Henry James had a mind so fine, said T.S. Eliot, that no idea could violate it. Strange as it may seem, Eliot meant this as a compliment, a tribute to the qualities of refinement that became more and more pronounced over the course of James's work. By the last decade of James's career, this refinement had just about consumed him. Readers of the elegant, breathtakingly tortuous prose of his late novels often feel that meaning itself--in the recesses and excesses, in the endless qualifications of those masterly sentences--is being refined out of existence.
James Ivory, by contrast, has ideas so fine that no mind could violate them. His adaptation of James's novel The Golden Bowl is filled with ideas fine as gossamer: a genteel little procession of them, all bad. "Oh--let's have the people stand in front of beautiful paintings, without their noticing them!" Ivory must have thought. (It's what he always thinks, in film after film.) "That way, we can show how shallow they are, how they fail to respond to the redemptive powers of Culture!" (In Ivory's lexicon, that's "Culture" with a capital "K.") This technique has the added advantage, though it would likely not occur to one so modest as James Ivory, of showing off how very cultured he is himself.
In a 40-years' partnership with the producer Ismail Merchant, James Ivory has made a career of filming seemingly "literary" adaptations of great, and sometimes not-so-great, works of literature. It is clear, admirably clear, that he loves to read. It is less clear that he likes to make movies, or that he particularly understands what it is he desires, for whatever obscure reason, to translate into film.
Two cases in point: Consider, first, the highly regarded Merchant Ivory version of E.M. Forster's novel A Room with a View. Forster's story of British quasi-aristocrats in Italy is a satire of hypocrisy, concerning the delusion that culture civilizes. Forster's point is that it corrupts, and for him, this delusion is the poison of the spirit. He wants us to shrug off culture and get in touch with our primal selves--a delusion of a rather different order. In his film version of the novel, Ivory tells the story with dogged faithfulness to the plot, but he cannot compose a shot without cramming it with paintings or sculptures or ornate old jugs or plush carpets--anything to make us catch our breath and congratulate him on the beauty he's dredged up. It's an odd conception of beauty, however. The pretty scenery is part of the same design, as are the operatic soundtracks. Ivory's too genteel to be drunk on culture, but he loves to parade it before us, in a manner that constitutes, not exactly a style, but a seemingly irresistible tic. It never seems to occur to him that this fetishism of things cultural undermines the whole point of Forster's book.
Or consider Ivory's adaptation of Evan S. Connell's great, too-little-read novels, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge. What Ivory does is to streamline Connell's digressive, elliptical plotline, mash it up into a movie called Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, and completely ignore the qualities of style that make the books great. Connell's strange, terse, disconnected episodes gradually accumulate into an extraordinary aggregate, which the reader must parse, and this highly distinctive style conveys the constrained, quietly desperate quality of the characters' lives in a way that goes beyond mere plotline. Among other things, Connell's books are audacious formal experiments in narration, but from Ivory's version you'd never know they were anything but traditional, linear stories about sad middle-class lives.
What's the point of making movies out of books, if your first instinct is to dump whatever formal elements made the book worth reading, and render nothing but a bland template of the plot? Some of the greatest movies--Sunrise, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Golden Coach, Mouchette, Barry Lyndon--have been made from books; adaptation is not, by definition, an ignoble practice. But these cases either use the book only as the basis for an idiosyncratic fantasia of the director's own (as in Murnau or Kubrick), or else try to honor the style of the original by fashioning a complex translation (as in Welles or Renoir).
Ivory is typically congratulated for retaining civilized values amid the degraded milieu of modern film, but the truth is that his versions of these books are little but dumbed-down slide shows meant, apparently, to help non-readers feel literate. To that end, he uses culture the way John Woo uses fake blood. The problem is not that Ivory is too "literary." Eric Rohmer's The Marquise of O ... is literary too, or Jane Campion's The Piano, or Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street. Great films can be "literary"; the problem is that Ivory isn't literary enough--he doesn't seem to get his own sources.
