Updating "What Maisie Knew"

By Ruth Bernard YeazellJune 27, 2013

Updating "What Maisie Knew"

SCOTT MCGEHEE AND DAVID SIEGEL'S What Maisie Knew opens with a small girl being carried down a darkened corridor and placed gently in bed by a longhaired woman, who proceeds to sing her to sleep with the aid of a guitar. For anyone familiar with the source of the film, this is a startling sequence — and not because it swiftly establishes that Henry James’s late-Victorian novel of divorce has been updated for a modern audience. Maisie’s mother, Julianne Moore, makes clear from the very beginning that she has other things on her mind besides crooning her child to sleep. But there is nothing in James’s novel that resembles the maternal tenderness she nonetheless summons up for her daughter. The one time Maisie imagines otherwise proves the rule: “The next moment she was on her mother’s breast, where, amid a wilderness of trinkets, she felt as if she had suddenly been thrust […] into a jeweller’s shop-front.”

The film’s change of venue makes for some witty transpositions of the Jamesian originals. Rather than a London townhouse, this Maisie inhabits an upscale loft in contemporary Manhattan. And rather than an aging beauty with a talent for billiards, her mother is a fading rock star, whose former earnings have apparently bankrolled the lavish apartment. No one in James works for a living except the servants, but in the film Maisie’s father, too, has just enough of a profession to account for the couple’s expensive habits and erratic work schedules. (He’s an art dealer.) Unlike her filmic avatar, whose only education is supplied by a series of governesses, our Maisie goes to school — though the filmmakers have sensibly kept these scenes brief enough not to detract from her fundamental isolation. Once her parents have divorced and a court has ruled on custodial arrangements (which in the film, unlike the novel, takes place after the action begins), New York’s taxis provide a fitting modern equivalent for the carriages that perpetually shuttle James’s heroine between the households of the combatants. As in the novel, both parents remarry; later in the film there is a wonderful scene in which Maisie’s mother and her latest lover accidentally encounter the child, the mother’s new husband, and the father’s new wife in the middle of a New York street — the stopped traffic and blaring horns going one better on James’s staging of a similar episode on a footpath in Kensington Gardens. The adults in Maisie’s life now say “fuck” and “asshole” where once they confined themselves to “damned old brute” and “nasty, horrid pig,” but they are every bit as ready to hurl insults at one another as they were in James’s London. Maisie was published in 1897, when divorce was still enough of a scandal that James could imagine it making the newspapers; in the world of the film it has become so commonplace that a schoolmate one-ups Maisie’s shy introduction of her stepfather to the assembled class by announcing that he has two stepfathers, “but one is almost dead.”

 James knew that in choosing to tell his story through the eyes of the child he had set himself a particularly difficult problem. Though he had begun by thinking that he would restrict his tale to what its heroine was able to understand, he soon realized that such a perspective would be hopelessly limiting: “The infant mind would at the best leave great gaps and voids.” Unlike his adult characters, whose vocabulary could be imagined to approach the writer’s own, Maisie would not even have the mental language to process the events around her. Yet the very conditions that make What Maisie Knew a unique challenge for the novel prove liberating in another medium. “Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them,” James wrote in his retrospective preface to the novel: “Their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible vocabulary.” The typical Jamesian narrative, focused as it is on the consciousness of its protagonist, has been notoriously difficult to translate on screen. But, as the creators of this film have shrewdly recognized, Maisie’s story is as much about seeing and overhearing as it is about verbally registering what she perceives. Neither readers nor viewers can ever know in so many words what Maisie knows, but the film goes a long way toward lending us her eyes and ears.

