Rewriting Literature

Over the course of a career that began some 40 years ago, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has penned over 20 screenplays-almost exclusively for director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant.

Heat and Dust, The Bostonians, A Room With A View, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Howard’s End, Jefferson In Paris and Surviving Picasso represent less than half of her astonishing output. Also an accomplished novelist (she has adapted two of her own novels for the Merchant/Ivory team), Ms. Jhabvala has created a rich and varied body of work. Her latest project, The Golden Bowl, was adapted from the Henry James novel and stars Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam. In Q & A with MM, Jhabvala discusses her longtime collaboration with the Merchant/Ivory team, the difficulties in adapting literature to the big screen and why she thinks screenplays are more fun.

Phillip Williams, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Was there something in particular about The Golden Bowl that you thought
was unique?

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (RPJ): Well, I’ve done two other Henry James novels and this of course is the grandest and the greatest of them all. He himself thought it was his best work. It has very strong characters, very strong scenes and a very subtle tone. These elements together make a great challenge.

MM: What are some typical Henry James elements that you think help his novels translate to film?

RPJ: Henry James’ scenes, especially in his later novels, translate very well into cinema, because they’re characters acting and reacting to each other and usually in a very interesting ambiance-there’s always an element of passion.

MM: When you are reading a novel, are you able to easily identify material that you feel is particularly good for James Ivory to direct?

RPJ: Yes, every time. I have always read a great deal and I remember the books that I’ve read. For instance, [James Ivory] has so much in common with E.M. Forster as an artist. I’ve always felt that Forster’s work is particularly suitable to him– and so is Henry James’.

MM: What sort of material, specifically, in Forster’s work, do you see James Ivory so well suited for?

RPJ: There’s a certain kind of tolerance that Forster has that Jim has, too; a kind of tolerance for his characters; great social observation and a great feel for how characters connect with each other. All that is in Forster and I think all of that is in Jim’s work, too.

MM: A novelist like Forster often comments on his characters and what’s going on with them. How do you incorporate that into the action of the script?

RPJ: Sometimes you can put his comments into the dialogue– into what the characters say to each other-but on the whole, I think you have to translate it in the kind of characters that you’re presenting.

MM: You often employ what we might call secondary dialogue: dialogue that is more about creating atmosphere than advancing the story. In Howard’s End, there’s a scene when Vanessa Redgrave goes over to lunch for the first time and they are talking about German poetry and so on. Do you have a sense of why you put those little asides into the dialogue?

RPJ: Well, I always do it. It’s always my favorite thing [laughs]. I write so much dialogue, just in passing, that you are not even supposed to hear. I’ve got pages of that. Sometimes it’s useful in scenes like that; sometimes you hear it, sometimes you don’t hear it, but it’s there. I always think of it like a dressmaker who is very particular with the hemming and everything, even if you don’t see it.

MM: Do you find yourself selecting dialogue directly from the novel or, more often that not, just reinventing the voice of the character?

RPJ: You have to reinvent, especially with Henry James and especially with The Golden Bowl, because there is not much dialogue. In all novels, you have to simplify.

MM: When you’re playing with the voice of a character, how long does it take you to get to the place where you can say: ‘She would say this,’ or ‘He would not say that’?

RPJ: It has to come intuitively. Once you grasp a character, that character will speak with his or her own voice. You don’t really think about it. If your character comes alive then you don’t even interfere, they just do it by themselves.

MM: What does James Ivory bring to the moviemaking process for you?

RPJ: We have a very long relationship that ultimately became kind of instinctive, so we don’t have to think about each other much. But one thing that he has in
great quantity– that I practically have none at all– is a visual sense. People talk about Merchant/Ivory productions and how visually lavish they are. That’s all him. He has a great sense of physical style, like the way his characters dress and so on. He always takes the characters I write about and brings them up a notch.

MM: Can you think of a scene that he directed where you were surprised, in a good way, in terms of how he approached it?

RPJ: Yes, in The Golden Bowl: where Mr. Verver [Nick Nolte] has just asked Charlotte [Uma Thurman] to come with him to America and she has absolutely refused him-so a kind of coldness has arisen between them. In the next scene he refuses to eat with her. Jim staged the scene on a huge staircase, against an enormous mirror, and she’s all dressed up ready to go down to dinner as they usually do, and he comes out of his study and says, ‘I am just asking for my supper to be brought in on a tray.’ Then they say goodnight in a rather cold, polite way, and she– this very elegant figure– goes down this enormous staircase, looking extremely lonely.

MM: How much attention do you pay to the pacing of the film?

RPJ: I pay quite a lot of attention because I know Jim likes to take his time; his pace is leisurely.

MM: What were the initial lessons you learned when you first started to write for the screen?

RPJ: One line of dialogue in a film is worth 10 in a book– they carry far more weight. The very first script that I did, which was from my novel The Householder, I wrote far too much dialogue. We just had to throw it out by the handful because I didn’t realize that how much weight the dialogue carries when it’s actually spoken, when you actually see it and hear it spoken by a person.

MM: Is subtext something you find yourself thinking about?

RPJ: Well, it has to be there. What people say always in life-as in books, as in films-is not exactly what they mean. There is subtext in all our lives-it’s permanent. It’s like an underground stream that has to be there.

MM: Are novels your first love?

RPJ: Oh yes, absolutely. Although screenplays are far more fun, I have to say.

MM: Why is that?

RPJ: Well, first of all you’re not alone, you’re working with other people. Also, I have to tell you it’s easier, really. I mean in a novel you have to do everything, you are the cameraman, you are the costume designer, you are the actors, you’re the writer and the director– you are everything in a novel. In a film, of course, all that is distributed amongst various people. You just have a blueprint to give in a way. MM

The Golden Bowl was released May 25, 2001, courtesy of Ivory Merchant Productions. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[i]
[i]