It is, I believe, always a mistake to criticize a movie for not being the book it is based on—or, indeed, for not being anything at all. Every artist deserves the courtesy of being assessed on the basis of what he tried to do and not on that of what he didn’t try to do. But as I watched the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Henry James’s Golden Bowl, I couldn’t stop wondering why on earth was this movie was ever made? What, that is, is the point of turning James’s oblique and difficult style into mere dramatic transparency? Why bother adapting a book at all if you are going to treat the heart and soul of it, its tremendous and monumental reticences, with such contempt?
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, that is, blithely puts in everything that James deliberately left out. Perhaps she didn’t realize that James wrote deliberately. Perhaps she thought he just forgot to include these things in his novel, for example those scenes of tears and recriminations that seem so inevitable to her when Maggie née Verver (Kate Beckinsale) discovers the affair between her husband, the Italian Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), and Charlotte Stant Verver (Uma Thurman), her childhood friend who is also the wife of her father, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte). Perhaps she thinks she is doing the old boy a favor by supplying same tears and recriminations omitted, presumably, by inadvertence.
Well, there is so much that is stupid about this adaptation that even that bit of stupidity would hardly be noticed. This is not to minimize the difficulty of touching in a motion picture what James himself called “the fine spring of the unspeakable,” but without at least a serious attempt to touch it, there is nothing left of Henry James to adapt. Instead of even trying to find the springs that control the hidden compartments of our natures, the ham-handed Merchant-Ivory team nails its crude dramatic artifice to the floor and invites us to admire a trite and vulgar tale of infidelity among the rich and glamorous that James would have loathed.
The most bizarre of many bizarre touches is the film’s beginning in the Italian Renaissance with a scene in which a princely husband, led by a younger son surprises his young wife in bed with his elder son and has both the lovers executed. We are given to understand that these are ancestors of Prince Amerigo, and thus that Charlotte, to whom he tells the story, has the idea for their subsequent affair subtly planted in her mind just as the impecunious prince is explaining to her that they must part because he cannot marry a poor girl. Then we cut to “The London home of Adam Verver, America’s first billionaire.” I’m guessing you’ll be able to tell where they’re going with this.
Of course, one could hardly expect the dialogue to be Jamesian, but that doesn’t mean we should have to put up with Mrs Jhabvala’s flat-footed substitute. “I have no money,” says the Prince. “I don’t care,” says desperate Charlotte. “Please don’t do this!” Later Adam tells Charlotte about Maggie’s “odd idea that she’s forsaken me” by marrying the Prince and adds that “I feel bad that she feels bad about me.” The prince says at one point that “I am as ready as the next fellow to call a spade a spade” (which is pretty funny coming from anyone in a Henry James novel), and when Bob Assingham (James Fox) suggests to his wife Fanny (Anjelica Houston)— here portrayed as an insufferable busybody with an inexplicable Southern accent—that she come to bed, she replies: “Come to bed! That’s your answer to everything!” And imagine what James would have thought of having one of his characters translate aut Caesar, aut nihil for another.
But worst of all is the patented Merchant-Ivory importation of the progressive ideas of today into their costume dramas set in the near past. With little or no dramatic justification, we are presented with a vignette of Charlotte acting as docent to her husband’s collection of Old Masters, soon to be bound for American City and housed in a museum there that Adam is building in defiance of local opinion. She stops before Holbein’s famous full-length portrait of Henry VIII and says to her audience of genteel ladies that the picture is, among other things, “a chilling portrait of the masculine ego, of defiance of all that stood in his way, including numerous women. One by one.” Take that Prince Amerigo! Take that Adam Verver! Charlotte may not have got her prince, but there is doubtless some compensation in the unspeakable satisfaction she must feel at being a proto-feminist heroine.