James' 'Golden Bowl': Movies are not literature

The Argument

Novels are about the intricate, the unsaid

movies are about appearances and what is said.


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.

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