Henry James is not a cinematic writer. And movies based on his books are rarely successful. Many are absolute failures - Daisy Miller and The Golden Bowl come to mind - and others are just too idiosyncratic to work either as adaptations or as movies, a.k.a. Jane Campion's either too odd or not odd enough Portrait of a Lady. But every once in a while, a Henry James adaptation turns out to be a really good movie. These three are the best out there:
3. The Bostonians
The Bostonians (1982) is a Merchant Ivory film with a knockout screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Vanessa Redgrave plays a Boston society hostess deeply involved in the feminist movement, Christopher Reeve is her misogynist cousin, and Madeleine Potter is the young charismatic speaker they both obsess over. It's rare for a film to examine the feminist movements of the 19th century and for that alone the movie is fascinating, but it is particularly brilliant that the screenplay manages to be both a strong adaptation and a complete re-interpretation of James's misogynist politics. Yes, this movie is dense and slow - that's where James comes in. But James's ability to render human relationships too complicated for a label is also what allows the film to examine both the misogynist and feminist politics of this film in a way that is historically plausible and relevant to contemporary audiences.
2. The Wings of the Dove
The Wings of the Dove is my favorite Henry James novel. It's one of his most sophisticated and subtle novels and before seeing this movie, I would have sworn it couldn't be adapted. Released in 1997, this film, directed by Iain Softley and written by Hossein Amini, stars Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache as poor and passionate lovers who befriend very wealthy (and very lonely) Alison Elliot. Aside from the stunning costumes and gorgeous sets and locations, the film is surprisingly fast-paced without feeling rushed or abridged. The themes here are money, class privileges, and how they complicate love. The Wings of the Dove is a powerful depiction of both the selfishness and selflessness of human love - and it's not remotely cheesy or cliche.
1. The Heiress
The Heiress (1949), based on the novel Washington Square, is simply one of the best American dramas of all time. Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote the screenplay, based on their previous adaptation for the theater, and William Wyler directs. Olivia de Havilland gives her best performance as the plain and naive heiress whose father, Ralph Richardson, is convinced that her lover, Montgomery Clift, is only interested in her fortune. De Havilland won a well-deserved Oscar. The film is bitter and very adult, though, obviously, without any R-rated content. It's also noteworthy for Aaron Copland's score.
One of the things that I love about Henry James (and about good James adaptations) is that the relationships between characters are not easily labelled and that attempting to classify these relationships tends to destructive. All three of these films could be considered "romantic," particularly The Wings of the Dove, but none of them portray the usual boy-meets-girl, complications ensue, boy-marries-girl, romantic plot otherwise so typical both of 19th century novels and mainstream cinema.