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.