Nov 192003

There was a discussion about Henry James and the movies a while back (here and here) at Terry Teachout’s blog, and I shall join the James Gang, fashionably late as usual. (Terry’s blog is called “About Last Night”; mine should be called “About The Week Before Last,” or “About Last Century.”)

It seems paradoxical that James should be so popular in the movies, because he is known as such a literary sort of writer. In fact he is not literary at all, in the sense that, say, Joyce or Borges is literary. There is no self-reference in James, no Joycean polylingual puns, no Borgesian labyrinths, nothing really but incident. His characters marry, cheat on their wives, win and lose fortunes, and on occasion, as in The Princess Casamassima, resort to violence. James had a taste for melodrama — true crime accounts were among his favorite leisure reading — and a talent for it too: Isabel Archer’s “kiss like summer lightning” with Goodwood that ends Portrait of a Lady, Strether’s exhortation to Chad Newsome to “live! only live!” in The Ambassadors, the entire plot of The Wings of the Dove. The last scene in The Heiress, Montgomery Clift pounding on Olivia de Havilland’s door as it dawns on him that he will never again be let in, may not be true to the text of Washington Square but is certainly true to its spirit.

James only seems literary because, especially in the late novels, he is constantly trying to catch the precise attitudes of his characters toward each other, reflected not just in their conversation but their gestures and thoughts and tiny inflections. This results in the legendary clotted prose that gives the impression, as H.G. Wells described it, of an elephant trying to pick up a pea in the corner. Examples are everywhere; one from The Awkward Age will serve:

Mr. Longdon stared; but even in his surprise seemed to take from the swiftness with which she made him move over the ground a certain agreeable glow. “Does ‘Aggie’ like him?”

“She likes every one. As I say, she’s an angel — but a real, real, real one. The kindest man in the world is therefore the proper husband for her. If Mitchy wants to do something thoroughly nice,” she declared with the same high competence, “he’ll take her out of her situation, which is awful.”

Mr. Longdon looked graver. “In what way awful?”

“Why, don’t you know?” His eye was now cold enough to give her, in her chill, a flurried sense that she might displease him least by a graceful lightness. “The Duchess and Lord Petherton are like you and me.”

“Is it a conundrum?” He was serious indeed.

“They’re one of the couples who are invited together.” But his face reflected so little success for her levity that it was in another tone she presently added: “Mitchy really oughtn’t.” Her friend, in silence, fixed his eyes on the ground; an attitude in which there was something to make her strike rather wild. “But, of course, kind as he is, he can scarcely be called particular. He has his ideas — he thinks nothing matters. He says we’ve all come to a pass that’s the end of everything.”

Mr. Longdon remained mute awhile, and when he at last raised his eyes it was without meeting Nanda’s and with some dryness of manner. “The end of everything? One might easily receive that impression.”

He again became mute, and there was a pause between them of some length, accepted by Nanda with an anxious stillness that it might have touched a spectator to observe. She sat there as if waiting for some further sign, only wanting not to displease her friend, yet unable to pretend, to play any part, and with something in her really that she couldn’t take back now, something involved in her original assumption that there was to be a kind of intelligence in their relation. “I dare say,” she said at last, “that I make allusions you don’t like. But I keep forgetting.”

The passage is lovely in its way, but James is attempting something to which what James Baldwin called the “disastrously explicit” medium of prose is completely ill-suited. Half of it is stage directions, and it could be done better, and more compactly, with movie actors who can follow such directions — which admittedly is asking a lot. James tried, unsuccesfully, to write plays, but the stage, where the actors have to project to the back row, is still too histrionic for what he has in mind. What he needed was the talkies. If James had been born a century later I’m guessing he would have done most of his writing for film, and maybe tossed off a few novels in his spare time.

(Update: Michael Blowhard, while not commenting exactly, jumps off from here to an amusing game of his own. Our Girl in Chicago comments.)

  11 Responses to “Henry James and the Pictures”

  1. Aaron: Fascinating thought. Of course, you lose the intricate, richly textured interior consciousness that is an important part of James’s fiction when you make it into a movie, but I do think you make a very strong case for explaining why James’s novels would make fine movies when they are translated onto the screen.

