Merchant of Merchant-Ivory

Let’s take a moment for Ismail Merchant, co-creator of some of the best literary films of our time, who died yesterday, May 25, in a London Hospital at age 68.

From ‘Shakespeare Wallah‘ in 1965 to ‘The Golden Bowl‘ in 2000, the team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala produced films steeped in the greatness of Victorian and modern literary traditions, often adapted from books by authors like E. M. Forster and Henry James.

‘A Room With A View’ was their first breakthrough success, though in my opinion the team hit its peak in 1992 and 1993 with the wonderful ‘Howards End’ followed by the soaring, sublime ‘Remains of the Day’, featuring Anthony Hopkins as a repressed butler in a grand mansion. This film contained a smaller cast and fewer costumes than most Merchant-Ivory productions, but was probably their most thrilling work of all.

The team occasionally slipped up, as in their questionable attempt to film Tama Janowitz’s ‘Slaves of New York’, featuring Bernadette Peters as a neurotic 80s party girl (she had the right hair but the wrong attitude). They also produced some excellent films that nobody saw, like ‘Mr. and Mrs. Bridge’, based on Evan Connell’s memoir about a Kansas City family, which featured excellent performances by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and really deserved more attention than it ever got.

The Merchant-Ivory brand became so closely identified with a certain type of lit-film adaptation that they are often believed to have created films they had nothing to do with, like ‘A Passage to India’, which was directed by David Lean. They also had nothing to do with the Nicole Kidman version of Henry James’ ‘Portrait of A Lady’; if they had, it would have starred Helena Bonham Carter and would have been a much better movie.

Two thirds of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team had Asian roots, although it is hard to detect this influence in most of their works. It was their achievement to represent the European/American tradition in literature in ways no Europeans or Americans had done before.

One Response

  1. Great Films! Great ActorsI
    Great Films! Great Actors

    I absolutley loved their movies. A while ago I had submitted a script to their company because I knew it was right up their alley. Their production company wrote back a polite letter of decline saying they had too much on their plate already… but that’s whole ‘nother story.

    I remember Mr. & Mrs. Bridge fondly. I believe the son in that movie was played by Robert Sean Leonard (of Dead Poets Society) and I recall how after seeing him in that film I thought what a fantastic actor he was, but then he turned more toward Broadway than Hollywood, which basically shows he’s an actors actor. (Though he did do Powder, didn’t he? Which I thought was a great film.)

    But that just shows what kind of quality films these guys made and the top notch actors they worked with.

    I was sad to hear about Merchant’s passing. His contribution to film will be sorely missed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!