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E. M. Forster–James Ivory: Howards End

Readjustment and Reaccentuation: What Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Screenplay Reveals about James Ivory’s Film Adaptation of Howards End

Réajustement et ré-accentuation : l’influence et l’importance du scénario de Ruth Prawer Jhabvala sur l’adaptation filmique de Howards End (James Ivory, 1992)
Dennis Tredy


Cette étude a comme objectif de mieux comprendre le lien entre le roman Howards End de E. M. Forster (1910) et l’adaptation filmique de James Ivory (1992) en regardant de plus près le scénario écrit par Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Si Jhabvala et Ivory cherchaient tous les deux à remanier des éléments du roman afin de trouver un nouvel équilibre plus en phase avec le public d’aujourd’hui, le scénariste et le réalisateur avaient cependant une vision et un plan bien distincts. Jhabvala a conçu un cadrage structurel mettant en avant une intrigue en trois actes et trois personnages transcendants tirés de trois classes sociales, tout en renforçant des discours de lutte sociale et de féminisme tirés du roman. Ivory suivra certains aspects de ce plan, mais d’autres trouvailles ainsi que la dimension politique seront mis de côté en faveur d’une autre vision d’équilibre entre les personnages permettant une meilleure lisibilité de leurs histoires d’amour et une identification plus facile.

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1Though we often look to the trio ‘Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’ when discussing their 1992 film adaptation of Howards End (a trio described by Ivory himself as resembling the three branches of US government: with director Ivory as president, producer Merchant as Congress and screenwriter Jhabvala as the Supreme Court [Moreews 24]), this study will turn to a different trio—that of the author, screenwriter and director of Howards End—to focus on the contribution made by that precious but oft-forgotten intermediary, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, for this Ruth haunts every aspect of the film adaptation as much as Ruth Wilcox pervades the story itself, as an unseen presence affecting nearly everything and everyone involved.

  • 1 Jhabvala’s unpublished ‘delivery script’ can be consulted in the Modern Archive Center at King’s Co (...)

2The goal here is not to focus on Jhabvala as a writer in her own right or possible connections to her many other screenplays (including 24 for Merchant-Ivory films) and over two dozen novels and short story collections, but to focus on the ‘delivery script’ for Howards End that she turned over to James Ivory before moving onto other projects and allowing the director to do what he would with her initial adaptation. It is important to note the clear ‘separation of powers’ behind Jhabvala and Ivory’s working dynamic: after consultation on the general ideas for the adaptation, Ruth produces a ‘delivery script’ and hands it over to Ivory and his team. Unlike usual screenplays, it is seen as a finished product and scenes are numbered for easy reference, and then Ruth moves onto other writing projects and has very little, if anything, to do with rewrites or reworkings by Ivory. This method gives us the rare opportunity to clearly distinguish between the screenwriter’s intentions and those that later came from the director, and that is what this study will take advantage of, for Jhabvala’s initial screenplay speaks volumes on possible interpretations of the novel and the film.1

3The two keywords from the title that would seem to truly represent Jhabvala & (then) Ivory’s adaptation goals also need to be defined. Readjustment here refers to efforts to find a new balance that works better both for the film medium and for more modern audiences, though Jhabvala and Ivory’s balancing acts seem to have slightly different goals. Then there is reaccentuation, a term used by adaptation theorist Robert Stam to refer to the way in which a film adaptation is always ‘a work of reaccentuation’ that reveals something about ‘the ambient discourse in the moment of reaccentuation’ (46), thus reflecting key issues more in line with the time of the film adaptation than with that of the source work. Stam is most certainly borrowing from Mikhail Bakhtin’s coining of the term in The Dialogical Imagination, which stressed how ‘every age reaccentuates in its own way the works [of its past]’ and how our use of classical works always undergoes some ‘social and ideological reaccentuation’ (21).

4A quite blatant example of such reaccentuation can be found in the way that the more recent ITV/Starz adaptation of Howards End as a miniseries in 2017–18 made the very topical issues of diversity and racism stand out in the work by having black actors play four different roles. Though two are mere extras (one of the women attending the luncheon held for Ruth by Meg, and a male neighbor who tips his hat to Leonard Bast in the street), the two others are key if secondary roles: that of Jacky Bast and of Annie the maid. Though this may seem rather ‘tacked on’ to please today’s audiences, the more diverse cast does tie racism to certain conflicts—for example, Aunt Juley’s curt treatment of the maid suddenly rings more of racism than of mere snobbishness, just as the rejection of Jacky by Leonard’s family now seems to be a question of race rather than class. In this effort to make race an issue in Howards End, even Tibby Schlegel, the self-absorbed young intellectual, is made uncharacteristically socially aware as he chides Henry’s rubber company for its exploitation of African labor.

5Readjustment and reaccentuation are of course far subtler in the 1992 adaptation than concerns this study, and the two notions often went hand in hand in the writing of the script and the making of the film. In keeping with Merchant Ivory’s règle de trois, as it were, this paper will first focus on Jhabvala’s careful, multi-pronged act of readjustment that also seeks reaccentuation, one that Ivory would build upon. Then the focus will shift to narrative and visual devices conceived by Jhabvala that Ivory did not pick up, and especially to the director’s own balancing act in terms of reworking the characters scripted by Jhabvala.