    Your observation also helps explain my discomfort with an observation made by Martin Amis (in a piece praising Saul Bellow that was linked to by Arts & Letters Daily today): Amis was criticizing what he called the “fake elegance” of James’s use of a different noun instead of a pronoun where common usage calls for a pronoun. (E.g., [I’m making this sentence up from what I remember of an example Amis cited]: “He raised his arms and [after several intervening phrases) and placed those members around her waist.”) I agreed with Amis that this is strange, but I also knew it contributed something I liked about James sentences. What your observation suggests is that it makes those sentences more like watching a movie than like reading a sentence–it does so by keeping an image always before us, as a movie always does. A movie never asks our eyes to supply some part of what we see on screen, the way fiction, with its pronouns, does.

    Besides The Heiress and Turn of the Screw, are they any good movies of James’s fiction?

  2. John: Steve Sailer, oddly enough, in the comments to the Blowhard post I linked, makes the exact opposite complaint to Amis’s: “Henry James suffered from a seemingly minor but, to me, maddening technical problem of letting the relationship between his pronouns and their antecedents get almost indecipherably tangled. I have constantly to stop and try to figure out who is the ‘he’ who is being quoted.” I’m agnostic on the question.

    I have seen very few of the James movies, but I thought The Wings of the Dove was pretty good.

  3. I second “Wings of the Dove,” although I’ve never read the novel. It’s darker and more neurotic and less genteel than the other James movies I’ve seen — a better movie, IMHO, though whether it’s a better representation of James is up for grabs. Didn’t OGIC at About Last Night dislike the movie? Too much nudity or something…

  4. Aaron,

    This is a wonderful post, and I’m going to say more about why I think so sometime this weekend at About Last Night. About Wings of the Dove, no, I didn’t like the movie much, and this did have to do with the filmmakers’ decision to dramatize what James had so effectively kept off-stage. The meaning of Kate and Merton’s, um, appointment is ambiguous in both the novel and the film; but in the novel it is clear that the ambiguity is intentional; in the film, not so. Perhaps this just reflects my feeling that sex scenes are generally hard to film well. In the end, though, I decided my judgment just wasn’t to be trusted on this particular adaptation, in the same way that some purist Patrick O’Brian fans made up their mind long ago that no film could possibly be good enough. I’m completely willing to accept that my own blind spot is the culprit here!
    More soon at the blog…in the meantime, great post.

  5. A pet hobby of mine is running the Flesch readability tests on articles decrying Henry James’ “legendary clotted prose,” to use the phrase above.

    Wouldn’t you know, the articles usually come out as considerably less readable than HJ’s prose itself. For instance, the Flesch tests return a score of 76.5 for the quoted passage from The Awkward Age. That’s a very good reading on the tests’ zero-to-one-hundred scale.

    Sadly, the material discussing James’ prose comes in at 57.8. Not awful, but not nearly as good as James himself.

    Some of this is the natural difference between fiction and essay. But the tests usually reveal that the real problem isn’t James’ style. What many readers dislike is his complexity of thought. Mitchy, a major character in The Awkward Age, is characterized in a subtle way in the quoted conversation.

    James could just tell us that Mitchy is good-hearted but rather naive and easily victimized. Sadly, in real life people don’t go around with signs saying, “I’m goodhearted but, etc.”

    In our complicated world you have to pick up on people’s changing and unpredictable characters in much the same way that you have to decipher Mitchy’s character from the hints in this conversation.

    Which a lot of readers don’t want to do. They just want James to tell us what Mitchy is like and then tell us what he did. In other words, the complaints about James’ style are often a poorly concealed admission of intellectual laziness.

    H.G. Wells, an admirer of Stalin, was about as intellectually lazy as they come. So it’s no surprise that he made the standard complaints about James’ style.

    BTW, this post doesn’t score nearly as well as The Awkward Age, either.

  6. Casey: I should preface this by saying that James is my favorite novelist in English and I recommend your excellent page on him, which I have visited several times, to those of my readers who are interested in James.

    I find the Flesch test, which simply plugs into a formula the average words per sentence and average syllables per word, to be an impossibly crude marker for readability. A simple example. If I write, “Man proposes. God disposes.” instead of “Man proposes: God disposes.” I get a higher Flesch score. Yet the second is more readable than the first. It is easy to construct a highly readable passage that scores low on the Flesch test, and vice versa.

