As it is claimed of the bashful Finns that it takes a Swede to introduce one to the other, so it would seem that nothing is more effective than a movie adaptation in reintroducing some forgotten novelist to a brand new readership.
A case in point is Colin MacInnes, that chronicler of raffish London Bohemia during the mid-'50s, whose "metropolitan" trilogy ("Absolute Beginners," "City of Spades" and "Mr. Love and Justice") had been suffering almost complete neglect until the first of them was adapted into a musical film, due for U.S. release this summer. Suddenly -- and no matter how successful the movie proves to be -- MacInnes is once more a conjurable name.
E.M. Forster doesn't, of course, belong in the same category. His novels are currently read, and even the posthumous publication of "Maurice," a cautious and not very credible apologia of homosexual love, did nothing to compromise their standing as contemporary classics.
Nevertheless, it wasn't until more than a decade after his death that the movie industry decided his work might be "adaptable"; within the last two years, as though by a healthy contagion, estimable versions of Forster's "A Passage to India" and "A Room With a View" have been filmed.
The fact that David Lean directed the former and James Ivory the latter might initially strike one as a form of casting against type, given Ivory's enduring preoccupation with all things Indian -- not to mention his 30-year collaboration with the Indian producer Ismail Merchant. Given, too, that Lean had already portrayed (with Katharine Hepburn in "Summertime") the belated flowering of a pale-complexioned spinster in the Italian sun.
Ivory, though, has professed that it was never his intention to film "A Passage to India," and his scenarist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was, he claimed, "under no illusion about who was adapting the superior novel," an ambiguous admission that she didn't trouble to clarify.
Though, by general consent, the "superior novel" -- in effect, Forster's masterpiece -- is "A Passage to India," the cinema has a perverse habit of turning the values and standards of "high art" inside out, and so it happens here. Ivory's "A Room With a View" impresses as airily perfect and poised; and even some critics who in the past seemed allergic to Ivory's work have succumbed.
Just as Lean has a faculty for making the cinema look so difficult (all those crowd scenes, all those locations, all those glowering skies hung so low in the cosmos you begin to think the characters will have to crawl under them), Ivory makes it look like a breeze. And where Ivory's style is one of perfection without the slightly maniacal strain of perfectionism, Lean's might be described as one of perfectionism without perfection, a dispiriting artistic mode.
Since Forster, too, achieved an ideal of unstrenuous perfection -- in these two novels, at least -- Ivory had merely to be faithful to his own style in order to be faithful to his model's.
But, unlike Lean, Ivory does not simply, slavishly proceed to illustrate the juxtapositions that generate Forster's narrative (Italy with England, the cramped and un-simpatico Pensione Bertolini with the Edenically sunny villa of Windy Corner, the youthful with the middle-aged, George Emerson with Cecil Vyse), he makes them the very substance of his mise en sce ne.
And the movie version actually heightens the novel's most basic juxtaposition: that between a system of fussily "proper," needlessly censorious social values and the ineradicable instincts of sex.
Forster, we know, was a homosexual who during his entire life never emerged from the "closet." Yet such impulses are bound to surface somehow, somewhere; in an artist's case, whatever the degree of self-censorship he imposes, it can scarcely help but be in his work.
In this light, some critics have proposed the unlikely thesis that Lucy Honeychurch was, like Proust's Albertine, a boy in disguise. But why look so far? When describing George Emerson, Forster writes as follows:
"For a young man his face was rugged, and -- until the shadows fell upon it -- hard. Enshadowed, it sprang into tenderness. She saw him once again at Rome, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, carrying a burden of acorns. Healthy and muscular, he yet gave her the feeling of greyness, of tragedy that might only find solution in the night." And again, "Perhaps anything that he did would have pleased Lucy, but his awkwardness went straight to her heart: men were not gods after all, but as human and as clumsy as girls; even men might suffer from unexplained desires, and need help."
In "A Room With a View," the moment of awakened physicality, and something of a setpiece for the movie, is the droll scene in which George, Lucy's brother Freddy and the portly Reverend Beebe remove their garments and playfully frolic about in a local pond -- until apprehended by the half-shocked, half-amused Lucy and her mother.
Even in these racy circumstances, however, Forster's style managed to stand on ceremony. "The three gentlemen rotated in the pool breast high, after the fashion of the nymphs in Gotterdammerung. But either because the rains had given a freshness, or because the sun was shedding a most glorious heat, or because two of the gentlemen were young in years and the third young in the spirit -- for some reason or other a change came over them, and they forgot Italy and Botany and Fate."
The filmed scene certainly has no time for Italy, Botany, or Fate: it is all flailing legs and arms and genitalia. Ivory's approach should be viewed less as an anachronistic betrayal of Forster's self-censorship than as the joyous release of his fantasies.
Thus where Lean in "A Passage to India" externalized the half-articulated desires stirring in Adela Quested's breast by the heavy-handed device of having her chance across a secluded temple whose facade is encrusted with insistently erotic statuary, Ivory confronts his Forsterian heroine with a trio of males romping in the altogether.
Where Lean obliges us to decipher Adela's emotions, Ivory gives us direct access to Lucy's; and where, even if the temple is his own invention, Lean respects the letter of "A Passage to India," Ivory, by the amorous tenderness he bestows on all the young people (with the exception of poor Cecil), respects the whole repressed spirit of Forster.
"A Room With a View" is a deceptively lightweight novel; its deeper strains rise to an otherwise smooth, unruffled surface like trout to the surface of a glittering stream -- and Ivory, the Compleat Angler, has let none of them get away.
Although film theorists have tended to neglect the issue, seeing movies based on novels or plays that we know or intend to know constitutes a significant part of our moviegoing experience. And, however quick the purists are to take offense, most of us would admit that the pleasure of movies is sharpened by the prospect of encountering, fleshed-out on a silver screen, characters we have known only as clusters of word-pictures.
The problem with adapting Forster, however -- and the reason why film versions of his novels have surfaced so belatedly -- is not merely that he was a writer who seldom raised his voice, but that his primary concern, as Virginia Woolf observed, was "how to connect the actual thing with the meaning of the thing and to carry the reader's mind across the chasm which divides the two."
The commercial cinema has perhaps a greater versatility than it is credited with, but, being essentially a demonstrative medium, that is one connection it is powerless to make.
Ultimately, Lean and Ivory could only "adapt" those elements of Forster's work that were already present in their own, in the hope that the moral and social ironies that are so distinctively his would weave their own way through the filmic textures.
Lean, an undisputed master of wide-screen exoticism, chose from the canon a novel that boasted spectactular settings and an extensive array of characters, while Ivory opted for one that was everything his own movies are -- mannered, amusing and Jamesian. Whatever the relative degree of their success, both directors contrived to avoid what might be called the "dust jacket" school of literary adaptation, where a finicky period reconstruction begins to assume the excessive importance accorded to well-designed dust jackets by collectors of rare first editions.
In any event, even when adapting a classic text, the filmmaker's paramount obligation is to himself, his own vision of the world and the medium through which he expresses it. To paraphrase Forster's much-quoted speculation, the true filmmaker is he who has the guts to betray his source material rather than the cinema itself.
Gilbert Adair is an English poet, screenwriter and critic, and author of "Alice Through the Needle's Eye."