Three is a Magic Number: Jhabvala’s Balancing Act

  • 2 For discussion of the overall ‘four-part’ structure of films, see Kristin Thompson’s 1999 Storytell (...)
  • 3 This estimate is based on the basic screenwriting rule that states that one page of screenplay corr (...)

6Before looking into more profound choices made by Jhabvala in terms of providing a new balance to the story that could better speak to today’s audiences, there is a simpler matter of overall structural balance that shows Jhabvala following the general rule of thumb for screenwriters in terms of plot divisions. Screenwriters of mainstream films, and particularly Hollywood films, are taught to write films with an overall three-act structure, though one of the acts will be a ‘double act’ around some pivotal moment (most often the first or second ‘act’ is the longer one). With each act ending in its own climactic moment (and the double act having a turning point halfway through), one can see why some analysts, such as David Bordwell or Kristin Thompson, see it more as ‘four parts’ than as three acts.2 Some novels fit more naturally into this mold than others. Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement (2001), for example, was written as three ‘books’, with the first book at twice the length of the other two, which most certainly made structuring the screenplay a little easier on the part of Christopher Hampton (and shows the influence of McEwan’s prior experience as a screenwriter). E.M. Forster’s Howards End can also be easily divided into three acts, with the second act twice the length of the other two. Jhabvala seems to thus devise chapters 1–12 (111 pages covering six months of story-time) as Act I, as they focus heavily on Ruth Wilcox and end on her death and the burning of her impromptu will. After an ellipsis of two years, chapters 19–30 (156 pages covering another six months or so) would form the larger second act, with a key midway pivot (Henry’s marriage proposal to Meg) and ending on a climactic confrontation between Meg and both Henry (over his infidelity) and Helen (over her intrusion at the wedding), coupled with Helen’s affair with Leonard Bast. Then there is another ellipsis of several months, allowing the remaining 14 chapters (Chapters 31–44, 93 pages) to form the third act, beginning with Meg and Henry’s underwhelming wedding and ending with Meg’s dealing with her sister’s surprise return, the killing of Leonard, the acquisition of Howards End and the revelation of Ruth’s dying intention for her to have it. Most of the scenes added by Jhabvala concern the larger Act II, allowing her to write a screenplay originally designed to have a first act of 36 minutes (in 36 scenes), a second act of 56 minutes (in 54 scenes) and a third act of 36 minutes as well (in 48 smaller scenes).3

7One should note however that Jhabvala’s reinforcement of the three-act structure is instrumental in making Margaret very clearly the film’s central figure and guiding character, as Act I could be dubbed ‘The Old Mrs. Wilcox’, Act II ‘Becoming Mrs. Wilcox’ (with the central pivot being Henry’s proposal to Meg), and Act III ‘The New Mrs. Wilcox’. Margaret’s guiding role over the narrative is reinforced by Jhabvala and Ivory also injecting some of the novel narrator’s irony and key lines into Meg’s dialogue, or using Margaret’s voice-over narration for letter-reading in the early scenes, or relying heavily on her point of view in the framing of shots in the film (e.g. the number of times Meg looks out a window and the next shot is what she would be seeing). It is not surprising then that James Ivory would claim that, in the film, Margaret was more than a character but was a stand-in for Forster himself (Long 222; Mellet 2019, 163).

8However, Jhabvala also sought another form of balance, by readjusting the focus of the story to more equally deal with the three families of the novel (the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels, the Basts) and the social class each represents, thereby greatly boosting the focus on the lower class Basts for the film. It is indeed striking how many new scenes or greatly expanded scenes (in comparison to the novel) were written by Jhabvala for Leonard Bast: 34 scenes out of the 139 that comprise the screenplay (4 in what we have dubbed ‘Act I’, 17 in ‘Act II’ and 13 in ‘Act III’). Putting Leonard Bast on equal footing with the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels, in terms of screen presence and development, makes the unfortunate clerk a far more complex character, certainly, but it is also part of Jhabvala’s reaccentuation effort, for today’s audiences are more open to and can more readily identify and sympathise with such struggling lower class characters.

  • 4 The quoted lines from Meredith, in their original order, are as follows: ‘A pale grey light on the (...)

9However, Jhabvala goes beyond merely giving Leonard Bast more screen time and a ‘rounder’ character, for she also allows Bast voice-over narration at times, notably when he reads Meredith at his flat (Sc. 19) and when daydreaming of his nature walk at work (Sc. 40–42). Here Bast clearly takes on the role of the narrator of his own tale. Even more strikingly, Jhabvala originally wrote four dream sequences for Bast: his hiking memory/dream while he sleeps in his flat (Sc. 20; in the film it occurs while he reads), a flashback/dream of his romantic boat ride with Helen when he dozes off in church (Sc. 103), and a terrible nightmare he has twice (Sc. 67 and 119), in which Leonard is walking in the sunshine and is happy to see the smiling Schlegel sisters approaching, until they turn into a train barreling down on him with blinding lights. This would seem to point to how dangerous if not fatal his interactions with the Schlegels might be. Ivory changed this to a single dream sequence that occurs the morning of his death, a reiteration of the umbrella-chase scene from Sc. 5, ending with Bast trapped behind an iron gate calling to Helen, whose smile slowly fades as she looks at him—a modified dream which certainly allows the Schlegels to come across as less destructive and culpable. For the film, Ivory does follow Jhabvala’s lead and gives Bast even more subjective control over the narrative, notably through the nature-worship scenes devoted to Leonard. Jhabvala decided to quote George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel three times in the screenplay: when Leonard reads at home while Jacky undresses (in the novel he reads Ruskin in Ch. 6), when Leonard slips into a daydream/memory of his nature walk while at work (not in the novel but situated before Chapter 13), and when Helen reads a short excerpt to Leonard during his second visit (Ch. 14). In the film, however, only Helen’s lines are as scripted and actually quote Meredith, though the three lines read are out of order so as to end on a discussion of the (disappointing) dawn.4 For the two voice-over readings by Bast, however, Ivory not only confuses reality and fantasy by giving us surreal memories of his nature walk (including one that begins with his work desk being suddenly transported to the middle of the forest), the director also rewrites the lines Bast reads to better reflect the natural environment he finds/imagines himself strolling in. Thus, though said to be Meredith, the quotes are pure invention:

  • 5 In Sc. 20 of the screenplay, Leonard was to read the following passage from Meredith: ‘The moon was (...)
  • 6 In Sc. 41–42 of the screenplay, Leonard was to read the following passage from Meredith: ‘Sprinkled (...)

Ankle deep, he waded through the bluebells. His spirit rose and exalted, as he breathed in the sun-drenched air. The glorious day was in its last decline. Long shadows lay on the sward, and from above the leaves dripped their shimmering drops of gold-green light. Moths and butterflies swarmed in merry hosts, flittering here, glimmering there. But, hush. Could that be a deer?5
The trees reared on mighty columns, their tops still radiant in sunlight, which, spilling downward through the wealth of leaves, dissolves at last in the darkness of the mossy earth. Then color slowly faded from out of the flowers, but their scent lingered to honey the air he breathed.6

  • 7 Note that in a 1992 letter by Jhabvala, the screenwriter claimed that Leonard does indeed quote Mer (...)

10Ivory most certainly changed the text to better fit the natural environment he was filming the character in, for the Peppard Cottage estate in Oxfordshire that stood in for Howards End and the film’s nature scenes had its own bluebell patch, tall trees and ‘mossy earth’, whereas the actual quotations from Meredith, referring to sharp branches, strange noises and the ‘emerald lights’ of ‘hundreds of glow-worms’ in the darkness would surely have been too incongruent with any type of natural environment Ivory could use for the shooting. As a result, however, Leonard comes across as a reader, a writer and a narrator of his own subjectively rendered adventure.7

11This device is perhaps most striking in the final daydream Ivory invents for Leonard, as he is walking from the train station to Howards End (and his coming death) in Chapter 41, for it is a hybrid flashback that superimposes three elements from earlier scenes: a shot of him walking through the bluebells on his earlier adventure (Sc. 20, Ch. 6), dialogue and laughter with the Schlegel girls during his second visit (Sc. 45, Ch. 14), and the musical score by Richard Robbins that was used in his rowboat love scene with Helen (Sc. 87, Ch. 27, 40). The three-layered subjective sequence is indeed remarkable, allowing his troubled mind and scattered thoughts to completely color the narrative. And to further drive the point home, Ivory also cut out any other scripted scene that could be seen as giving another character subjective control over the narrative, such as Scene 20, in which we were supposed to see ‘a ghost, a memory’ of the dead pony just mentioned by Ruth during Meg’s first visit, or Sc. 100, in which we were supposed to see Dorset Bay distorted through Margaret’s tears, as she frets that her sister might be ‘mad’.

12Jhabvala’s efforts to boost Bast’s subjective narration and dream sequences, which were then amplified by Ivory, have two main consequences. Firstly, they reinforce Bast’s mental and imaginary control’ over the film narrative (Mellet 2019, 163), thereby rivalling Meg’s more traditional and ‘objective’ control of the story. Secondly, by steeping Bast’s subjectivity so deeply in oneness with Nature, it creates a trio of transcendent, guiding presences in the film: Ruth Wilcox, Margaret Schlegel and Leonard Bast—one from each family/social group, thereby providing yet another form of balance. As if to stress this connection, one should note how Ivory cleverly draws the three together by using the same piece by Richard Robbins, ‘The Basts/Spring Flowers’, for the opening scene in which Ruth walks the grounds of Howards End and looks in the window (Sc. 2), for the scene in which Meg first visits the grounds of Howards End and looks through that same window (Sc. 64), for Leonard’s first reading and memory of his nature walk (Sc. 20) and for the montage of flowers in the rain at Howards End that serves as a stand-in for the funeral scene for Ruth that Jhabvala had scripted (Sc. 34). It is indeed a remarkable demonstration of readjustment and balance.

The Path Not Followed: Devices Ivory Does Not Pick Up

13If Ivory clearly followed Jhabvala’s lead in terms of boosting Leonard Bast’s character development, appeal to audiences and subjective control over the narrative, there were many of her narrative devices and visuals that Ivory did not include in his film. Of course, all screenwriters know that the script they produce is but an initial blueprint that will be reworked by future architects (directors, producers, directors of photography, etc.), who have their own vision and their own imperatives to deal with (time and budget constraints, available shooting locations, casting changes, and the like), and so learn not to get too attached to any narrative or visual devices that they come up with.

