The Unmysterious East

A Passage to India

a film, written and directed by David Lean

E.M. Forster lived after the war in his old college at Cambridge, and when he died in 1970 King’s College inherited his literary estate and became his executor. Forster was determined in his own lifetime that no movie should be made of any of his novels. He loathed Hollywood. Knowing this, Santha Rama Rau, whose dramatization of A Passage to India for the stage had pleased him, suggested that she should write a script and the movie should be directed by Satyajit Ray in India. Forster refused permission. When he died, King’s was in no hurry to pursue the project since the estate took some time to settle, but eventually the King’s dons who were acting as Forster’s executors approached Ray. They discovered that he was no longer interested. Shortly afterward Mountbatten’s son-in-law, Lord Brabourne, knocked on their door.

The King’s College scholars were aware of their responsibilities and insisted that if a movie were to be made they must have the right to approve the director and the adapter and to comment on the script. They had no doubt who should adapt the novel. Santha Rama Rau owned half the rights of any adaptation, was to get a quarter of the proceeds, and wanted to write the script. When they saw her script, they were reassured that something of the quality of Forster’s work would be retained, so they next agreed to meet the director whom Brabourne proposed for the movie.

David Lean is by now Britain’s most famous director with numbers of successful movies, such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, to his credit. He is at once a charmer and a despot. He soon showed the King’s dons that he knew Forster’s novel by heart. When Frank Kermode, then at King’s, suggested that he had not understood the importance of the crucial scene at the end of the book when Professor Godbole invokes Krishna to come and be born amid the tumultuous rejoicings of a vast Hindu crowd, Lean interrupted him and said he knew very well its importance. But he was not prepared to make a movie whose climax would provoke ridicule and laughter from the audience—the climax of an old man smearing himself with butter. He then spoke with fervor and authority for an hour and a quarter on the hazards and miracles of making movies. It was clear that he had no intention of altering or apologizing for Forster’s portrayal of the British in India, and he explained the fiendish difficulties of collecting simultaneously the right cast and the financing. He was frank. No movie made for mass circulation, he said, could ever be faithful to Forster’s novel. What it could do would be to respect the novel. His final words to the King’s dons were that Forster’s novel was eternal; movies were ephemeral.

As it turned out David Lean wrote his …

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Letters

A Passage to Cambridge February 14, 1985