Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Constricted Views

DVD Notes: “A Room With a View”

The initial problem facing any filmmaker wishing to adapt a novel for the screen is the problem of plot. Specifically, how much stays in, how much is thrown out, and how much can be added without looking unbearably arrogant? Many filmmakers have trouble with length: the Harry Potter books and novels of Dickens are far too long for direct transcription into a screenplay, and much decisive, and often painful, snipping away has to be done. What seems to work with a somewhat higher rate of success is adapting a shorter book, giving filmmakers room to expand and compound, rather than condense and simplify. Wes Anderson provides an ideal example with his Fantastic Mr Fox, taken from the tiny children’s book by Roald Dahl, as do David Fincher and Eric Roth with their grand adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

In their remarkably successful film version of E.M. Forster’s novel A Room With a View, which was released 30 years ago and has never really waned in popularity, the out director James Ivory, his long-term romantic and production partner producer Ismail Merchant, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala take a path straight down the middle. They took a novel neither longer nor shorter than was required, and performed a kind of fundamentalist translation from page to screen. Forster begins, for example, Chapter 2 thus:

“It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not, with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

In the corresponding scene in the film, Ivory supplies a shot of Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch (the novel and film’s heroine) lying on her back in her hotel room’s bed, having just woken up, looking about the somewhat empty room. The look on Bonham Carter’s face suggests casual concentration, as if she is both reciting the passage to herself and remembering to show it in her facial expressions for the camera. She gets up and opens the windows wide, looks out upon the sunlit city across the Arno, which is conscientiously included in the shot, upon the churches and, beyond them, the green hills.

The entire film is written and shot with that kind of devotional loyalty to the novel. Even the chapter headings are reproduced at the beginnings of scenes, with title cards appearing bearing text like “The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr Emerson, Mr George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them”. The reason for it, I should think, is that Jhabvala, herself a celebrated novelist, knew very well what Forster was trying to achieve throughout, and out of respect for a colleague and his labours, she worked to replicate his efforts in the film’s screenplay. The result is that A Room With a View plays like a mere enactment, simply an audiovisual illustration of Forster’s novel with no imaginative feats or original images of its own.

Well, with nearly nothing original. While the music in the story – namely Lucy’s improper fondness for the playing of Beethoven’s piano works – is Forster’s inclusion, there is the element of non-diegetic (existing outside of the story’s implied world) music, which is the duty of the director. The original score of the film, composed by Richard Robbins, is not much to speak of, but what A Room With a View is most often remembered for is the use of two Puccini arias, both performed by the New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, to underscore dramatic moments. The more famous one and the one used more frequently in the film is “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi, which is used purely for its excessively melodramatic tone. No doubt Ivory and Merchant thought it’d draw an air of refinement and romanticism into their film, and probably had a strong taste for Puccini. They wouldnt be the first among gay couples. But the one that interests me more, and the one that always has far more of an emotional effect on me (both in the film and in general), is “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” played as Lucy walks out into the barley field to meet George Emerson (Julian Sands), and as he, overcome with passion in the presence of the tremendous beauty of the Italian countryside, forgets Edwardian propriety and grabs her and kisses her. Though for Lucy, as well as most of the other film’s characters, such conduct is not only a break from conventions but a break from decency, she herself is overwhelmed in the moment with sensation. And the text of the aria, as well as Puccini’s exquisite setting to music, suits the moment in the film magnificently. Te Kanawa sings of the dream of Doretta, in which she is kissed on the lips by a young student:

Folle amore!
Folle ebbrezza!
Chi la sottil carezza
D’un bacio cosi ardente
Mai ridir potra?
(Exquisite madness! Delirious ecstasy! How might one find a way to express the soft caress of such a burning kiss?)

(You can listen to what I believe to be the recording used in the film, here.)

Would that Ivory’s images, even if only in this sequence, had matched his momentarily inspired taste in opera. As it is, nothing in his film can match or quite comprehend the shattering power of its eminent source. When first quickly glanced over, Forster’s prose can seem a little bluff and abrupt, perhaps even slightly inept. He clearly has it in for the constrictive social constructs of his time, and most of the paragraphs that one lands on at random, in this and his other novels, are aimed at challenging that narrow-mindedness and the slow, quiet oppressions of intellectual and imaginative complacency in his society. But a steadier perusal of the text reveals something transfixing, graceful, and at times nearly mystical about his frank philosophising in the middle of his fiction. It becomes clear that the novels are not only a social commentary and political treatise, but transformative works of art.

When I first read Forster’s six novels – in a frenzied, unbroken stream in the year I turned 16 – they seemed to me, as they still do now, grand poetic essays in prose form, moulded into the shape of fiction. Forster’s idiosyncratic vision is, in fact, on a cosmic scale, and though he seems to me to be the quintessential humanist, trusting entirely in the human and not at all in any god, he is also something of a mystic. He conjures a divine, innate essence in the human that burns through our whole lives, and surpasses anything else in the universe. In Howards End, perhaps his greatest novel, his protagonist, Margaret Schlegel, cries out to her husband, who denies the larger spiritual implications of his actions:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

In a passage of even more obvious intrusion on his own fiction, this time in A Room With a View, Forster writes movingly about an art form:

“The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marvelling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words, and his experiences into human actions.”

James Ivory, however admiring he may be of Forster, does not share the richness and vastness of Forster’s vision, and when the spirit of a literary work is so far out of a director’s reach, it can hardly do him any good to try match it letter for letter. I’ve never seen anything by Ivory that was not a literary adaptation, and each of those films is an unfortunate reproduction, just as A Room With a View is. The failure of Ivory’s imagination can be seen streaked across the uninspired and uninspiring photography, the unskilled choreography of scenes of movement, the flatness of scenes of conversation, and the gazes of stern concentration cropping up any number of times on his actors’ faces. Any success in a performance in A Room With a View is entirely independent of – or, perhaps, despite – the work done by Ivory. And they’re dishearteningly sparse.

I count four performances of some deftness, thanks to the established level-headedness of the actors, but they’re by no means free from trouble or frustration. Daniel Day-Lewis acts quite competently, and the excessive silliness of his performance – I can’t quite tell whether or not it’s deliberate – serves to wiggle him the furthest out of the deadening constraints on all the actors. Maggie Smith has fleeting instants of persuading us to believe her when she speaks her lines, but often the work she does to make her character seem disingenuous and flat unfortunately only has that effect on our perception of her acting. Denholm Elliot and Judi Dench have smaller roles, and so less chance of being totally trodden on by the filmmakers’ flat-footed devices, and they manage to drag some comedy and a little melodrama into the film. The rest of the cast are not so fortunate.

A Room With a View retains the adoration of a large number of fans, who insist that it deserves it, for being so “true to the book”. If what is required is something true to the book, then what I recommend is just to read the book, rather than expect it to be replicated in some other medium that is meant for original and distinctive art. No film is supposed to be true to any book, only true to itself, and the filmmakers who have best grasped that idea – and who are willing to put up with the ire it will certainly draw from any fans the source material may have – are the ones who succeed on the most magnificent scale in their adaptations. All that can be said of this one, is that if any view is on offer here, it’s not of the world, nor of art, nor of the conflicted girl Lucy Honeychurch, nor of Italy, nor even of Forster; it’s only one of uninspired fidelity, of a devotion to the ritual and not to the spirit, and of the failure of one imagination when confronted with a far greater one.

Image: www.collider.com

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