The Golden Bowl

"It works diagonally": A Conversation with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
on The Golden Bowl and the Art of Adaptation
by Philip Horne

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a novelist and screenwriter whose work with Merchant Ivory includes screenplays for A Room with a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, and Heat and Dust. Jhabvala has won a Booker Prize, two Oscars, and is a MacArthur Fellow. Her most recent work is an adaptation of Henry James's The Golden Bowl, her third Henry James adaptation for the Merchant Ivory company.

Academic and author Philip Horne spoke with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in an interview for London's Guardian newspaper. The following are exceprts from their conversation.

After escaping from Nazi Germany you came to London in 1939, and later studied English at London University. Does Anglo-American literature have a special meaning for you?

RPJ: I was very lucky to go to England when I did. I was also very lucky to have the years of doing nothing but reading, mostly English literature. So my whole background is that. It was extremely fortunate for me. Also English became my first language.

Do you think studying literature is a better preparation for writing screenplays than going to film school would be?

RPJ: Well, I started off and still am primarily a novelist, and not a screenwriter. Studying English literature is really not studying - to have all those years to read is a gift. Particularly as I wasn't really good at anything. While I was preparing for my degree, I never wrote. I wrote before and after, but during those years I just read. I even did a thesis on the short story in England from 1700-1750. There weren't any of course - but that was my thesis.

Do you think that studying literature at university is why you were interested in adapting classics?

RPJ: I was never interested in adapting classics at all. I'd written four novels. I was never interested in film. Never. I never even thought of it. I never thought of it until Merchant Ivory came to India and filmed one of my books - they said: "Why don't you write the screenplay?" I said I'd never written a screenplay and I hadn't seen many films because I was in India by that time and hadn't really had any opportunity to see new films or art films or classic films or anything. So they said, "Well, try. We haven't made a feature film before." So that was really my introduction into film.

Is there a main purpose in adapting classics for film?

RPJ: The main purpose is that I have such a good time. I mean, think of all that marvelous material. Just think of spending all that time in The Golden Bowl and the other James and Forster books we have done. But especially Henry James because he has such marvelous characters and he has such strong dramatic scenes. You just put your hand in and pull them out.

There isn't an educational impulse?

RPJ: I'm afraid not! Maybe there should be, but I'm afraid I only think of myself.

I suppose you are trying to communicate your enjoyment.

RPJ: Yes, yes. I suppose, yes. And in a way it's a homage to a great author. You know I never write any critical articles or critical reviews, never write anything except fiction and screenplays, so it is a kind of homage. But I never think I'm doing a public service or anything...

Do you have any idea why American classics from the turn of the century seem to be so fashionable now?

RPJ: Is Henry James particularly fashionable?

In the last few years...

RPJ: Yes. Well, it is such grand material, wonderful scenes, great characters, such wonderful relationships between the characters - well, the material is there.

The French director Jacques Rivette said in 1974 that James is one of the "unfilmable" authors, who "can be filmed diagonally, taking up their themes, but never literally." You obviously don't agree...

RPJ: No, I do agree! Any adaptation you do it diagonally. You can take up the theme but you can never, never, never do it literally. You'd come up with a kind of travesty, if you tried to interpret anything literally.

But fidelity, is that important?

RPJ: Fidelity is not the first [thing]. No I don't think so. Like I said, the theme and the feel of the characters... the ambience and their relationships... that is what you try...but never, never literally.

So it's a separate work, really?

RPJ: In a way. I'll tell you what I usually do. I read the book several times, usually it's a book I know very well anyway, but I read it several times and make some notes and make a kind of plan that I think I would want to follow - usually I don't, it breaks down at some point - and then I put the book away and really don't look at it again until I've filled out my own thing. And then I look at it again and see what I have missed. But there is a period when the book and I are two separate entities.

How much changing do you do when you go back to the book at that stage? Or what kinds of things do you change?

RPJ: Nothing really - usually I find that I look for some poignancy or some scene that might contribute more, that might point something out that should be there in the screenplay. I try and find that. Or even just half a line of dialogue can be a Godsend to me at that point.