Now, for the third time, Ivory's gotten his hands on Henry James. His earlier adaptations of James, The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984), are among Ivory's more satisfying films, because he was working with James's earlier fiction, in the realist comedy-of-manners mode. Though it's not a fate one would wish upon them, these novels lend themselves a little more readily to the process of being flattened out into tame costume dramas. But Ivory treats The Golden Bowl exactly as he treated those early novels, as an occasion for florid dialogues and picturesque tableaux. He seems not to have a clue about what any casual reader of James knows, concerning the radical shift of style in James's work of this late phase, away from realism toward a kind of proto-modernism.
James conceived The Golden Bowl as a short story, but in execution, it grew into his longest, most complex novel. The plot, though, remained essentially unchanged. It was the sense of nuance, almost crazily exacting, and a style meant to reverberate against his characters' willfulness and obliviousness, that made the novel grow into the grandiloquent structure it is. During this last phase of his work, James told his stories either from the points-of-view of mad or seriously deluded people--as in The Turn of the Screw or The Sacred Fount--or else from a third-person viewpoint that, in its Olympian, mannered artificiality--as in Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors or The Golden Bowl--ironically reflected the emotional habits of the characters whose fates are so coolly unraveled. He achieved, in the end, a triumphant marriage of form and content, where his stories of petty adulteries, social rivalries and missed connections found their perfect analogue in his wildly subtle, hyper-refined style.
Take, for example, the last sentence of The Golden Bowl: "And the truth of it had with this force after a moment so strangely lighted his eyes that as for pity and dread of them she buried her own in his breast." It's a relatively straightforward sentence, for James, with not a comma in sight, but its overwrought syntax--the play of pronouns, the rush of dissociated phrases, that odd, ambiguous "as for"--shows that even in this moment of seeming triumph, nuance overwhelms communication. James' dialogue, too, consists of half-muttered fragments, questions answered with other questions, conversation at excruciating cross-purpose, rendered with corrosive wit, showing the characters' inability to connect to one another. But Ivory and the screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, apparently thinking poor old James just couldn't write dialogue, straighten it all out, so we won't get confused.
James' last novel, The Golden Bowl, balances a mordant drama of moral choice against a newly hopeful, optimistic treatment of character--it has, in its way, a happy ending. That's probably what Ivory liked about it. Certainly his film encompasses nothing of this novel's distinctive style, its form--the very locus of its greatness. All that's left is a pale outline of the plot: Uma Thurman loves Jeremy Northam, but Jeremy Northam marries Kate Beckinsale. So Uma marries Nick Nolte, Kate's father, so she can be near Jeremy, nonetheless. (In the cast Nick Nolte is the one holdout in the lineup of costume-drama veterans in his refusal to do the standard costume drama performance; it is a welcome reprieve but not, all in all, a happy one.) A golden bowl, admired in passing, might reveal the secret of their love. At a crucial moment, the eponymous bowl crashes to the ground. You can tell by all the noise that this is a dramatic turning point.
It's all very well, as costume drama, and even though the costumes look as if they're hanging in closets rather than adorning people's bodies, they appear well-researched--a feathered getup Uma wears atop her head during one of the interminable party scenes is particularly fetching. But it's not Henry James--it's movie stars playing dress-up. Nearly as much as Forster, James was an enemy of civility. Most of his work portrays civility as an agent of repression, or hypocrisy, or even worse social ills. The elaborate mimicry of the voice of civility in his late style was usually meant to be funny, an ironic echo and formal counterpoint of the characters' own venal, mortifying drives. Ivory converts it all into the Dangerous Liaisons of An Ideal Husband. Literature, I guess, is now a constant quantity, an undifferentiated mass of text, mere raw material, signifying nothing but the decorous, seemly pleasures of olden times. Wilde, Forster, James, Shakespeare--what's the difference? It all boils down to the same unstoppable, homogeneous ooze, the ooze of culture. And as long as you remain civil, and don't show the blood, you can peddle it as Art.