    What makes late James so difficult, in a sense, is precisely the fact that he uses only plain words. Writers who are interested in the physical world, say Wyndham Lewis, employ a larger vocabulary because it is available, and if it had been available to James I imagine he would have done the same. We have few words to describe psychological situations, and fewer then than now. I wouldn’t call it “complexity of thought” exactly; it’s more that James chases small things with a blunt instrument, discursive prose, that isn’t suited to the purpose.

    Wells’ remark is not the “standard” criticism of James by any means. I quoted it because it gets near a real truth about James, and because it is funny, particularly as James was rather elephantine in person; not because I am a special admirer of H.G. Wells or his politics.

  7. OGIC: Thanks for the kind words. I sympathize. I know what it is to be proprietary about a book: I hated Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, really out of all proportion to its deserts, for many reasons, but especially because it shows Newland Archer unwilling to leave his wife because she gets pregnant, whereas in the novel the pregnancy stands in for a whole constellation of reasons and is at most the proximate cause. Your favorite books can never be adapted to your satisfaction, and the movies have their own form of disastrous explicitness.

  8. Sorry, but I must say that this is the standard criticism of the readability tests. The criticism doesn’t convince me. I think too many people are taken aback that their own prose turns up with lower scores than the supposedly “unreadable” late James. I know I am.

    I know William James would also have been nonplussed. He trashed The Wings of the Dove as unreadable. Too bad his brother didn’t have the technology to point out that The Varieties of Religious Experience scores twenty points worse than The Wings on the readability tests.

    I can’t agree that James chases anything with a “blunt instrument.” His suavity of expression, understated wit, and flexible sentence patterns (varying effortlessly from the simplest to the more complex, as in your quoted passage) are the polar opposite of “bluntness” in any sense. Wells was full of…well, what Wells was full of.

    And can anybody seriously believe that a large vocabulary wasn’t “available” to James? The man was a genius of language, fluent in French and Italian, passable in German. He chose plain words because they’re usually the best words, not because he didn’t know any others.

  9. Just one more note and I promise I’ll leave the subject alone. But I couldn’t resist running the readability tests on what is probably H.G. Wells’ most famous work, The Time Machine. It checked in with a Flesch score of 71.0.

    Not bad at all. Unfortunately for Wells, James’ most famous book, The Turn of the Screw, decisively beats the time-travel saga with a score of 77.5.

    Even The Wings of the Dove, bitterly and unfairly attacked by Wells in his Boon parody, scores better at 73.3.

    James wasn’t much for numbers, as he cheerfully confessed. Still, I would love to have seen him casually comment to Wells: “My dear fellow, if you think I’m elephantine, then the computer – one of those scientific gadgets you so admire – thinks that you are positively whale-like.”

    I can only imagine Wells, by all accounts the most pompous of pompous asses, sputtering that the readability teats don’t prove anything.

    In fact, James decisively and memorably refuted Wells’ wrong-headed and mean-spirited criticism in a pair of letters that have now become classic.

    “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”

  10. Did I say “readability teats”? Oh dear, H.G. will accuse me of a Freudian slip.

  11. Employing the use of a different noun instead of a pronoun where common usage would call for a pronoun has an affect, to me, that might be described as “poetic.” Slipping quickly in and out of this more poetic mode as we alternate between dialogue and narration contributes to James’ success in prying out a more lyrical work from a mere novel. For those who love James, the result is an uncanny and sometimes even ethereal detachment from the practical goings-on in the story. But James does not evoke this poetic tone in order to elevate the ordinary, rather he is inclined to paint in true colors that world which lies between our thoughts and our actions, that place in our mind where we find ourselves elevated above the ordinary, beyond the casual: the land of unabashed courtliness.

    People who do not like Henry James usually can’t get past his first assumption- that people are wonderfully interesting. I think most just can’t buy it… they are doomed to always read James’ narration as though it is *his* narration, and not his characters’. James understands that people approach life allot more consciously direct than they let on in conversation, even open honest conversation with their closest intimates. All the subtle motivation for each apparently unassuming question, each delicate answer barely pointing to its own significance, and that large free space intentionally left open in-between, all this that might seem like silly banter is, to James, a courtly dance.

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