the plots are so good. The plots are melodramatic, really, and they’re made for film. Of course, when they’re stripped of being Jamesian, as in The Portrait of a Lady, then there’s nothing left but melodrama and, in the case of that film, ideology.
And there are wonderful parts for women, whether it’s a feminist rendition as in Portrait or in Wings of the Dove. These are wonderful roles for women actors.
I also think that James is such a visual novelist that he lends himself to adaptations on film or television. In addition to that, his interest all the way through in perception and in the gaze is something that filmmakers can pick up on and use in all kinds of different ways. Now whether they do or not is another question. I think in some cases they do; in others they don’t.
Yes. Well, two versions of that. One is just the whole idea of point of view, the difference between what one character sees and what another character sees. But, in addition, the way in which women are the object of a male gaze, and I certainly think you see that in Portrait and in Wings of the Dove to some extent as well. The way in which the women are constructed by the male perception of them is something I think the filmmakers pick up on. And the power of looking, the power of looking throughout.
What about our power of looking as viewers? For instance, in the film The Wings of the Dove, we saw graphically what we would never see on a James page. I found that very steamy, and, to my astonishment, since I’m kind of on the side of being faithful to James’s own reticence, I was astounded to see and to feel that it was exactly right, that what was implied was given to us by the filmmaker.
I thought it was very successful, and when I called it commercial before I didn’t mean that in a negative sense. It was a very erotic film, and, I have to say, I have to confess I guess, that of the final three big novels, The Ambassadors, The...