'The Bostonians' Director James Ivory on How to Adapt a Famous Novel for the Screen
Based on the Henry James novel, the 1984 film adaptation of 'The Bostonians' is ripe for reappraisal.
Released as a novel in 1886 and then as a celebrated film 98 years later, The Bostonians remains topical and playful, a serious comedy with a head on its shoulders filled with doubt. Based on a popular work by Henry James, the 1984 film was brought to the big screen by the team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory whom, along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, make up one of the most successful partnerships in 20th-century cinema.
Primarily set in Boston and New York in the mid-1870s, The Bostonians is a tale of ambition, love, and a love for ambition. When distant cousins Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave) and Basil Ransome (Christopher Reeve) come across a young orator, Verena Tarrant (Madeline Potter) who, tuned up by her faith healer father (a huckster desperate for wealth), preaches the cause of the suffrage movement for a group of steadfast feminists, the two grow stricken with her. Olive is infatuated with Verena's ideas and the way she so eloquently contextualizes the desire for equal rights while Basil is entranced by her beauty and welcoming demeanor. Basil doesn't believe in equal rights for the opposite sex, and he suspects Verena, as talented as she is, doesn't necessarily believe in what she preaches either. Thus, Olive and Basil, becoming ever the more distant cousins by the moment, engage in an ideological tug-of-war for the rights to Miss Tarrant.
Both a romance and a studied political pondering, The Bostonians features a great cast doing excellent work. For her performance, Redgrave was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and Reeve, known throughout his career for playing the role of Superman in four cinematic installments, is cunningly strong here. Other character actors including Linda Hunt, Wallace Shawn, and Jessica Tandy make up the excellent cast, and it's to the credit of Ivory that the film flows so effortlessly; it's a period piece in which the conversations feel lived in and relevant to this very day.
As the film gets set to open in limited theaters in a new 4K restoration courtesy of Cohen Media Group, No Film School spoke with Ivory about his production's origins, the sexual subtext underneath the main narrative, and the keys to making a successful adaptation of another artist's work.
No Film School: What was it about this Henry James's novel that felt ripe for adaptation? And how, in the early 1980s, did it come to fruition?
James Ivory: Well, I'll tell you, it had a very strange history. It was to be within one part of a very ambitious television series about the James family that was being planned by public TV in Boston, by WGBH. They were planning a five-part series, which would've been biographical films about Henry James, Sr. (the father), then Henry James, Jr. (the writer), William James (the philosopher and writer), and the sister. There were to be those four biographies followed by what was to be The Bostonians.
So, we all got into that and it went along and we were preparing it. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was hired to write the screenplay and we were set to make The Bostonians for the series. I wanted to make certain that everybody was happy. And then President Ronald Reagan cut the budget for public television, I guess; that's what we were always told. As a result, Boston didn't have the money to do the series and so it was canceled. But the script was there, and we thought, "Well, let's make it anyway." We bought the rights away from them, found some backers, and made it.
NFS: Did anything have to be changed in the process of adapting for film as opposed to television?
Ivory: No, not at all. The script Ruth wrote was what we made. That's what we used for the film. It was the right length. They wanted a two hour [program], and I think the film was [a little] longer than two hours, so the series version would have been a tiny bit shorter than the film itself. Once it wasn't going to be made for TV anymore, we could lengthen it if we wanted to, and I think we did a little bit.
NFS: Was the film itself shot in Massachusetts?
Ivory: Yeah, when there was a scene in Boston, we were mostly in Boston. When we're supposed to be in Central Park, we were in Central Park, the real Central Park. All of those various buildings and so forth, they're in Central Park today and they all existed back in the 1880s when the story is set. When the characters go to Martha's Vineyard, well, we shot in Martha's Vineyard. Actually, I think it was meant to be Cape Cod in the script. I can't remember anymore where it was supposed to be, but, we didn't want to go to Cape Cod to do it.
NFS: What kind of preparation had to be done to disguise the city streets as period? Or did 1980s Boston already provide a historical mise-en-scène all its own?
Ivory: Oh, you always have to do things. Anywhere in the world, there are always things you have to do. I don't even know this myself, when something's wrong [period-wise], but the set designers know instantly that something is wrong, and they do everything in their power to remove it or hide it or disguise it.
