Looking back at James Ivory and Ismail Merchant’s partnership and how they adapted novels.
Call Me By Your Name‘s accolades and critical acclaim have been focused on its director and stars. And yet, much of the film’s appeal can be attributed to screenwriter James Ivory. Ivory, a writer, director, and producer, has been making movies since the fifties. With the late Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, they made mostly literary adaptations. Ivory directed, Merchant produced and Jhabvala wrote the screenplays. Their films became instantly recognizable. In fact, they belong to their own genre of period dramas. They weren’t just any period films; they were Merchant Ivory Productions.
The name Merchant Ivory is associated with sumptuous and thoughtful period pieces, with superb acting (often from a rotating roster of actors) and keen attention to characters’ verbal and non-verbal interactions. The trio started making English-language films in India. Their breakthrough was Shakespeare Wallah, a film about a touring troupe of actors who perform Shakespeare around India who must come to terms with the dwindling demand for Shakespeare in post-colonial India. But their proper breakthrough was with A Room with a View in 1985, the first of their three E.M. Forster adaptations. Though not all their adaptations were critical or commercial hits, Merchant Ivory ushered in a genre of literary adaptations that stood alone as films.
Their success as a production company was twofold: a combination of frugal spending and wise choices in source material. Period dramas are notoriously expensive, but Ismail Merchant was no frivolous spender–he knew how to get his way. Whether it was by convincing actors like Vanessa Redgrave or Paul Newman to join his projects by cooking them a delicious meal or sneaking into the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles to film The Proprietor by posing as the Maharajah of Jodhpur (with his crew disguised as members of his entourage), Merchant knew how to keep his production value high, while keeping the production budget down.
Most Merchant Ivory films were adaptations, including those of Henry James, Kazuo Ishiguro and, most notably, E.M. Forster. To understand why Merchant Ivory was so skilled at bringing out the best in E.M. Forster’s novels, it’s important to briefly explore what made the writer’s work distinct. Indeed, to readers and viewers nowadays, Forster would appear to be as prudish as his Edwardian contemporaries. But in his five novels, he showed a keen devotion to sexual liberation and addressed sex and desire very openly for his time. Indeed, the qualities that made E. M. Forster’s novels unique were the most translatable onscreen. Just as Forster’s novels could magnify a character’s unspoken passion and anxiety through the omniscient narration, the films did the same: by focusing on a glance, a light stroke of a lover’s hair. If critics of the films thought they were simply heightening trivial sentiments, then the literary critic Frank Kermode put it perfectly: “two stolen kisses are sufficient to sustain the plot of A Room with a View.”
Though Howard’s End is widely regarded as the best Merchant Ivory film, it does pose some issues of adaptation. A major theme of the book and the film is the divide between capitalism and high culture, represented in three separate families: The Schlegels, the Basts, and the Wilcoxes. A major plot point involves Margaret Schlegel (played by Emma Thompson) marrying Henry Wilcox (played by Anthony Hopkins). Because the lead-up to their engagement was mostly one of mutual resentment, the union comes as a surprise. The Wilcoxes are unapologetic capitalists, uninterested in helping the less fortunate and the Schlegels are idealistic intellectuals. Yet in the book, Margaret confesses her attraction for Henry Wilcox:
“With all their defects of temper and understanding,” says Margaret, “such men give me more pleasure than many who are better equipped, and I think it is because they have worked regularly and honestly”(115-16)
This line, or anything to this effect, is not spoken in the film. The film would rather position itself as endorsing the Schlegel perspective because, after all, the film is a product of high culture, the kind that they would endorse. It is not nearly as nuanced as the novel, in blurring the ethical lines between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegel. Indeed, the film seems wholly uninterested in working out the novel’s anxiety towards capital, culture and its place within those two forces.
Merchant Ivory Productions’s most adept adaptation is The Remains of the Day. An adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, the film was written in 1989, but set in the 1930s. The novel and film revolve around a butler and a housekeeper before and after the Second World War. English literature has seen plenty of governesses (“Jane Eyre”, “Vanity Fair”) as protagonists, but not any housemaids and butlers. Thus The Remains of the Day demonstrates Merchant Ivory’s interest in period pieces, not necessarily in their subject’s class. The film and the book problematize Mr. Stevens’s (the butler), complicity in his master’s Nazi sympathies. The film, like the book, neither condones nor condemns Mr. Stevens’s blind complicity. The film zeroes in on the social constraints of the time, showing the dining room rituals and the polite banter as a kind of prison. The film does not romanticize his social position, nor that of his employer, Lord Darlington. Because the novel is written from the perspective of an aging Mr. Stevens, by Ishiguro in the 1980s, the film escapes the traps of some of E.M. Forster’s adaptations in that it questions, rather than aestheticizes imperialist Britain.
But E.M. Forster’s novel explores the political context of being gay in Edwardian England in a way that Call Me By Your Name fails to. Indeed, Call Me By Your Name would rather focus solely on Elio and Oliver’s relationship, as if existing in a bubble of young lust. There are no allusions to homophobia, AIDS, conservative Italian beliefs, or even Mafalda, the cook’s, perspective of their love. For many fans, this has been a source of celebration: “Finally! A gay love story that doesn’t involve one dying of AIDS or being beaten to death,” which to a certain extent I share in. But love is political. How can we pretend otherwise?
Merchant Ivory films fell out of favor by the mid-90s and were written off as mere ‘costume dramas,’ a criticism which they were sensitive towards. When the director Alan Parker once dismissed their films as ”the Laura Ashley school of filmmaking,” James Ivory retorted, ”The comment will be better remembered than any film he ever made.” They were ousted by grimier, ‘hipper’ films like Trainspotting and Nick Hornby’s adaptations. These films represented a new era in the flourishing UK film scene. They were sardonic and devoutly uninterested in the upper-class.
Though two-thirds of the company has died, the production company is still cracking on. Ivory’s The City of Your Final Destination was the first film released after Merchant and Jhabvala’s death. And what with the phenomenal critical success of Call Me By Your Name, I’m sure we’ll see the legacy of Merchant Ivory continue.