The Merchant-Ivory film is a travesty of Forster's novel. I know, I know, we are all supposed to be viewers sophisticated enough to know a film adaptation is never the book. But I am not objecting to the liberties the film takes with the book's plot. Nor am I protesting the irreconcilable features of two very different media. What bothers me is that the film exorcises the spirit of the novel. It takes what is an existential question wrapped in social comedy, and turns it inside out, into a comedy of manners decorated with philosophy, along with lavish sets, costumes and music.
This is most clearly seen in the character of George Emerson. When we first see him in the film, he is playing with his food, forming a question mark with it, and then showing the plate, with a roguish smile, to Lucy Honeychurch. His action is not in the novel. It slights the despair the young man feels in the novel, a despair born out of a sense that things in the world do not hang together. The question mark drawn over the washstand, which is in the novel, is played for laughs in the movie. Watched by Lucy and Charlotte Bartlett, George marches into the room with mock-dignity, and hides the question mark by turning the painting over. This is completely inconsistent with the the gloomy but direct young man of the novel, who would not care who sees his mark. Since the movie-George is not out of love with the world, he cannot fall in love with it, and with Lucy, after the killing of a man in Piazza Signoria. When movie-George repeats Forster's words: "For something tremendous has happened . . . . I shall want to live," the words make no sense.
The film also distorts Forster's depiction of Lucy. In the novel, blinded by social prejudices and personal immaturity, she cannot see that she does love George. She is in a "muddle," and acts out of that muddle by running from Florence to Rome, agreeing later to marry Cecil Vyse, and after breaking that engagement deciding to travel to Greece. In the film, however, Lucy knows early on she has fallen for George, and so she does not undergo an education of the affections. In the denouement, when Old Emerson points out that she loves George, movie-Lucy says, "But of course I do. What do you all think?" Forster has her still in denial: "How dare you! . . . Oh! how like a man!--I mean, to suppose that a woman is always thinking about a man." The denial is rich with ironies. It also sets up the struggle for Lucy's soul between Old Emerson and the Reverend Beebe, the former representing passion, the latter asceticism, another form of denial. There is no such struggle in the film. Reverend Beebe does not even appear in the scene.
Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy pouts her way through the film, and clearly learns little of value in life. Julian Sands is an all-too-charming George. Maggie Smith is a correct Miss Bartlett, but seems to know little of genteel poverty. Denholm Elliot is a credible Old Emerson. Judi Dench is a surprisingly one-note Miss Lavish. Rosemary Leach is a full-body Mrs. Honeychurch, a minor character who achieves roundness. The best acting belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Cecil hilariously as a Decadent first, and then wrings a dignified pathos from the character when he is rejected by Lucy. That interiority is sorely missing from the other characters, and from the film. The view of beauty here is all surface.