How well do you find Henry James' dialogue works?

RPJ: Well, again, it works diagonally. You really have to transcribe it. He's not the only author - all the others - you can never just take it off the page. However colloquial the language might sound, this is not how actors can speak.

Could I ask what you liked or what you didn't like about any of the recent James adaptations?

RPJ: Well, I like Portrait of a Lady very much, and that was a book we had wanted to do over 20 years ago, but we never had the money for it. We did two other Jameses. We started with The Europeans because that was all in America; it was much easier and a much smaller film so it was much easier to raise the money. And then again with The Bostonians, that was all in America, easier for us to shoot. Then other things came in-between and Portrait of a Lady went I'm afraid.

Did you ever get as far as a script?

RPJ: No.

Was it hard work getting The Golden Bowl made?

RPJ: To get it made? Um, well, some of the financiers said, "This is not one of Henry James' really good novels." They didn't want to go ahead with it. But we did get money for the screenplay, money for the development, and once we had that we didn't have too much difficulty.

How did you pitch the story?

RPJ: I wrote a sort of outline of the book - how we were going to see it and a background of the characters - and that's what we sent out. Because I didn't really expect anyone to have read the book.

Was there an emphasis that you thought was central to that?

RPJ: Well, yes, I think that we said that this was a passionate encounter between four people, and we thought that might sound good to potential financiers. If this had been our first, second or third film we may have had more difficulty, but we did have a good [track] record, so people came forward and said, "Well, it may not look like much, but, you know... " [laughs]

How different is The Golden Bowl to how you would have done it, say, straight after The Europeans?

RPJ: I don't think it would have worked so well for me. No, I think I needed a lot more practice, because this was a very difficult script. This was the hardest. This was the nicest and the hardest. The only other one that has been equally difficult and equally rewarding was Mr. and Mrs. Bridge - I don't know if you know that one, by Evan S. Connell - it was two books actually, which we adapted into one. And that was one of my favourite films. Those two were the hardest.

You obviously have a wonderful working relationship with James Ivory. But late Henry James is notoriously ambiguous and difficult, and no two readers of The Golden Bowl read it quite the same way - in fact, a single reader often sees different things in it at each reading. Did you always see it the same way?

RPJ: I think we must have done. I mean the screenplay - he read it, and he had some objections, but there was nothing fundamental. I don't think we ever had a fundamental difference of opinion.

Could you talk about how your process of collaboration with James Ivory works?

RPJ: Well, when I lived in India and he lived in New York, or wherever he was, we did a lot through correspondence. But now we all live in New York... I am still so used to working on my own that I do several drafts for myself first and then send them to him to make marks in the margin. And then I rewrite, and this goes on over a few months. And then finally we sit together and see where we still might have disagreements. Then he goes and shoots the film - I have nothing to do with that - I only go along to see some rushes. But I will see the rough cut, which is usually twice the length of the final version, then I see it again, and we sit in the editing room for some time and, you know, fiddle about.

So you are involved in the editing?

RPJ: Yes, I am involved in the editing but not in the actual production, or in the casting.

Whose idea was it to begin the film in Renaissance Italy with the discovery of adultery and the killing of the lovers?

RPJ: I put that in right from the beginning because I thought to myself, well how am I going to show who this prince is and where he comes from? So I read a lot of books about the Renaissance and I came across a story in which a duke actually does kill a stepmother who was involved with her stepson. I thought, well that's a good background for this film.

The duke is one of the ancestors?

RPJ: Yes. And then there is the slideshow [later in the film], of the families, and then the story of the duke is told.

Later on, in your story, the role of the duke seems to be closer to Adam Verver.

RPJ: Well yes, you know, you're supposed to think that! In the book, the figure of Adam Verver is ambiguous to the end, so that we don't ever really know whether he has any clear idea what's been going on, or whether he's a bit of a simple soul, all of whose subtlety is used solely on his business.

In your film it seems to me we know very clearly that he knows [what's going on between his wife and stepson].