14Not surprisingly then, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala would see many of her clever finds dropped from the film. For example, there were three of her devices dealing with class struggle or class consciousness that were either modified or dropped by Ivory. Firstly, Jhabvala had proposed what we might call the ‘trampling feet’ device for the Basts’ basement flat, the pavement-level windows of which were to reverberate with the constant foot-traffic seen outside (Sc. 19–20, 67–68, 89, 120, 123). To his credit, Ivory devised a clever and perhaps more effective replacement device: that of the lights and sounds of constantly passing trains disrupting the tranquillity of the cheap London flat. Though this is remarkably well-done (for example, when Bast wakes up from his nightmare in which he cannot reach Helen through iron gates, symbolising the barrier between the classes, the four repeated notes that end Richard Robbins’s Beethoven-inspired music track, entitled ‘Leonard’s Death’, morph seamlessly into the four-beat sound of the passing train as Bast awakes), the notion of being trampled by those above rings more loudly of class struggle. Another device related to class struggle was simply dropped by Ivory: what we might call a ‘same sky’ transitional device. The second act of the film was to open with the three Schlegel siblings at Oxford looking up at the night sky and commenting on the stars, and the camera was to tilt down from the night sky they are contemplating to Leonard Bast on his own roof, gazing at the same constellations (Sc. 37, 38). In the film, we are left with only Leonard’s stargazing, which removes the connection Jhabvala was drawing. Thirdly, on a similar note, Ivory greatly changed and toned down the scene in which Charles Wilcox is hauled off to jail (Sc. 132), for Jhabvala had not only presented Charles being taken away as a hardened criminal (with his head shaved, in prison garb and in shackles), but she had the porters from the train station mock him and gloat that the unbearable snob who had chastised them earlier (Sc. 7) was finally getting cut down to size. Ivory strips the scene of this what-comes-around-goes-around notion of class struggle, instead having Charles, dapper and dignified in a three-piece suit, exit the booking office in slow motion and shake the station master’s hand as he boards the train for prison—a choice that evokes more sympathy for the character and similarly strips the film of the more patent social criticism in the script, an attempt by Jhabvala to reaccentuate the class struggle debate for today’s audiences.

15Jhabvala also saw her sole choice of an artistic subtext cut from the film. For the boating scene with Leonard and Helen (Sc. 87), the unlikely couple were supposed to row off into a recreation of a painting by William Pether, the English ‘Master of the Moonlight’, most likely Moonlit Lake with a Ruined Abbey, a Cottage and an Illuminated Window (1821). The romance was to be implied by the moonlight scene, perhaps a reference back to Helen’s early dialogue with Paul on what the moonlight can lead to, which Jhabvala had added to the novel (‘Must have been the moonlight . . . but there was no moon,’ Sc. 6). Ivory instead shoots a daytime boating scene in which the two lovers stop rowing and start kissing as the rowboat glides into the tangled underbrush of the riverbank. Ivory of course opted for a different painting as a subtext for the film, staging a shot of André Derain’s La Danse (1906) as his opening visual epigraph for the film. The fauvist painting has profound symbolic connections to the film, from its being from the time frame of the novel to the way it evokes themes of colonialism, paternalism, the exploitation of African tribes, liberated women and a mystical oneness with Nature—the more political of which Ivory decided not to take on by more explicit means in his film.

16There are of course other paintings in the film, most notably the camera’s focus on a series of portraits adorning the walls of the Oniton Grange residence on the morning of Evie’s wedding. However, it should not be surprising that these are not mentioned in the script, as these are in fact clearly part of the heritage property, Brampton Bryan in Hertfordshire, being used for the shooting and thus could not be removed from the shooting location. What is surprising, though, is the clever metafictional dimension Ivory gives to their presence, by having Henry explain to Meg that they are not portraits of Wilcoxes but that they came ‘lock, stock and barrel’ with the property—a statement that applies equally to Henry and his proprietary views and to Merchant Ivory and their use of a heritage property and its furnishings.

Ivory’s Main Addition: Inversely Proportional Recharacterisation

17There are many other changes made by Ivory, of course, but most of those that do not result in toning down the political nature of the narrative are related to his reworking of Jhabvala’s characterisation and to finding his own form of balance between them. The new attention paid to characters should come as no surprise, as Ivory himself has admitted to being more focused on connecting characters than plot elements (quoted in Mellet 2019, 158). One quick example would be the way he changed what occurs when Meg, after Evie’s wedding, finally finds herself alone upstairs to deal with the news of Henry’s prior infidelity. In the screenplay (Sc. 81–83), Margaret was to look sympathetically out the window at Jacky below and attempt to write a letter to Henry about the affair several times, crumbling up several failed drafts. Ivory deftly changes this to an arresting shot of Meg breaking down in uncontrollable tears in front of the full-length mirror, a moment in which her ‘fortress’ breaks as if to balance it with the collapse of Henry’s fortress later, after Charles’s arrest. The visual trickery involved in the way her breakdown was shot involves a medium close-up of Meg in tears that slowly dollies back to reveal that we are actually looking at her reflection in an over-the-shoulder shot of Meg looking at herself, a shot format usually used for two people in conversation, thereby literally splitting Meg into her broken inner self and the bold front she shows to the world. Ivory thus shifts the sympathy this scene was supposed to impart on Jacky to Margaret, the extreme pathos of the moment drawing viewers much closer to her.

