It is the sublime novel of human connection, first published in 1904. As a work of prose fiction, it is rivaled only by Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," in effect a memoir, and James Joyce's "Ulysses," a special case. Henry James' "The Golden Bowl," which carried the novel to its most august heights, is a tale of intrigue and betrayal, wrought through "the fine spring of the unspeakable." Whether such a book could be transferred meaningfully to the screen seems not only dubious, but quixotic, even absurd. Yet to place James' greatest novel beside James Ivory's most accomplished film, which opens nationwide May 17, exposes what the novel and what the moving picture each does best.
Adam Verver, builder of a great fortune in American City and a collection of incomparable European treasures, has married his daughter Maggie to Roman Prince Amerigo, himself one of Verver's finest acquisitions. Maggie's childhood friend, Charlotte Stant, a young woman of great passion and no means, has become the wife of Mr. Verver. To her horror, Maggie discovers that Charlotte had been before Maggie's marriage, and continues to be, the Prince's lover.
The maneuvers of Maggie (and her father) to wrest themselves from the evil of betrayal progress by stealth. They enlist concealment. They proceed beyond "the grossness of discussion." James depicts events elliptically, through elaborate metaphors. For example, Maggie's wish to spare the Prince the consequences of his deception is like "the wild wing of some bird of the air who might blindly have swooped for an instant into the shaft of a well, darkening there by his momentary flutter the far-off round of sky."
For James, only the indirect and the oblique allow the heart to navigate inevitable cruelty. His style and his themes coincide. Optimism resides in refinement. The straightforward is vulgar, like blundering matchmaker Fanny Assingham's blunt pronouncement about Charlotte: "she hates America." Dramatic irony suffuses this narrative: Adam deludes himself into believing that by marrying Charlotte, relieving his daughter of responsibility for his loneliness, he has concocted a "majestic scheme ... he was acting ... not in the dark, but in the high golden morning." The opposite is the case.
In a novel by Henry James, what isn't known is more compelling because surfaces are untrustworthy. Adam doesn't appreciate the extent of his delusion when he observes "the fine pink glow ... of his ships behind him, definitely blazing and crackling." In supreme ignorance he happily makes the decision that will cause him to lose his beloved daughter forever. It is James' "cri de coeur," his battle cry: the deep rift between appearance and reality, seeming and being.
Film, however, is dependent on just those appearances. Meaning must arrive through the depiction of surfaces, of concrete events, from dialogue, the said rather than the unsaid - and their juxtaposition. It would seem, then, that James' masterpiece forbids translation to the screen.
Yet James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, its screenwriter, have produced a work of consummate film art in this "adaptation." They do so not by attempting to translate "The Golden Bowl." Rather, modestly and appropriately, they offer not an adaptation, but an addition. Their film version is an improvisatory riff rather than an projected equivalent to the novel, like other less successful adaptations of James, such as "The Portrait of a Lady."
Their film plays along beside Henry James with a tempo of its own. Ivory and Jhabvala present the gift to James of another "Golden Bowl." It is not an imitation of his novel, but an expression of what the author has kept unseen. Paradoxically, it becomes by far the most authentic adaptation of a work by Henry James to the screen to date.
The film opens on scenes of high drama in 16th-century Italy. There is such tumult, such violence of emotion and upheaval, that you feel as if you have mistakenly entered the wrong theater. This surprising venue of high excitement is conveyed in the novel only as scattered references to the Prince's "antenatal history," a "big black palace, the Palazzo Nero" and "the ghost of some proudest ancestor" in the "ancient state" by the Tiber.
Scenes nowhere in the novel bloom in this homage, not only this startling beginning, but the documentary footage of the conclusion. Ivory's elaborate and richly detailed historical and social settings become counterpoints to James' triumphant metaphors.
The novel closes on Maggie and the Prince, alone at last together, even as Maggie has revealed to the reader that the person most necessary to her, the most important in her life, is the father she is unlikely ever to see again. Her ambiguous consolation is the Prince's capitulation. "See? I see nothing but you," he tells her, obliterating Charlotte.
Incorporating startling documentary footage, the film closes on images of America, where Adam Verver has carried Charlotte off to exile. Into sight has come the "stiff American breeze of example and opportunity," which James, an expatriate, was too repelled to depict. Acknowledging the richness of his own medium, Ivory presents the agitated motion of a booming turn-of-the-century America from a historical vantage James could not have predicted.
Through the dust and automobiles and rail car lines, Ivory, in a rare political moment, adds a dimension absent from James. He ponders America's future hegemony over world culture. In the novel there is but one equivalent note, a reference to Verver's sense "of one's having the world to one's self."
Seizing the freedom not to adapt, Ivory and Jhabvala are at liberty to interpret rather than imitate. Adam Verver in the novel is "a small, spare, slightly stale person." He is asexual, bald, and "barely taller than his daughter," with a "neat, colourless face."
He does not have sexual intercourse with his young wife, allowing the reader to sympathize with a trapped Charlotte. The film, instead, offers Nick Nolte as Verver, an inevitable sexual presence, his sexuality an un-Jamesian, if contemporary, emblem of his aggressive fortune-making.
Uma Thurman as Charlotte, all glittering surface, overshadows Kate Beckinsale's Maggie. The Prince's "instinct for relations, the most exquisite conceivable" is missing in the film, although it is essential to novel. There it becomes the source of the Prince's decision not to tell his lover that his wife knows about their affair.
What cannot come to the surface in the film is that the Prince is too refined, is in possession of an "inextinguishable sense of a higher and braver propriety." According to the values James exalts, the Prince is too decent as a pure aristocrat to go down in a sea of vulgarity and scandal.
Nolte and Thurman flamboyantly overshadow the Prince and the Princess in this alternative "Golden Bowl." Angelica Houston, however, is perfect as the hapless matchmaker Fanny. "'Quiet' is more than I am," James' Fanny admits.
In the scene closest to James, Charlotte, acting as a guide, explains Verver's great works of art to visitors. The camera from a high angle peers down from the vantage of Adam on a now powerless Charlotte. She is helpless, caught in the "cage" James suggests. Where morality finds expression in action, film stands as an equal beside the novel.
James' finest metaphor, which emerges in this scene, is the astounding image of the "gleam of the golden noose," and "a long silken halter looped round [Charlotte's] beautiful neck." Adam's fingers close around this noose binding Charlotte, even as he doesn't twitch it. In humility, Ivory and Charlotte do not attempt to transfer this defining Jamesian image to the screen.
As, perhaps, the culmination of the novel form, "The Golden Bowl" cannot be approached. In a story about the Olympian heights of the unsaid and the unspoken, James' highest dramatic moments involve words that "ring out." In James, the sound of the unsaid is deafening. Film, dependent on the overt, treads its separate path.
Yet James Ivory's film version of "The Golden Bowl" represents his own master work. The patina of its golden surface complements the dry pages of a book; its imaginative leaps reveal a complex expression of film art in its own right. His film stands proudly, in friendly collaboration, beside the unequalled final work of the Master. Each plumbs the depths of its medium. Ivory's strategy acknowledges: for Henry James, one must return to the page.
Joan Mellen, who teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University, has written 15 books, including a novel, three biographies and seven volumes of film criticism.