The Wings of the Dove

(Iain Softley, UK/USA, 1997)


Iain Softley's vigorous rendition of Henry James's The Wings of the Dove is immediately striking for its no-frills concentration on a central, triangular dilemma. It is as if the thick veneer of costume drama detail and the measured, ostentatious style that usually accompanies it have been swiftly stripped away – all the better to observe Kate (Helena Bonham Carter), Merton (Linus Roache) and Millie (Alison Elliot) locked in their deathly dance of deceit, misunderstanding and unspoken longing.

The looming topic of literary adaptation brings out a strange and snobbish myopia in many commentators. I have heard this film described as the best adaptation since The Age of Innocence (1993). Softley's movie, as fine as it is, does not even begin to approach Scorsese's in quality. But the worse aspect of such a statement is its implication that there is only one kind of adaptation really worth noting and discussing: those focused on canonised classic novels of the past two centuries.

Where does this framework leave Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County (1995), which substantially improves on its source material? What about Clueless (1995), a truly ingenious transposition of Jane Austen's Emma into the modern world? Or the most recent version of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1992)? Has David Cronenberg's brilliantly minimal treatment of J.G. Ballard's Crash (1996) already been forgotten? Not to mention all those radical movies which either violently shred the books on which they are based (like Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt [1963]) or forge new, adventurous links between cinema and literature (such as Manoel De Oliveira's remarkable Madame Bovary re-take Abraham Valley [1993]).

It is not hard to see what all these sterling counter-examples have in common. They are less "faithful adaptations" than full-blooded responses to literary texts – sometimes generous and affectionate, sometimes aggressive and critical. These films instigate a knowing dialogue with books, be they classic or pulp literature. The conventional evaluation of "good" adaptation, however, still relies on the assumption of fidelity – films must remain true to the spirit, if not always the letter, of a great novel.

But faithful adaptations, when they are not dead boring, are often simply redundant. Why bother to simply recreate a work in a different medium – beyond the crass commercial imperative to cash in on a proven market success? Why must films still be held subservient to books?

The passing thoughts of the great film theorist André Bazin on adaptation, first published fifty years ago, remain more provocative than most subsequent textbooks on the topic. His essay on "Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest" (1) suggests dethroning the novel from its high and privileged cultural position. A film of Great Expectations should be considered no better or worse than Dickens' book; within the new democracy of mass culture, both are what Bazin called digests, in their own unique language, of a free-floating store of characters, events and themes.

In an astonishingly modern formulation, Bazin concluded: "All things considered, it's possible to imagine that we are moving toward a reign of the adaptation in which the notion of the unity of the work of art, if not the very notion of the author himself, will be destroyed."

So where does this new version of The Wings of the Dove sit in such a debate? Softley and talented screenwriter Hossein Amini have produced a bold distillation of James's novel – condensing it, modernising it slightly, sometimes making explicit what in the book is only implicit (such as an emotionally shattering sex scene at the film's denouement). The movie is brisk, deliberately jagged, alternating confidently between cryptic suggestiveness and confronting drama. The acting (Carter is especially impressive) eschews any stuffy, self-conscious, period-drama mannerisms.

This praise, however warranted, still straitjackets the film within the contract of a basic fidelity. Perhaps what is more intriguing and powerful in Softley's creative response to the novel is his acknowledgement of the cultural history that followed on from James – in particular, popular Hollywood genres such as melodrama and the film noir. Like Dickens, James was a crucial precursor to cinema: his rendering of psychological intrigue and the complexities of point-of-view has nourished filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Marguerite Duras.

So this movie is notable not only for its rendering of the spirit of James, but also for the way it layers the original story within a superbly evoked set of references. The dark, decadent labyrinth of streets recalls disquieting thrillers from The Third Man (1949) to The Comfort of Strangers (1990); the brooding, ambiguous perversities of action and motive align the film with such modern screen masters of characterisation as Andre Téchiné.

The presence of such an intertext does not cheapen or weaken the adaptation; rather, it boosts the freshness, immediacy and resonance of the tale – qualities conspicuously missing from Jane Campion's version of The Portrait of a Lady (1996). Softley's take on his material is surprising and compelling – and, perhaps miraculously, it has the power and persuasiveness to appeal to literary purists and cinema lovers alike.

MORE Softley: Hackers

© Adrian Martin February 1998


1. Bazin at Work: Major Essays & Reviews from the Forties and Fifties, New York: Routledge, 1997) back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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