18In a way, this shift is part of a much larger pattern on the part of Ivory, one that involves lowering the profile of one of Jhabvala’s characters so as to boost a different character, or vice versa, a game of foils that could be called ‘inversely proportional recharacterisation’. It is another type of balancing act, certainly, but one more akin to a set of scales, whereby pressing down on one side will raise the other. For example, there are two servant characters that Ivory rewrites for the film, one whose importance is greatly expanded while the other is greatly reduced. On the one hand, there is Miss Avery, the old caretaker of Howards End, who had a far more pervasive presence in the screenplay than in the film. In five scenes cut by Ivory, Miss Avery was to supervise Henry and Meg’s first tour of Howards End and even scold Henry for not knowing about the pigs’ teeth in the wych elm (‘Everyone who belongs in this place knows about those teeth. Mrs. Wilcox knew,’ Sc. 66), to repeatedly supervise Helen and Meg’s reunion through the window at Howards End (Sc. 114, 118, 124), and to witness the killing of Bast and scold Charles as in the novel (‘Yes, murder’s enough!’ Sc. 129). In the scene in which she first encounters Margaret and mistakes her for Ruth Wilcox, Ivory cuts out the way Miss Avery was to be seen as the ghost of the late Mrs. Wilcox, as she ‘walks like Ruth Wilcox’ and is similarly mistaken for her by Margaret (Sc. 65). For Ivory, there only seems to be room for one ‘new Mrs. Wilcox’, and that person is Margaret, whose character is thus boosted by the lowering of the housekeeper’s. Conversely, Ivory chooses to greatly expand the presence and importance of the Schlegels’ live-in maid, Annie, a character who is unnamed or absent from the screenplay. In the film, however, Annie is presented as being part of the Schlegel family and enjoying a complicity with Margaret on several occasions, as when Meg shares the contents of Helen’s early letter and later postcards with her (Sc. 4, 93) or when Meg compliments her in the luncheon scene, following Ruth’s condescending remarks about finding good help (Sc. 25). She is also complicit with the Schlegels during Jacky’s visit to Wickham Place and in the giddiness that reigns when a ‘certain Mr. Bast’ is announced the next day (Sc. 44, 45), her status as part of the family being visually confirmed in the former scene as she stands with the three Schlegel siblings on the staircase and looks down on a flustered Jacky. Annie is even made to be the one who kindly helps a starving Leonard Bast out looking for the Schlegels near the end of the film, rather than the unnamed surly maid in both the novel and the screenplay, implied to most likely be working for the Wilcoxes (Sc. 104). Boosting Annie this way serves a double function. Firstly, much like the greater presence of Leonard Bast, the increased focus and development of lower-class characters speaks more to today’s audiences. Secondly, Ivory boosts Margaret in the audience’s eyes by boosting Annie, for Margaret stands out for her inclusiveness and kindness to servants, which is merely hinted at in the novel, when for example after her honeymoon Meg ‘set to humanizing the servants’ the Wilcoxes seem to take for granted (Forster 274). Amplifying this for the film again makes Margaret more appealing to today’s audiences.

19Many cases of Ivory’s reworking Jhabvala’s characterisation also seem designed to better justify the film’s two main romance plots in the audience’s eyes. For example, throughout the film, Ivory makes a great deal of changes that more clearly frame Leonard and Helen’s blossoming love affair. This begins by very suggestive visual isolation of the future couple in early scenes. Thus, the first shot of Leonard and Helen sitting next to each other in a lecture hall (Sc. 14) frames them as a couple, and if the screenplay specifies that they ‘are clearly strangers to one another’ the shot in the film gives a first impression that they may be together, thereby foreshadowing their love affair. Similarly, when Helen reads an excerpt from Meredith to him during his second visit (Sc. 45), she and Leonard are framed side by side, holding the book together, whereas the screenplay explicitly places Margaret on the other side of the room as she reads, and not with Leonard. On his third visit, when Bast storms out after the Wilcoxes arrive, the scene in which Helen tries to smooth things over is this time filmed as scripted, being their first scene in the screenplay that could be construed as somewhat flirtatious (Sc. 51); later, however, the scripted dialogue of their culminating love scene on the river is made even more romantic through Ivory’s staging, by having the couple sit apart on the boat, then rowing side by side, then touching each other’s faces, and then passionately kissing as the current takes them (most of Scene 87 in the screenplay was to take place on the riverbank as Leonard does not know how to row and is afraid to use someone’s ‘private property’ without permission, and, as mentioned above, it was to end on a more symbolic recreation of a Pether painting).

