The Henry James Review 24.1 (2003) 95-97
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John Bradley, ed. Henry James on Stage and Screen. New York: Palgrave, 2000. 264 pp. $65.00.
"Move over Jane Austen!" the New York Times ordered when a film of a Henry James novel appeared in 1996, and there have been three more films since. One of the contributors to this volume of essays wonders what "this recent mass media fascination" (191) signifies; another asks why, being so famously "difficult" (36), James is so amenable to the screen? The fifteen essays in this volume certainly reveal a wealth of staged and filmed versions. Elizabeth Brake's essay on the Merchant-Ivory productions, for example, suggests that filmed interpretations can function as a form of literary criticism, but Mark Eaton recalls James's warning of the threat of the "mere visual" (157) to literature. Philip Horne, echoing such worries, is concerned that "heritage productions" reduce texts to "an easily-digested package" (40). Indeed, the remarkable "digestibility" of James is reflected in the wealth of screen adaptations recorded in Horne's own lively screen history of James.
The editor, John Bradley, rightly begins with Sheldon Novick's important essay, "Henry James on Stage." In discussing the notorious Guy Domville debacle, Novick argues that James was by no means permanently traumatized. Freed by failure, he retired from London and, capitalizing on his playwriting [End Page 95] experience, "began the series of masterpieces on which his modern reputation is based" (7). Readers, Novick remarks, "will notice that this account is at odds with a more familiar version," whose source is Leon Edel's uncritical recycling of H. G. Wells's malicious account. Novick argues that James's own account of his acts and motives is a more reliable insight into his "conscious philosophic relation to the art of performance, a question that the psychoanalytic method empties of meaning" (9). Novick regrets the lost dramatist, but convincingly dispatches the image of a mortally damaged James, quivering in Sussex, writing about poor, hurt children.
When the book turns to adaptations of James, "The Turn of the Screw" emerges as the most frequently adapted text. Essays on "operatic" James show how Britten's version maintains the text's uncertainties. Quint's villainy, for example, Michael Halliwell explains, is undercut by the tenor voice of romantic love. The music's rendering of emotional states is also usefully analogous to James's "centers of consciousness." Ambiguity is a concern, too, in Val Wilson's enjoyable essay on Jack Clayton's The Innocents. Clayton wanted to achieve a level of uncertainty in the film similar to that of the text. Sinister play with visual and aural themes, melodramatic deployment of black and white, and Deborah Kerr's terrifying performance of breakdown resulted in a powerfully disturbing interpretation.
Readers may go to the volume initially for comment on recent James movies, but I found discussions of earlier material in many ways more stimulating. Peter Swaab on William Wyler's The Heiress, for example, believes its success lies in the "boldness with which it reworks the original" (57): the sympathy lent Sloper by Ralph Richardson's performance, together with Catherine's increased power, prove that the "conflict between two people in a drawing-room can be as exciting as a gun battle" (61). This makes the sacrifice of James's ending almost forgivable, although Swaab regrets the loss of Catherine's psychological complexity. Denial of complexity is not something that Peter Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller (1974) can be accused of. David Cross recounts how Bogdanovich's career reeled under the controversy raised by the film and by Cybill Shepherd's performance. Bogdanovich believed that his film was ahead of its time, and Cross agrees, pointing to the way innovative camera-work provides a visual analogy for the confused workings of Winterbourne's mind.
A slightly bored respect seems to be the lot of the Merchant-Ivory adaptations, as if they have somehow fallen into the gap between enthusiastic reappraisal and the excitement of newer, sexier interpretations. Neil Berry, however, pays homage to the admirable...