How Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Connected the World of Merchant Ivory

How Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Connected the World of Merchant Ivory
Crossing class lines: Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter in “A Room With a View”
(© Goldcrest Films International)

The death of the screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala at the age of 85 last Wednesday will have came as a sadness to anyone who has admired not only her novels and short stories, but the 23 films she worked on with the producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. For nearly 30 years, “Merchant Ivory” was not only the name of a company, but the leading brand of elegant literary films in English-speaking cinema, reductive though that label is. The brand name itself is limiting: it should have been “Merchant Ivory Jhabvala.”    

 Her formidable achievement included adaptations from her own novels (“The Householder,” which was the trio’s 1963 debut, and “Heat and Dust”), her beloved Henry James (“The Europeans,” “The Bostonians,” “The Golden Bowl”) and E.M. Forster (“A Room With a View,” “Howards End”), Jean Rhys (“Quartet”), Evan S. Connell (“Mr. & Mrs. Bridge), and Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day”), and her original screenplays (“Shakespeare Wallah,” “The Guru,” “Bombay Talkie,” “Autobiography of a Princess,” “Roseland,” “Jane Austen in Manhattan”). 
 
Arianna Huffington’s biography “Picasso: Creator and Destroyer” was the key source of Jhabvala’s script for “Surviving Picasso,” though she told Vincent LoBrutto in 1997, “I read all the books, I read masses of books on Picasso.” She also indicated to LeBrutto that the making of that 1996 film was one of the trio’s worst experiences because of the attempt of the Picasso family to block it. “I never want to see any [of Picasso’s paintings] again,” she said, “and I never want to hear the name of Picasso ever again.”
 
LoBrutto’s interview with Jhabvala, published in “Backstory 4” (edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 2006), is imperative reading for aspiring screenwriters, particularly those interested in adaptation. Jhabvala, who won Oscars for her two Forster adaptations (and was nominated for “The Remains of the Day”), was a master of compression and invention. 
 
When, for example, Merchant Ivory was commissioned in 1978 by London Weekend Television to adapt a newly discovered play that Jane Austen had based on Samuel Richardson’s novel “Sir Charles Grandison” when she was 14, they discovered that it was “like some child’s doodle,” Jhabvala said. She persuaded Merchant and Ivory that the project could be turned into a contemporary story about two downtown New York stage directors vying for the stage rights to the play, and also incorporated Richardson’s seduction theme and some Wallace Shawn stories about André Gregory. And so 1980’s “Jane Austen in Manhattan” was born.
 
When it came to depicting the visually unpromising conspiracy of Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) and his daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale) to rein in their adulterous spouses in “The Golden Bowl,” Jhabvala told me in a 2001 interview that she “took liberties.”
 
“I made direct scenes of the characters confronting each other by taking what I think is in their heads and putting it in their mouths,” she added. “Not that many scenes in the film actually come from the book. The characters, the situations, the thoughts, and the tensions are all there – you just have to rebuild.”
 
As much as they were adored by the kinds of audiences who also love “Masterpiece Theatre,” the trio’s films were often scorned for their depictions of the upper classes, and what the director Stephen Frears once described as “the rattling of teacups.” 
 
Frostiness and repression on one hand and desire and passion on the other complicates the impression left by the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvalas films, but gentility is only one aspect of their work, which is frequently driven by caste and class conflicts. Jhabvala grew up with the horror of prejudice: she was a German Jew whose immediate family narrowly escaped the Holocaust and whose extended family was decimated by it, leading eventually to her father’s suicide. 
 
Neither “A Room With a View” nor “Howards End,” arguably her two greatest films, would have worked without their honoring of the “only connect” principle in Forster’s work. It has been interpreted in various ways but clearly informs the necessity of connecting across social lines, which is the experience of Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) and George Emerson (Julian Sands) in “A Room With a View” and Helen Schlegel (Bonham Carter) and Leonard Bast (Samuel West) in “Howards End.” Connecting with audiences was Jhabvala’s own triumph.