20Other scenes are also altered in order to boost Leonard’s overall appeal, both to Helen and to filmgoers. For example, Ivory changed the location of Helen’s chance encounter with Leonard from a museum he was visiting to a bank at which he was applying for a job (Sc. 73). Similarly, Ivory cut out Jhabvala’s later scenes of Leonard hiding from Meg and Tibby at church, dozing and dreaming of their love scene on the river (Sc. 101–104), of Len loitering outside the old lecture hall on the off-chance that Helen would also attend a conference on “Vigour and Vegetarianism” (Sc. 107) or finally mustering up the courage to go to Wickham Place, only to find himself standing in front of a pile of rubble (Sc. 108). These Ivory also replaces with a second scene of Bast looking for work, this time trying to get his old job at Porphyrion back. The effect of the change is that Leonard is no longer idle or lovesick and does not loiter at museums and lecture halls, but is seen as enterprising and responsible, and therefore far more appealing. Note however that boosting Leonard and his romance with Helen also involves lowering Jacky and her relationship with him. The character of Jacky Bast is presented quite differently in the screenplay. In her first scene, when she attempts to distract Leonard from his reading, she is scripted as remarkably ‘voluptuous and sexy,’ putting on a striptease that ‘any young man’ would be ‘powerfully attracted to’ (Sc. 19). Ivory instead makes her more vulgar and buffoonish, with unscripted suggestive touching, eating with her mouth open, and a strong Cockney accent replete with grammatical errors that Leonard steps in to correct (it is interesting to note that Jhabvala had in fact wanted Leonard to be the one who has a ‘charming provincial accent’ that he unsuccessfully tries to hide by ‘feigning’ a ‘genteel accent’ when in the presence of the Schlegels [Sc. 16, 45, 50]; Ivory instead has Leonard’s speech remain at a higher register than Jacky’s throughout the film). Ivory will also greatly expand the later scene in which Jacky makes a drunken fool of herself after crashing Evie’s wedding reception, making the most of her ridicule while boosting Leonard by adding a shot in which he angrily stands up for her to gawking on-lookers (Sc. 76, 78). Lowering Jacky thus boosts Helen and Leonard in the audience’s eyes, both individually and as a couple.

21Finally, Ivory uses these same tactics to better frame and justify Margaret and Henry’s romance plot. This may explain why, in terms of reworking characters scripted by Jhabvala, Ivory’s most frequent changes involve rehabilitating Henry Wilcox, making him far more likable to today’s audiences. Thus the director more clearly stages Henry’s growing affinity for Meg, from their first meeting on the train platform (Sc. 31; Ivory adds pleasantries, notably about a German expression, between Meg and Henry), to Margaret’s comforting him at his wife’s deathbed (Sc. 33; Meg holds his hand in the film, rather than just pat his shoulder), to twice making Margaret blush—first by giving her a far nicer gift in memory of his late wife than the one scripted (in the film he gives her a clearly valuable seventeenth-century crystal and gold perfume vial; in the script he ‘rummages’ through some of his late wife’s ‘trinkets’ and finds a small pomander, Sc. 49, 52) and then by having him compliment her at the end of the scene at Simpson’s restaurant (Sc. 53). In middle scenes, Ivory seems to try to make Henry a far more pleasant person, one apt to compliment Aunt Juley’s artwork (Sc. 59), to dance giddily in circles with his fiancée in his office (Sc. 63), and to kindly accept Meg’s story about the pigs’ teeth in the tree bark rather than have him obtusely deny her explanation (Sc. 66). In the latter half of the film, Henry treats Margaret far better than he does in the screenplay, for Ivory does not have him force Meg to write her angry letter to Helen (Sc. 84), or trick her on their expedition to catch Helen, leaving her at the station and not apologising (Sc. 111–12). Quite notably, Ivory also cuts out many of the early instances of Henry’s sexism and consolidates his misogynistic statements in the honeymoon scene that comes much later, when we viewers might be as forgiving as Meg seems to be (Sc. 94). This effort to play down the couple’s conflicts over Henry’s misogyny also results, most remarkable, in Ivory’s rewriting of the scene in which Meg discovers Helen’s pregnancy and insists Henry and the other men leave. Jhabvala, sticking close to the novel, staged this as Meg’s firmly standing up to Henry, her strong ‘defensive stance’ reflecting her anger at these men (Henry, the doctor, the driver) who think they can judge or decide for women (Sc. 113). Ivory instead has Henry put up no resistance at all and simply leave when she kindly asks him to. It seems that playing down Meg and Henry’s conflicts over misogyny led to Ivory even dropping feminist-resistance scenes that had nothing to do with Henry, such as the ones in which Meg jumps out of Charles’s moving car when, after hitting a child’s pet on the road, the men refuse to let the ladies intervene (Sc. 69–70). Ironically, Ivory’s attempts to make Henry more palatable for today’s audiences seem to have resulted in his nearly completely cutting out the pro-feminist elements of the screenplay, which were surely included by Jhabvala to appeal to those same modern audiences.

22In addition, Ivory again resorts to what we have called inversely proportional recharacterisation to boost Henry’s appeal. This begins with the director playing down Helen’s conflicts with Henry over feminist matters, notably by dropping Jhabvala’s opening scene, which staged Henry’s dressing down of Helen’s position on women’s rights during the Wilcoxes’ morning calisthenics (Sc. 1), and by dropping certain scenes of conflict between Helen and Meg regarding Henry’s character. This includes dropping Helen’s insulting Henry after he leaves the sisters on Chelsea Embankment (‘What a prosperous vulgarian he is!’ Sc. 48) and, most strikingly, Ivory shooting but cutting out the entire scene in which Helen expresses her violent opposition to her sister’s engagement on the latter’s return to Swanage (Sc. 57)—thereby tossing out the ‘Only connect!’ dialogue it contained, a dialogue that is so central to the novel and so conspicuously absent from the film. In interviews, both Jhabvala and Ivory have claimed that this scene was cut simply because it was ‘dull’ (Raw 161; Mellet 2019, 141), yet one might imagine that the rehabilitation of Henry Wilcox may have played a role in that decision. Similarly, Ivory also plays up the despicable buffoonery of the Wilcox children, particularly Charles and Evie, when adapting the screenplay. From the over-the-top visible discomfort displayed by both Charles (Sc. 23, 34) and Evie (Sc. 50, 53) when Margaret is with their father, to Charles eavesdropping on them or teaming up with his wife to harass Jacky at his sister’s wedding reception (Sc. 76), to Charles’s infantile pouting when ‘the Pater’ scolds him for his attitude with Meg, defending his fiancée (Sc. 105), to the fact that in the film it is Evie who throws her mother’s makeshift will into the fire and not Henry (Sc. 36). By thus making the Wilcox children even more conspiratorial and self-serving, and having Henry more openly oppose their attitude, Henry again rises in our esteem, and Meg’s attraction to him is made more comprehensible to modern viewers.

