‘Fess up. When was the last time you actually read a Henry James novel? Even if you’re a fan of Great Dead White Authors, and we’re by no means a dying breed, odds are there aren’t a lot of readers of this column nodding their heads at this moment, saying, “Whoa! I stayed up for two nights last weekend trying to finish The Ambassadors. What a rush!” Henry James’s writing is the literary equivalent of platinum—highly valued because of its extraordinary density. A lot of his sentences tend to be longer than most people’s paragraphs. James’ average paragraph length can clock in at close to 500 words; a string of such 500-word paragraphs is downright scary. Then there’s his fondness for exposition over action; one sentence will get a character into a room, and the next five pages will explain the significance of that character’s presence in that room at that precise point in time.
Just the kind of source material movie directors would be falling over themselves trying to get to the screen. Not.
So why am I talking about Henry James in this column? Well, the universe remains a mysterious place filled with unaccounted-for dark matter and naked singularities and subatomic particles that act like zen koans, and the fact is that Henry James’ novels and short stories have been turned into films as often as Stephen King’s.
And usually much more successfully.
You can begin to understand James’ appeal when you watch adaptations like Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove, Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, and Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square—all amazingly released in 1997. I’ve chosen to write about the The Wings of the Dove in this month’s column simply because it’s the only one available here on the East Shore.
Doing the screenplay for Dove must have been interesting. Alchemical. Turning ten pages of text into a single camera angle, a look, and a half-dozen spoken words. Playing around with the historical timeframe and tinkering the plot. Kudos to screenwriter Hassein Amini. Slavish imitation is not the soul of good cinema.
That said, however, the film belongs to the actors. It’s their job to make us appreciate the tragedies that give Henry James’s stories their lasting impact.
James was always exploring the tensions between the new money and the old, between the values of the rising American capitalist class and those of the offended and endangered European aristocracies. In his novels, these two solitudes are always at odds. The struggle is oftentimes vicious. Hearts and lives go down in the crossfire. Henry James wasn’t optimistic about people transcending class barriers. Tragedy most often strikes because men and women can’t shrug off the weight of the past. Aristocrats try to cling to estates they can no longer afford, the nouveaux riche buy their way into a lifestyle they’re actually contemptuous of, and workingclass men and women either claw their way up the ladder or stand defiantly on its lowest rungs. Where other great writers with similar themes—Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Honoré de Balzac—tended to play them out on stages which seemed larger than life, Henry James’ tragedies unfold most often in the claustrophobic confines of a drawing room, boudoir, or bureau. If a director like Akira Kurasawa was the cinema’s Balzac, Rainer Werner Fassbinder would be its Henry James.
As Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove, Helena Bonham Carter is the perfect James heroine. Bonham Carter’s performance makes this film. It’s one of my personal favorites. Kate is a young woman from a broken family who has been adopted by her wealthy Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling, in top form). Kate’s father is a womanizer, an opium addict, and a drunkard. Maude loathes him, blaming him for the death of her sister, but recognizes in Kate an intelligence and ruthlessness that mirror her own. She determines to recreate Kate in her own image.
It’s a plan that shows signs of being successful, despite Kate’s continuing stubborn loyalty to her father and her insistence on carrying on an affair with a journalist her aunt sees as lower caste trash like the father. Kate is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure her life will never to subject to others’ whims or to the fickle winds of fortune. Bonham Carter easily convinces us that had Kate been born in the Venice of the Borgias, or the France of Francis I, she might well have been the kind of woman who commanded the building of chateaux and the deaths of rivals.
Kate should have been equally successful in Aunt Maude’s more rarified and restricted world. Her downfall comes in encountering someone with all the weapons of class warfare but no desire to use them. Kate could take down any enemy; she’s undone by a friend. Millie Theale (Alison Elliott) is a young American woman, orphaned, from a fabulously rich family. Down-at-the-heel aristocrats such as Aunt Maude’s friend Lord Mark (Alex Jennings) slaver at her heels, seeing her as meal ticket to a future free of playing the charades of wealth without its substance. Unfortunately for them, and for Kate, Millie has no time for games. And hence no time to be corrupted by them. She’s tubercular and dying. In the little time she has left she wants to follow her heart and not her mind.
Her heart goes out first to Kate. Not at all naïve (although Kate at first believes her so), a true daughter of earned wealth and power, Millie instinctively recognizes and admires Kate’s marriage of passion and intelligence. This is the strong woman she might have been had fortune been kinder. But the shadow of her own death also allows Millie to empathize with the bitterness, pain, and anger that Kate is repressing in connection with her past. Perhaps Millie senses that something important in Kate has already died, and they are both victims of circumstance.
Kate doesn’t understand Millie until it is too late. Too late she realizes that Millie’s refusal to rage against her own death—like Kate’s raging against her past—gives her a martyr’s suasion. When Millie falls for Kate’s lover, Merton Densher (Linus Roache), not at first realizing their relationship, Kate can’t help trying to exploit the situation for its obvious potential. Merton is incredulous: “You want me to seduce a dying girl!?” Is Kate betraying Millie’s friendship? Not really. Even when Millie becomes fully aware of the game being played, her feelings for Kate and Merton don’t change. Other things are more important.
Kate’s error is like that of the Romans who martyred the early saints. She trusts to her own strength and passion. The dying Millie turns out to be stronger and more passionate. The one person, aside from Millie, that Kate truly cares for is converted to a new faith. For Merton, like Saul on the road to Damascus, there’s no turning back. Kate’s body, once worshipped, becomes as sad a spectacle as an abandoned idol in the desert. Merton and Kate’s final lovemaking is the most desperately joyless sex the cinema can offer.
