"Who was it she was in love with?"(pp. 3-4.)
"The story will tell," I took upon myself to reply.
. . .
"The story WON'T tell," said Douglas; "not in any literal, vulgar way."
"More's the pity, then. That's the only way I ever understand."
Apparently, that's the only way Iain Softley thought his audience would understand his 1997 film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove. And more's the pity.
The movie, not to put too fine a point on it, stinks. Where Henry James drips the poisonous motivations into the plot, Softley floods the story with them. Where James is indirect, Softley charges like a blundering drunk. Where James refers to sex, Softley stages street corner couplings and full-frontal nudity. To say that much is lost in the story's translation from novel to screen is an understatement.
I will not here deny that I had issues with the pacing of the novel, The Wings of the Dove. The gambit to seduce Milly in order to inherit when she dies was apparent well before the characters speak unflinchingly of it. But in the strategic creep of the deception, the reader - as much as the characters - acclimates to it, gets drawn in and is ultimately seduced by the plan. In the film, however, rapidity causes shock and revulsion at the deception; the viewer recoils. (Sample comments from my companion in watching the film, my mother: "That woman is evil"; "What a devious bitch.")
Nor will I deny that a certain frustration attends to James' "blanks." For example, Kate Croy's father's badness remains unspecified in the novel. The reason everyone finds him despicable is simply not named, nor even hungered after:
What was it, to speak plainly, that Mr. Croy had originally done?(p. 75.)
"I don't know - and I don't want to . . . ." Kate explained.
I have written before of how James leaves these lacunae to be filled by the readers' imagination, but the film cannot tolerate such ambiguity, even at the expense of the viewer's engagement. In the film, Kate Croy's father is an addict: mystery concluded.
As for the sex, I was frankly bowled over by the explicitness of James' reference to an act of lovemaking ("Come to me"). Nonetheless, James keeps the "who did what to whom" out of sight, so as to heighten its sensual power. After Merton persuades Kate to make love with him before she departs with her aunt for London, Kate's presence is constant in his rooms in Venice, a goad and a talisman, proof of her love and a guarantee (to himself) of the justification of his actions. In the film, on the other hand, the kissing, groping, entangling and disrobing is so cavalier that it can't signify anything. It's mere prurience.
To proceed on the supposition that the film's approach to storytelling is the only way an audience will "understand" is a profound error and a terrible disservice. Far from fostering understanding, this "literal, vulgar way" of telling a story undercuts comprehension. Having slashed mercilessly at the progressive development of the novel's plot, the film of The Wings of the Dove descends into inscrutability. (Why Kate takes off her clothes in the film's penultimate scene is an unanswerable question of a magnitude second only to why Merton follows suit.)
More importantly, from the film, no one could possibly see why the novel, The Wings of the Dove, is great. More's the pity indeed.
(Image of Helena Bonham Carter and Alison Elliott playing Kate Croy and Milly Theale in the 1997 film production of The Wings of the Dove from Film Reference)