Breaking Custom

        It is inevitable. Whenever a novel, regardless of whether it is popular or obscure, is adapted into a film, the people who read the book must utter the words “The book was better.” Granted, this is typically true, because it can be hard to capture every aspect of a book.

        Reading Henry James’s works 1898 The Turn of the Screw and 1880 Washington Square, and seeing their respective adaptations Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents and William Wyler’s 1949 The Heiress, I have noted that the films defy this law of fiction. James’s work translates better on screen than in the written word. Nothing against his skills as a writer, his ideas are excellent, the stories well told, but his literary flaw is his characters.

        The characters James creates are complex. Catherine Sloper is surrounded by people who should love her, but do not care for her at all, and in fact, treat her quite horribly. Her father, Austin Sloper, despises her; her fiancé, Morris Townsend, is using her for her money; her Aunt Penniman is betraying her in favor of his usurious ways; and she has never done any of these people any wrong. Even knowing this, she carries herself well, staying calm, and showing little emotion in the face of adversity. It is absolutely inhuman. The theatrical Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) lashes back against her father’s (Ralph Richardson) cruelty, and gives Morris Townsend (Montgomery Cliff) and her Aunt Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) a taste of their own medicine, deceiving them in the end, causing them to suffer as they made her suffer. This Catherine actually feels like a human being than Washington Square’s reserved Catherine.

        As for James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw, the 1961 adaptation The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, benefits from being simpler than its counterpart. Even though the ambiguity really makes the original stand out, the nature of the writing can disassociate the reader from the book. It is hard to be a chilling tale when it feels like there is a lot of rambling going on. Taking out the ambiguity in the film even serves to make the children, Miles (Martin Stephen) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) feel creepier and the governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), seem more desperate.

        Henry James was a great writer with great stories. However, Hollywood and its British counterpart managed to improve on them by translating his characters into people.

Jeremy Workman