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.