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 own screenplay, for which he claimed full credit in Screen International. Whatever protection that the King’s dons imagined was theirs by having Santha Rama Rau as their scriptwriter dissolved. It was not difficult to predict the result.
If you have little respect for your audience, what do you do? Lean does what in his long career he has done with incomparable skill. He has made a blockbuster. He begins with the arrival of the P & O liner that brings not only Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested to Bombay, but the Viceroy as well. That provides the opportunity for scores of mounted troops, salutes, pageantry, and cheering crowds to create the image of the Raj. Meanwhile the two ladies, the lesser manifestations of the Raj, fight their way through the steaming throng to the comfort of the exquisitely furnished train carrying them to Chandrapore. On their arrival more multitudes teem in the bazaars and a corpse passes on its way to burial. The British are satisfyingly nasty but they are grandified. Ronny’s bungalow looks as if it were in Beverly Hills and the party at the British club is transformed into a Buckingham Palace garden party, with more than a thousand Indians present. So there is time only for the basic events which lead up to the visit to the Marabar caves. Dissatisfied with all the caves in India, Lean had holes dynamited in the rocks between Bangalore and Mysore, to the dismay of the Indian Department of Archaeology. Seventeen-and-a-half million dollars later the movie ends in Srinagar with magnificent shots of the Himalayas.
Lean has an ear for sound (the noise in Passage is convincingly Indian), and his eye for a shot is as unerring as ever. The photography is ravishing—the scenes of the elephant walking up the hill to the Marabar caves and wallowing in its bath are beautiful and moving. So are the moonlight on the Ganges and the mystery of the mosque at night when Mrs. Moore meets Aziz. So is a temple—a scene that does not exist in the novel—to which Adela bicycles and where she is amazed by the sculpture of Siva and Parvati locked in sexual embrace, and terrified by the numberless monkeys who swarm down the front of the temple, chattering with rage, to drive the intruder away. Yes, India glows. But it does not menace. It is the India of the coffeetable book and the travel bureau, not the spiritual India of Professor Godbole or the magical India of the Mogul architects.
The next concession Lean has made to a mass audience is to simplify the characters. Mrs. Moore, played brilliantly by Peggy Ashcroft, becomes a dear old lady. She is allowed an occasional asperity before the visit to the caves, but the scene after the disaster, where she becomes a baffling, disagreeable creature playing patience, is cut. So her refusal to appear as a witness to the trial, and her agreement to be shipped back to England, is bewildering. Judy Davis was forbidden to play Miss Quested as a dowdy girl, as Susan Wooldridge did playing Daphne Manners in The Jewel in the Crown, the TV series based on Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. For Forster, muddle creates evil. In the movie, a sexual frisson has to pass between Miss Quested and Aziz.
Forster made Aziz and his friends genuinely amusing, ironical, even witty. Victor Banerjee has all Aziz’s gaiety and charm but many of his most potent lines have been cut. The Aziz in the movie is hardly less of a dear than Mrs. Moore. He is allowed to be bitter after the trial, but of course David Lean must have a happy ending. So Aziz is reconciled to Fielding with “Kind actions all round,” and the movie ends with the two firm friends again. Not in the novel. Aziz is not sad to say goodbye. “Each,” says Forster, “had hardened since Chandrapore,” and as they ride for the last time together, Aziz shouts, “Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most.” Lean, it is said, thought the ending of the novel out of date. So he cut the dramatic symbolism of Aziz being parted from Fielding by their horses swerving aside. It is true that Aziz says they may be friends once India is a nation and the British have quit. But in the last, astonishing page of the novel, published in 1924, Forster made it clear that there could be no friendship until independence, even if independence led, as it did, and still does, to communal bloodshed.
The part of Professor Godbole is cut to ribbons. Alec Guinness has explained that he learned two psalms in Sanskrit, then a dance, then another dance after Lean had ordered cymbals from northern India, only to find that the cymbals were not Hindu but Tibetan; then he learned a third dance. When finally he performed, Lean said, “Well, we can’t use that.” Whereupon Guinness walked off the set. The manic side of movie making was clearly to the fore. One wonders how Lean resisted the exquisite scene when Fielding asks Godbole whether he thinks Aziz was guilty.