NFS: The film opens with a scene of an organ player working methodically to play a divine tune...
Ivory: That's something that, in fact, was not shot in Boston, because there is no great Victorian Hall like that in Boston anymore. They've all been torn down. So, that was actually was shot in Troy, New York, in the Troy Music Hall. The bottom part of it is a bank, and the upper part is what you saw in the film. It was this great concert hall in Troy.
That's something that they did a lot of in Victorian times in New York state, for some reason. A bank would be on the ground floor, and then the bank would own the building. It would be some big, handsome building, and then the upper floor would be a great concert hall or something of that sort. Well, usually it would be a concert hall. New York is full of that. I mean, many, many towns have those.
"The whole business of Verena and her being lifted up by the spirits that compelled her to speak, and the ways that were required [for her to do that]... James had doubts about all of that."
NFS: The subject of divinity is represented throughout the film, both in theme and in its musical cues. What were the different ways you worked to provide an always present feeling of spirituality throughout the film?
Ivory: Of spirituality?
NFS: Well, regarding the faith healers and the divine speeches, if you will...
Ivory: Well, we just showed them for what they were, of course. I mean, Henry James was trying to poke fun at them! The whole business of Verena and her being lifted up by the spirits that compelled her to speak, and the ways that were required [for her to do that]... James had doubts about all of that. [He felt] that her family, that the father particularly, was a charlatan. I mean, that's how Henry James wrote the character, that he was just a charlatan. Basically, the daughter was carrying on the father's line of being a charlatan. That's what he wanted to put across, because there must have been an awful lot of that going on in the 1800s in New York and Boston. I know there was, because, they deal with that kind of thing. His book is really somewhat about that, and he's taking a poke at it.
NFS: Eschewing establishing shots, the film takes us from city to city (Boston, New York, etc.) by showing us a bird's eye view of a map of the respective city we're currently placed in. Did this decision come as a choice to make the film more period?
Ivory: Well, in modern American cities, the old cities disappeared everywhere, even in a place like Charleston or New Orleans. You can't even do a bird's eye view of those well preserved old cities because so many modern buildings are all over the place. The only thing we could do was use a Victorian bird's eye view map kind of thing. That's what we had to do.
Even when we were shooting in London and Paris, shooting a period tale there, it was never, ever easy. Even those cities, which are ancient and pretty undisturbed, have been disturbed. You never know. There can be a building, and you think the building's fine, and it looks just perfect, and then someone will come along who knows about it and say, "Nope, that roof was put on later. It wouldn't of had a roof like that," etc., or "It''s got a new front entrance, and the front entrance is completely wrong in style. It wasn't there then" and stuff like that. Everything gets changed.
NFS: Christopher Reeve is so good in this film, and his casting must've come as a surprise to some; he was, at the time of this film's release, still reprising his iconic role as Superman. Was his casting viewed as a way to further his reputation as a dramatic actor?
Ivory: Well, he was tired of being Superman. He didn't want to be Superman. He reluctantly agreed to do the third Superman film. We wanted him all along. We had to put off doing the film until he had done that [third Superman film]. Instead of making our film when we wanted to make it with him, we made Heat and Dust in India and then we came and did The Bostonians. By that time, Reeve had finished Superman. He was tired of it. He really didn't want to do it anymore.
He was always our first choice. I mean, you see him in the role. He's big and strapping and masculine, and you know, I'm sure that's what Henry James had in mind.
NFS: I believe this film marked Madeleine Potter's feature debut.
Ivory: It does.
NFS: How was she discovered in casting and how did you know she was the perfect fit to play Verena?
Ivory: A famous director, James Lapine, had told me about her. He was my tenant. I got to know him and he knew that I was looking around to find a girl that was right, and so he gave me the names of three actresses. I was actually interested in Jodie Foster at first. We went to Jodie Foster and at that point, she was a student at Yale. We went up to meet her and I liked her. I thought she was great. But she didn't want to do it.
It's very interesting. Someone who tried to get our casting agent to arrange a meeting with me was Julianne Moore. She was just starting out then. She'd hardly done anything. She'd just come out of college and she was now in New York. She tried to get our casting agent and they never heard of her and had never seen her work and wouldn't arrange it. She would have been perfect, because she's so intelligent. She would have been great. She was the right age and everything, 23 or something like that.
