- Adapting Henry James to the Screen: Gender, Fiction, and Film
For someone who sought and did not find success in the theater, Henry James has nevertheless proved a remarkably bankable producer of screen treatments. Despite its fabled difficulty, his work has been persistently attractive to screenwriters and directors, who have devoted their attention to its cinematic and televisual potential for many decades—indeed, for about seven decades, according to Laurence Raw. In his book on Jamesian adaptations, Raw ranges from 1933, the year of the earliest screen version of The Sense of the Past, to 2001, when the Merchant-Ivory production of The Golden Bowl was released. The twenty-three rather short chapters comprising this book canvass twenty-seven adaptations of the Master, all of them produced for Anglo-American consumption.
Raw distinguishes his approach to the subject of adaptation from other studies by stressing his book's departure from formalism, something he associates with a fixation on the screen work's fidelity to the literary text. Instead, he concentrates on a number of features that constitute the "context" of any screen work: the period of a film or television show's production, the influence of production codes and censorship, and the specific conditions of studio production. Most important, Raw focuses on the ways in which various adaptations have taken up James's own interest in gender ideology, tracking the representation of gender roles and, in particular, of female sexuality through the thickets of Hollywood studio era repression and into the putative openness of post-studio independent film and television production. Among other elements, Raw also identifies narrative style as one of the means by which directors achieve a "feminizing" of an adaptation, further drawing our attention to matters of gender. He concludes the introduction by stating two goals for the book: showing that in James filmmakers find material allowing them to "comment on the present through the past" and demonstrating that cinema enabled James to find the popular audience he craved (13). Neither of these statements is really news to those who might pick up this book. The first observation—that adaptations are conditioned by the social and historical contexts in which they appear—is a bit of a given in adaptation studies. The same can be said, for example, of adaptations of any writer, whether it be Austen, Dickens, Nabokov, or James. And the second claim, that James not-so-secretly craved popularity, is very familiar to Jamesians.
There is, however, a lot to appreciate about this book. For one thing, Raw identifies the Jamesian sources of certain screenworks that readers might be familiar with but not think of as adaptations. How many would recognize Vincente Minnelli's On A Clear Day as having been inspired by The Sense of the Past? Who knew that Henry James had been set to music (sung by Streisand, no less)? Raw's use of press [End Page 89] books also provides us with interesting details about the conditions that shaped the production of particular films. And he has amassed an interesting bibliography, including works on audience reception and the history of the "woman's film." His attention to context also draws attention to the cultural work of entities like PBS and BBC, and the ways in which the cachet of James as a highbrow writer dovetails with their "public service ethos" (117) in adapting works such as "The Jolly Corner." Nevertheless, Raw reminds the reader that James has also consorted, at least in his adapted form, with the so-called low-brow attractions of gore, violence, and explicit sadomasochism.
Organization and commentary suffer in places. The chronological treatment of the many adaptations of James's works seems a good idea at first, but this approach soon proves repetitive and unhelpful in keeping the book's thesis in clear focus. For example, the reader encounters several chapters on works that have been adapted more than once over the years. There are three chapters on adaptations of The Sense of the Past, and six on versions of "The...