The superb performances in The Wings of the Dove aren’t hurt by the setting of much of the film’s story against the backdrop of Venice. Venice is a perfect example of one of those great cities that no two filmmakers will ever see in exactly the same light. In Dove, it’s a curious blend of spectacle and shadow.
There might be another reason for the recent popularity of films drawn from Henry James. One reviewer described The Wings of the Dove as a “genteel but crushing tragedy.” How often, in this our hyped-up age, do we get catharsis without a bloodbath? How often does intelligence scare us more than lethal force?
Author: William “Berserker” Shakespeare
Film Title: Titus (1999)
Genre: Splatter Drama
Plot: Violent Death & Dismemberment (ancient Rome)
Theme: Reasons for Killing Violently & Dismembering
Video Game: Out soon.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Tragic inevitability. A bad choice is made, and a chain of events is set in motion that cannot be called back. The damage is done, lives shattered. All that’s left are wounds and regret. The Wings of the Dove is a perfect example of this age-old theme, which perhaps finds its most moving expression in Shakespeare’s King Lear. On the levels of performances, cinematography, and pathos, this is a film I would rank with Merchant/Ivory’s The Remains of the Day. Wings has a superbly edited opening sequence, and it makes splendid use of Venice as a dramatic frame. Oddly enough, at times I felt as if there were a touch of Edgar Allan Poe in the atmosphere—as if the ghosts of Ligeia and Annabel Lee drifted along the streets in the wake of the doomed lovers and dissolute aristocrats.
With some embarrassment, I must admit that I’m still struggling with finishing the Henry James novel on which the film is based. It’s been 20 years since my first attempt at the book. I will finish it this time around, but I find James’s page-long paragraphs and elliptical prose more challenging than anything in Shakespeare. With every second page, I feel like I’m entering a linguistic labyrinth, and by the time I penetrate to its heart I’m not always sure where I started from, where I am, or what I’m looking at. There are Jamesian sentences that are their own universes, their own deepest waters of indirection, innuendo, and understatement. In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner wrote of James’s “orgies of reticence” and said that he “had shaped the most intricate registrations of nuance in human history: subdued the taxonomic pretensions of epithets and vanquished the linear rigor of linked sentences….” James had the kind of mind that could lead him to describe a Harvard collegiate football game as evidence of “the capacity of the American public for momentary gregarious emphasis.” Personally, I’ve resorted to using shmoop.com’s breezy The Wings of the Dove Study Guide to keep me on track, much like the ball of thread Theseus used to get through another labyrinth. Had Henry James ever met Ernest Hemingway, we might have had the literary equivalent of a matter/anti-matter mutual annihilation.
During the time it’s taken me to read 150 pages of The Wings of the Dove, I’ve finished Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo, William Shirer’s Berlin Diary, and a history of comic books in America. Page-wise, that’s about a 1:10 or 1:12 ratio. At this rate, I’ll be in my 90s before I’ll have read all of the other Henry James novels & short stories that have been put on film since the 1940s. The Internet Movie Data Base currently lists 156 adaptations. Clearly, Mr. James, challenging as I may find him, has been embraced by filmmakers and screenwriters awed by his fusion of potent plot lines and psychological subtleties.
Linus Roach, an actor I was unfamiliar with, has had a long and solid career in both film and television. Helena Bonham Carter has been nominated for 2 Oscars, for Wings and The King’s Speech (2010). She has over 100 acting credits on Imdb. Award-winning Portuguese Cinematographer Eduardo Serra has been nominated for 2 Oscars, for Wings and for Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003), and should be on every film lover’s radar. Costume designer Sandy Powell has won 3 Oscars, and been nominated over a dozen times. She’s in a league of her own.
Following are a couple of excerpts from The Wings of the Dove. Keep in mind that any sample that is not several hundred words in length is woefully inadequate to capture Jamesian percipience:
It was through Kate that Aunt Maud should be worked, and nothing mattered less than what might become of Kate in the process. Kate was to burn her ships, in short, so that Marian [Kate’s sister] should profit: and Marian’s desire to profit was quite obviously of a dignity that had, after all, its reasons—if it had only cared for them—for keeping itself a little stiff. Kate, to be properly stiff for both of them, would therefore have had to be selfish, have had to prefer an ideal of behaviour—than which nothing ever was more selfish—to the possibility of stray crumbs for the four small creatures.
As he walked to and fro, however, taking in the message of her massive, florid furniture, the immense expression of her signs and symbols, he had as little doubt of the inconvenience he was prepared to suffer….it didn’t in the least imply that Aunt Maud was dull or stale. She was vulgar with freshness, almost with beauty, since there was beauty, to a degree, in the play of so big and bold a temperament. She was in fine quite the largest possible quantity to deal with; and he was in the cage of the lioness without his whip—the whip, in a word, of a supply of proper retorts. He had no retort but that he loved the girl—which in such a house as that was painfully cheap.
‘You’ll notice,’ he pleasantly wound up, ‘that I’ve confidence in you.’
‘Why shouldn’t you have?’ Milly asked, observing in this, as she thought, a fine, though, for such a man, a surprisingly artless, fatuity. It was as if there might have been a question of her falsifying for the sake of her own show—that is of her honesty not being proof against her desire to keep well with him herself. She didn’t, none the less, otherwise protest against his remark: there was something else she was occupied in seeing. It was the handsome girl alone, one of his own species and his own society, who had made him feel uncertain: of his certainties about a mere little American, a cheap exotic, imported almost wholesale, and whose habitat, with its conditions of climate, growth, and cultivation, its immense profusion, but its few varieties and thin development, he was perfectly satisfied…..
Available on YouTube? No, but available for rental or purchase at iTunes & YouTube, and through Prime