23The goal of this study was thus to draw some clear distinctions between Jhabvala’s screenplay and Ivory’s film, while also showing how the former informed and shaped the latter. There is of course a great deal more to say about Ivory’s choices and method (from his high aesthetics and production values, to his many visual effects and original staging choices, to his trademark use of thresholds and windows as vantage points, to his inherent nostalgic if not idealised vision of the past), but a comparison of Jhabvala’s contribution to Ivory’s final product, as we have seen, brings to light key notions of readjustment and reaccentuation that shaped or reshaped the storyline, the main themes and character development—three elements that do indeed form the main focus of all screenwriters.

24Today’s field of Adaptation Studies, which has generally sought to break with traditional notions of ‘fidelity’ that would imply that a film adaptation is somehow dependent on and derivative to the source novel rather than a work on equal footing, thereby stressing the film’s double nature as both and interpretive and independent piece of storytelling, rarely if ever brings in the specific contributions of the screenwriter. This is understandable given the fact that Adaptation Studies usually seek to compare two ‘separate but equal’ texts, as it were—one on paper, one on film—and that in the usual film-making process the screenwriter’s original intentions often get lost in the endless rewrites and reworkings involved as the film develops. Howards End, however, provides a rare opportunity to have a complete and distinct intermediary ‘text’ to take into account, thanks to the ‘separation of powers’ involved in Jhabvala and Ivory’s clear-cut two-stage process, one that allows us to better isolate and compare the screenwriter’s and the director’s approach to adapting the source novel. The comparison, in this case, shows clearly different notions of fidelity to the novel and to its time period, of what each of them felt would appeal to today’s audience, and quite notably of what it meant to find the proper ‘balance’.

25Jhabvala seems to have devised a carefully balanced structural matrix for a reaccentuated period piece, one that reinforced Margaret’s objective control over the narrative while reinforcing Bast’s presence and complexity to such a point that he gains, on balance, subjective control over the same narrative, the resulting screenplay falling into three acts, equally treating three families and thus three social ranks, and allowing for three transcendental figures to rise above the fray, one from each family: Ruth Wilcox, Margaret Schlegel and Leonard Bast. Ivory would indeed ‘faithfully’ follow through on all of these balancing and reaccentuating efforts initiated by Jhabvala, adding astute directorial choices in terms of staging, visual framing and musical score as well as an interconnectedness that together truly cement the screenwriter’s structural framework.

26On several other points, however, Ivory greatly modifies Jhabvala’s approach to Howards End in order to impose his own vision for the film, which as director is of course his prerogative and indeed his very role. Some of these changes were slight or the logical result of a need to better integrate the actual locations he was using for the shooting of the film (eg, bluebells, anonymous portraits, staircase proposals or a chestnut tree standing in for the famous wych elm at Howards End). Others involved Ivory coming up with often remarkable visual effects and transitional devices, thereby foregoing most of those that Jhabvala had occasionally proposed in her screenplay. Still others were more substantial, for Ivory’s quest for balance also operated on another level, and it involved smoothing over certain social conflicts, thereby stripping the film of many of its feminist and political bona fides, which Jhabvala had surely included to better ‘connect’ to today’s audiences.

27As this study has demonstrated, one of the most striking methods through which Ivory sought to allow his audience to better ‘connect’ with certain characters involved an astute game of creating foils and of counterbalancing characters, a game that we have labelled ‘inversely proportional recharacterisation’. Ivory’s greatest changes to Jhabvala’s screenplay thus involved reworking her characters and redirecting our sympathies away from some characters and towards others. Thus Leonard, already boosted by his enhanced narrative presence and a more industrious work ethic attributed by Ivory, also benefits from a more buffoonish representation of Jacky, as does his budding love affair with Helen. Even more remarkable are Ivory’s efforts to boost both Margaret herself (which involved playing down Miss Avery while playing up Annie the maid, for example) and especially his attempts to make her attraction to Henry more relatable to audiences, which in turn involved playing up and greatly rehabilitating Henry, thereby playing down on his misogyny while depriving viewers of sympathy for his children and shifting it to Henry, who opposes them. Ivory, through inversely proportional recharacterisation, thus prioritised a different notion of ‘balancing’ his work, one in which tracing, explaining and justifying the two main romance plots for today’s audiences and insuring identification with main characters trumped the stronger social and political messages Jhabvala had hoped to include for those same modern audiences.

