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  • James on the Screen
  • Lisa Honaker
Laurence Raw. Adapting Henry James to the Screen: Gender, Fiction and Film. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006. 330 pp. Paper $50.00

In his Adapting Henry James to the Screen: Gender, Fiction and Film, Laurence Raw challenges the idea that film adaptations of James's novels cannot be successful because film as a medium is at odds with much of what makes a James novel a James novel—the author's style and voice, and the fluidity of point of view. Rather than looking back longingly and measuring the film versions by their adherence to the original texts, Raw looks at the history of the adaptations themselves, beginning with Frank Lloyd's 1933 Berkeley Square and ending with Merchant Ivory's 2001 Golden Bowl. Focusing on "questions of context," Raw sees the adaptations as "barometers of the ideological, social, political, and cinematic contexts of the times in which they were [End Page 231] produced." James's concern with "exposing, critiquing, and perpetuating gender ideologies in bourgeois turn-of-the-century Anglo-American society" is what makes him so attractive to filmmakers. James is "someone who meditates on the relationship between gender, sexuality, culture, and narrative—a quality that brings him closer to contemporary theorists like Judith Butler than to his early twentieth-century peers."

Concentrating on issues of gender and sexuality in twenty-seven individual adaptations, Raw argues that "social relations are rearticulated and perpetually redefined in every single adaptation, whether produced in the 1930s or in the present time." His readings focus on the specific cultural contexts and practices that inform and create the films' ideologies. In considering the ways in which directors "update" James through their adaptations, often "'derepress[ing]' them sexually and politically, and thereby releas[ing] their latent feminist content," Raw looks at issues of censorship and morality, the impact of the Production Code and the effect of its repeal on Hollywood films, the conditions of production, and set and costume design.

Raw details several ways in which commercial considerations have shaped both film and television productions. He looks at the practice of "aesthetic mainstreaming," in which the adaptations are made to fit the "dominant form of storytelling," with difficult material—including any narrative disruptions and moral uncertainty—removed in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Raw notes that the less commercial productions, television adaptations produced by BBC and PBS, for example, with their mission to educate and inform their audiences, have stayed closer to the original texts—maintaining much of the "difficult" material the more commercial adaptations forego. Further, these "public service broadcasters such as the BBC or PBS have offered more radical interpretations" in which central characters evade or "repudiat[e] … existing values."

Raw writes entertainingly and astutely about those adaptations produced as star vehicles, which tailor the source material to capitalize on a star's persona. In Berkeley Square (1933), an adaptation of James's The Sense of the Past, Leslie Howard's performance as Peter Standish is both cerebral and emotionally expressive, reflecting the star's own alternative masculine persona, while Roy Baker's I'll Never Forget You (1951) makes Standish a more conventionally masculine romantic hero in keeping with Tyrone Power's swashbuckling image. A star's persona can also sometimes confirm and sometimes oppose the film's ostensible [End Page 232] gender politics. William Wyler's The Heiress (1949), an adaptation of Washington Square, is built around Olivia de Havilland, who had recently won her battle with Warner Brothers to be released from a seven-year contract and make the movies she wanted. De Havilland's persona informs a performance that portrays Catherine Sloper not as a victim of the feckless Morris Townsend but as a woman who discovers that she can take care of herself once he jilts her. The Lost Moment (1947), another adaptation of The Sense of the Past, gives us a Tina Bordereau whose personality is not "the oddest mixture of shyness and straightness" described by James but is much more in line with star Susan Hayward's persona: the "red-haired beauty who … scrapped her way to the top," according to a press release. While the...


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