“My answer to that is this: that action was performed by Dr.Aziz.” He stopped and sucked in his cheeks. “It was performed by the guide.” He stopped again. “It was performed by you.” Now he had an air of daring and coyness. “It was performed by me.” He looked shyly down the sleeve of his own coat. “It was performed by my students. It was even performed by the lady herself. When evil occurs it expresses the whole universe, similarly when good occurs.”
The novel has no heroes or heroines. The movie does: Mrs. Moore is deified and Aziz crowned with laurel. Lean does not whitewash the British: they remain as odious and self-righteous as Forster intended them to be. The Indians are painted in pastels. The trial scene is full of tension; and drama demanded the elimination of Forster’s comedy. Even his beautiful young untouchable, the punkah wallah, becomes a grizzled old man. The truth is that in the novel the characters, complex as they are, play their parts downstage. Center stage is India, and it is India that fires the reader’s imagination and forces Western people to face a dilemma that they find disturbing. What is right and what is wrong? What meaning have the splendid certainties of Western morality on the subcontinent?
After Passage Forster never wrote another novel; and he could not do so, I believe, not merely because Edwardian genteel society, which he knew so well, was disappearing, but because India had made the morality Forster believed in irrelevant and for him as an artist false. He was not incapacitated as a moralist. He wrote the most pungent and telling articles on freedom and politics and war for the next thirty years. But he could never again judge people and events with the same unyielding moral vision that a novelist must possess and that was his before 1914. In the novel Forster expresses this dilemma by contrasting the morality of the Raj with the lively anti-establishment independence of mind of the Indian intellectuals who were to rebel against the British. He also contrasts it with the elusive philosophy of life that Hindus expound.
Every great novel loses when dramatized because it conveys meaning that cannot be seen on the screen. The novel is concerned with reality, not actuality, and something of the subtleties of personal relations and emotions between the characters, and between them and their social setting, cannot be converted into visual images. Dickens, who loved acting, would have enjoyed David Lean’s first fine movie, Great Expectations, even though Pip’s redemption by his love of Magwitch, which makes him understand that wealth is dross, could not be conveyed on the screen with the same force as in the book. Delicate as the transcription of The Wings of the Dove was on television, imagine Henry James searching for yet more labyrinthine sentences to depict his despair that the intricacies of moral analysis which he unraveled in his novel were lost. No one should expect David Lean to try to express visually such symbols as Mrs. Moore’s wasp or sentences such as “A friendliness, as of dwarfs shaking hands, was in the air.” But the spirit of the book has vanished and its strange music cannot be heard. The movie is lovely but earthbound.
Was King’s College right to be charmed by Lean? Forster has given some guidance on such matters in another of his novels. When Mrs. Wilcox dies, leaving a penciled note saying that she wants Margaret Schlegel to have Howards End on her death, Forster wrote,
Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy. It was not legal: it had been written under the spell of a sudden friendship…. Has the soul off-spring? No, the Wilcoxes are not to be blamed. The practical moralist may acquit them absolutely. He who strives to look deeper may acquit them—almost. For one hard fact remains. They did neglect a personal appeal. The woman who has died did say to them, “Do this,” and they answered “We will not.”
Forster made no personal appeal. Ultimately the book will come out of copyright and King’s will have no control. Lean’s argument that it is the novel not the movie that is eternal is incontrovertible; and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich will probably sell thousands of copies of the new paperback edition, of which some hundred will be read by those who would never otherwise have been moved by the novel. Lean is at home in this nightmare world of movie finance and distributors, and who can say that his judgment of their tolerance of art is wrong? Forster was a staunch agnostic who did not believe in life after death, so he presumably gave instructions to his ghost never to appear. But his novels (rather to the dismay of even stauncher agnostics among his contemporaries) often show rationalists confounded by the inexplicable. Was it a hyena that collided with the Nawab Bahadur’s car? Or was it the ghost of the drunken man the Nawab’s car had hit and killed nine years previously? These intimations of the unseen hardly surface in the movie. Lean has got honorable performances from all his cast. He has not made a masterpiece. He never intended to do so.
January 17, 1985