28The sticky question of whether James Ivory’s abandoning some of Ruth Jhabvala’s wishes for the adaptation, many of which were more politically motivated and more faithful to the novel, could be seen as some sort of a ‘betrayal’ on either front (that is, to the novel itself or to the screenplay) is nearly as problematic as that regarding Henry Wilcox’s disregard for his Ruth’s wishes. Both had every right move on from that legacy, and in the end created something remarkable, but one cannot help but wonder how things would have gone had either Henry Wilcox or James Ivory been more ‘faithful’ to their partner’s vision of things to come.

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Bakhtin, Mikhail, The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, ed. Carl Emerson, tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Bordwell, D., The Way Hollywood Tells It, Berkeley: U of California P, 2006.

Forster, E.M., Howards End (1910), London: Penguin English Library, 2012.

Frenshaw, Ray, Break into Screenwriting, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Iglesias, Karl, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screen-writers: Insider Secrets from Hollywood’s Top Writers, Avon, MA: Adams, 2001.

Labadie-Schwab, Elizabeth, L’implicite dans l’œuvre de E.M. Forster : du texte à l’écran, Doctoral thesis, Paris III – Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1998.

Long, R.E., Henry James in Conversation, Berkeley: U of California P, 2005.

Mellet, Laurent, and Catherine Lanone, Howards End [E.M. Forster; J. Ivory]: Beyond Heritage, Paris: Belin/Humensis, 2019.

Mellet, Laurent, L’œil et la voix dans les romans d’E.M. Forster et leur adaptation cinématographique, Montpellier, PU de la Méditerranée, 2016.

Meredith, George, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, London: Chapman & Hall, 1859.

Moreews, Alan, James Ivory et Edward Morgan Foster (1879–1970) : l’amitié, deux cultures, trois continents, Paris: Harmattan, 2013.

Raw, Laurence, ed., Merchant-Ivory Interviews, Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi P, 2012.

Stam, Robert, Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Thompson, Kristin, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique, Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1999.

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1 Jhabvala’s unpublished ‘delivery script’ can be consulted in the Modern Archive Center at King’s College, Cambridge, or acquired through certain screenplay depositories and databases, such as ScriptFly, IMSDB or Simply Scripts. Note that references to the screenplay in this study will specify scene numbers rather than page numbers.

2 For discussion of the overall ‘four-part’ structure of films, see Kristin Thompson’s 1999 Storytelling in the New Hollywood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 126–34) and David Bordwell’s 2006 The Way Hollywood Tells It (Berkeley: U of California Press, 35–41). However, in screenwriting guides and classes, this is most often presented as ‘three acts’ with one double act (see for example Ray Frenshaw’s 2011 Break into Screenwriting [New York: McGraw-Hill, 113–43] or Karl Iglesia’s The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screen-writers [Avon, MA: Adams, 52].

3 This estimate is based on the basic screenwriting rule that states that one page of screenplay corresponds to one minute of film. Note that Ivory’s final cut of the film follows suit, with a first act and third act of 39 minutes each and a longer second act at 61 minutes, each act separated by a long fade to black.

4 The quoted lines from Meredith, in their original order, are as follows: ‘A pale grey light on the skirts of the flying tempest displayed the dawn. Richard was walking hurriedly. The green drenched weeds lay all about in his path, bent thick, and the forest drooped glimmeringly’ (Ch. 42).

5 In Sc. 20 of the screenplay, Leonard was to read the following passage from Meredith: ‘The moon was surpassingly bright: the summer air heavy and still. He left the high road and pierced into the forest. His walk was rapid: the leaves on the trees brushed his cheeks; the dead leaves heaped in the dells noised to his feet’ (Ch. 42).

6 In Sc. 41–42 of the screenplay, Leonard was to read the following passage from Meredith: ‘Sprinkled at his feet were emerald lights: hundreds of glow-worms studded the dark dry ground. . . . Now and then a large white night-moth flitted through the dusk of the forest. . . . Something of a religious joy—a strange sacred pleasure—was in him’ (Ch. 42).

7 Note that in a 1992 letter by Jhabvala, the screenwriter claimed that Leonard does indeed quote Meredith in the two nature scenes (quoted in Elizabeth Labadie-Schwab’s 1998 doctoral thesis, L’implicite dans l’œuvre de E.M. Forster: du texte à l’écran, 150). However, the fact that Jhabvala was apparently not aware of the change would seem to confirm the fact that she presents a ‘delivery script’ and then is not involved in the rewrites done by Ivory.

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Dennis Tredy, « Readjustment and Reaccentuation: What Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Screenplay Reveals about James Ivory’s Film Adaptation of Howards End »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 22 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Dennis Tredy

Dennis Tredy is an associate professor of American Literature at the Université de Paris 3–Sorbonne Nouvelle and teaches literature and film adaptation at Sciences Po Paris. He is co-founder of the European Society of Jamesian Studies and has published three volumes on Henry James: Reading Henry James in the Twenty-First Century (2019), Henry James and the Poetics of Duplicity (2014) and Henry James’s Europe: Heritage and Transfer (2011). In addition to his publications on James and on other American novelists, Dennis has published studies on film and television adaptations of the works of Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Vladimir Nabokov and other authors, as well as on literary adaptation for television, on TV series and on the representation of American culture, diversity and counter-culture in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

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