NFS: And then you worked with Madeleine again on other films, right?
Ivory: Well, she became a very useful actress to us. She can do so many different kinds of parts. I think she's been in four films of mine.
"But, in fact, that relationship was very much known to the James family, because their sister was in a relationship of that kind with another woman in Boston. They were called Boson Marriages."
NFS: The fascination Olive has with Verena is quite profound, something between an admiration and a lusting for. There are sexual undertones present as well.
Ivory: Oh, for sure.
NFS: How did you plan to present the complex, multitude of attractions Olive has for Verena without being completely blunt about it?
Ivory: Well, we decided that we didn't want to see her passion consummated with some big lesbian lusting. We just didn't want to do that. It didn't seem right, somehow. You're not sure how far it went with Henry James. He would leave it kind of open. We just didn't want it to go that far.
But, in fact, that relationship was very much known to the James family, because their sister was in a relationship of that kind with another woman in Boston. They were called Boson Marriages. After the Civil War, when some husbands went off and never came back, women tended to gravitate towards other women and set up housekeeping and live with other women. This was a thing that Henry James's sister did. So, both the James brothers weren't really happy about their sister in this relationship. We know that because it's in their writings and their letters. But, what could they do? I mean, she had a mind of her own. She's going to lead the life she wanted to lead, and so she did.
NFS: And the tension is quite noticeable in the bedroom scene between the two women about halfway through the film (and continues onward thereafter).
Ivory: There is sexual tension in that scene. Yeah, it's there and it's meant to be there. We just didn't take it all the way. People didn't. For "same-sex attraction" movies in those days, you didn't go that far. We hadn't made Maurice yet. We were several years away from that.
NFS: With the film re-opening in the midst of the #MeToo and Times Up movement, the film feels both timely and timeless (women have been working toward equality for centuries now). Do you view the film as even more timely in today's generation? Does it have something new to say?
Ivory: I think that if people see it, they would feel an affirmation there that they could identify with. It's a dramatic presentation of the struggles that women were going through. It's interesting because at the time the film came out, the film was being screened somewhere for the press and I rode down in the elevator [with people who had just watched the film]. I wasn't as well known then as I am now. Some of these women were talking about it, feminists types, and one said, "Well, you know, Verena doesn't do what she was supposed to do and then she runs away." And the other woman said, "Yeah, but she ran away because of Christopher Reeve." There was a sort of mixture, you know? She runs away with a handsome man who said he wanted to enjoy her...
NFS: How did this brand new 4K restoration come about? Were you involved in the process?
Ivory: Well, you're involved at the end. They take the film negative and the restoration is done directly from the negatives. They don't go through internegatives and through the positives and all that sort of thing. So, it's directive. It's the first duration from the negative.
What happens is that you get wonderful color that you ought to be able to have, but that you never get after you've seen the very first corrected answer print. You would never see a film like that again, because then they would go about mass manufacturing the print. That involved various inter-this and inter-that, and after each step, the color is degraded a little bit. It's not a lot and most people don't know it, but you really see the difference. Now, when my films are restored, it's like I haven't seen them like that since I made them. Because of [everything involved in] the printing process.
NFS: Do you enjoy revisiting your work?
Ivory: Oh, sure. I always like seeing my movies. I particularly like seeing them up on a big screen again after many years. I very much enjoy that.
NFS: They're ripe for rediscovery, I think.
Ivory: Well, I think so. They're cleaned up too, that's the other thing about them. The sound is cleaned up. If you have rather crummy sound, as we did on some of our films, that somehow gets [distorted]. I don't know how they do it, but all sorts of things are done. It's fun. I'm really happy.
NFS: What advice would you have for someone adapting a famous piece of work into a feature film? What are the keys to honoring the original source material?
Ivory: Well, I think you have to respect it. You may change the story elements, add or take away characters, cut or add scenes, all those kinds of things, but you have to be true to the point of view and tone of the author. Otherwise, why do it? There's no point in doing it if you're going to scrap everything and not be faithful. Writers have a particular tone of voice. You have to discover what that is and find a digital equivalent to that tone of voice. That has to be there. The original author's presence has to be there somehow.
Here's the thing: if they make a million changes, the tone of voice has got to be that of the author. Otherwise, there's no point in doing it. You might as well just get some other book.