RPJ: He's immensely clever. A man doesn't become a billionaire and a patron of the arts if he's dim!

So that ambiguity...

RPJ: There is no ambiguity. How could he have become a billionaire? In the book he manipulates the entire situation - he and Maggie between them. He in silence, but he knew what everyone else was thinking.

I was struck by the sympathy with which you presented the predicament of the Ververs who, in much academic criticism since FR Leavis, are taken to be capitalistic vampires, an essentially incestuous father-daughter team, draining the passionate blood from their weaker partners. Do you think there's a sinister side to what the Ververs do in the book that doesn't appear in the film?

RPJ: Not at all. I think Henry James loved Maggie Verver. He loves her and he enters into her more than any other character in any other novel. All of the passion that she has for the prince, this is Henry James' passion that he has given her. Though I like Gore Vidal's introduction [to the Penguin edition*] very much, I didn't really like his thesis that they are the manipulators, and the prince and Charlotte are the victims. In a way they are the victims because they are social victims, because they have nothing and are dependent on father and daughter. But that has nothing to do with the character of the Ververs, who are all goodness, and Henry James painted them as goodness, in a way that an earlier Bostonian knows goodness, I think.

I admired your courage in actually having the golden bowl itself appear and also be discussed as a symbol. Could you say something about what it means for you?

RPJ: Well first of all it's an object, we had to have it there, it's a physical object, which one person buys and another does not. The moment when the golden bowl is delivered in the film is also the moment when she [Maggie] discovers about the relationship between Charlotte and her husband. The golden bowl itself - Fanny says she does not believe it - it has a crack, it's damaged, and Fanny says, 'Who would think? It looks so perfect?' And then she [Maggie] says 'yes, a perfect fake'. And that's how she sees the situation that has been created for her: her marriage and her father's marriage are, in fact, perfect fakes. Like the golden bowl. And shortly afterwards [Amerigo] asks, well, 'What do you want?' and she says, 'I want a happiness without a hole in it, I want the bowl without a crack'. So it's a perfect symbol for us, and in the film we do see it.

You also seemed to have rethought Prince Amerigo, making him less languid and passive than he appears in the book. I noticed that he drives his own car and has his chauffeur sit in the back; and he even wins a bicycle race. What is the logic behind that?

RPJ: Well, you can't have a languid central character otherwise why would these two women be in love with him? You need some kind of driving force.

In the first edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel first comes across Mme. Merle playing Beethoven on the piano; in the revised edition it's Schubert, a more beautiful, sadder, less stirringly courageous composer. You have Charlotte play Adam Verver a Debussy Sarabande. Does that characterise her? [In the novel she just plays Adam some of his 'favourite things', unnamed (182).]

RPJ: No, not at all. Charlotte plays very badly and Henry James says she plays as you would play a game of tennis, you know, correctly but not particularly well.

Incidentally, you have Fanny near the end of the film tell the story of The Portrait of a Lady as if it's something that's happened to a friend - she's a friend of Isabel Osmond, nee Archer...

RPJ: You spotted that? Good! In fact I put it right in, and then she turns round and says, 'That dreadful husband, what was his name?' I had in fact put in his real name, but Jim [Ivory] thought that was going too far... so he used another name.

Was that a joke?

RPJ: Well, I thought it was as good a story as any!

So that's 20 years after the action of Portrait of a Lady?

RPJ: Yes.

Do you think Isabel is happy?

RPJ: No, no. I'm afraid not [laughs]. I think this is the one book with a happy ending.

Is there a literary critic on The Golden Bowl whose work you admire or agree with, or have been influenced by?

RPJ: No, I never read about anything, I always read the thing. I read around the social life and where it all came from, but it would disturb me to read other people's opinions I think. I really want to go to the text itself, or to how the text came about - the personal and social circumstances behind it.

Do you have any other James adaptations in mind?

RPJ: No, I don't think so. I think that The Golden Bowl is the ultimate for him, it's his last novel... so I don't think I'd particularly want to. There's none that I could think of now that I would want to do.

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