The works of Henry James are renowned for their dense sub-text and the manner in which he leaves his reader to elucidate much of his meaning. In the field of adaptation theory, therefore, James presents somewhat of a problem for the film adaptor: how does one convey on screen James' delicate implications, which are formative to the text without actually existing on the printed page? This project not only works to answer that question, but it also addresses a more serious question: what does adaptation have to offer to the student of literature? In the case of Henry James, the film adaptations of his novels expose the trope of voyeurism which functions as one of the central operative mechanisms in the novels, allowing both authorial omniscience into the minds and lives of the characters, as well as the creation of a voyeuristic character through whose perceptions the reader's knowledge is filtered. In examining recent film adaptations of The Portrait of a Lady. The Wings of the Dove, and Washington Square, it becomes apparent that the key to adapting James is careful attention to this trope of voyeurism, which ultimately becomes more important to a successful adaptation (an adaptation which most closely reproduces James' observations and biases rather than those of the director) than exact fidelity to the plot itself. With these considerations in mind, I have indicated that Jane Campion's 1996 adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady most successfully achieves James' purposes, highlighting both the on-screen voyeurism of Ralph Touchett, then using techniques (lighting, camera angles, editing, sound) to similarly construct the viewer as voyeur. Agniezka Holland's Washington Square, however, ignores James' careful positioning of Catherine Sloper as an object of visual amusement to her father and creates an insipid film that plays the drama as a mercantile transaction gone awry. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Iain Softley's The Wings of the Dove bloats the construct of viewer as voyeur into ineffectuality through his use of full nudity to capture the eye of the audience, ensuring that the film's images, rather than its story, are all that is remembered.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Bailey, Rachael Decker, "The Finest Entertainment: Conscious Observation on Film in Adaptations of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, and Washington Square" (2006). All Theses and Dissertations. 1030.
Henry James, film, adaptation, The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, Washington Square