“Everything had something behind it: life was like a long, long corridor with rows of closed doors,” James writes early in the novel of Maisie’s recognition that she must not inquire too closely into the events that transpire around her. “She had learned that at these doors it was wise not to knock — this seemed to produce from within such sounds of derision.” The film does little with the specifically erotic implications of this image, but by shooting so many scenes through panes of glass or down long hallways, the cinematographers artfully exploit the built environment to convey both Maisie’s intense watchfulness and the childish limits of her perceptions. One characteristic shot follows her gaze during the courtroom sequence, as she looks up through a huge metal grate to an opening landing, where her father engages in an animated conversation with the pretty young nanny who will soon become his new lover. That particular exchange is inaudible, but for most of the film snatches of adult talk permeate the soundtrack, as we struggle with Maisie to decode the half-overheard signals by which the others make the arrangements that will determine her fate. (This is not a film for the hearing-impaired, unless they wish to be reminded that theirs is, indeed, a second childhood.) The omnipresent cellphone becomes a handy token of the narcissism with which most of this talk is conducted — Maisie’s father proving particularly adept at whipping out his cell in order to evade any more immediate calls on his attention.

As the father, Beale, Steve Coogan is more charming than the Jamesian original, but he shares his namesake’s slipperiness and his evident incapacity to assume responsibility for his actions. Coogan is British, and the screenwriters take advantage of this fact to revise a scene from the novel in which Beale effectively communicates his intention to abandon his daughter and head for America. The original Beale has left his second wife for an ugly older woman who appears to be keeping him — he tells Maisie she’s an American “countess” — and his ostensible motive for heading west is to look after her “interests.” Coogan’s character plans to escape in the other direction; and while he, too, is clearly checking out on his second wife, there’s no sign of a sordid new liaison in the film. Instead he speaks in the name of the family, telling Maisie that her grandmother is “not getting any younger” and that her Aunt Olivia “can’t seem to manage.” Though we don’t doubt for a moment that Beale has other motives besides filial piety for escaping to England, the softening of his character is nonetheless telling. So, too, is the way in which the film handles his tentative request that Maisie accompany him. When Beale issues the analogous invitation in the novel, Maisie understands “as well as if he had spoken it” that what he really wants is for her to refuse him: he means to get the credit for asking, in other words, while making sure that the blame for their parting will fall on Maisie. Their silent exchange is almost parodically Jamesian in its recursiveness — “there was an extraordinary mute passage,” the narrator tells us, “between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision” — and the filmmakers wisely make no attempt to reproduce it. The result, however, is again to render this father more sympathetic than the original. While James’s character only wants to be rid of his daughter at no cost to his self-esteem, the film shows us a man who genuinely entertains, for a moment, his fantasy of paternal devotion — only to renege on the invitation when he realizes that Maisie can’t imagine abandoning her mother. The scene is finely acted — both Coogan and Onata Aprile, who plays Maisie, do a splendid job of registering its shifting emotions — but, like much in the film, its pathos comes at the expense of the novel’s corrosive irony.

The casting of Aprile as Maisie is among the filmmakers’ best strokes. She not only looks the part — apparently seven when the film was made, she even has the “toothpick” calves that James specifies in the original — but she manages to convey her character’s dawning intelligence while remaining to the end a thoroughly believable child. The solemn attentiveness with which she waits on the actions of the adults makes the rare moments when she breaks into a smile or squeals with glee all the more endearing. What Aprile can’t provide — what no actress could — is the redemptive force that James attributes to Maisie’s consciousness. Without the child’s “wonder,” James argues in his preface, the events of his narrative would be “vulgar and empty enough”: it is only because we see them through Maisie’s eyes that they acquire significance. “They become, as she deals with them, the stuff of poetry and tragedy and art.” The corollary of this proposition is that the film can’t afford to make Maisie’s parents as consistently monstrous as does the novel because it lacks a way of transfiguring them through the child’s vision. The ironic gap between what we see and hear of their behavior and what Maisie makes of it partly closes.

The softening of James’s picture is far more pronounced when it comes to Maisie’s stepparents. In both versions, a pretty young woman first employed by the mother quickly transfers her services, in more than one sense, to the father, while the mother likewise acquires an attractive new partner considerably her junior. In both versions, too, the younger pair are in turn drawn together through their mutual involvement with Maisie. The governess, Miss Overmore (whom the novel later calls Mrs. Beale), has become in the film a nanny named Margo, while Maisie’s stepfather, Sir Claude, has lost his title and been demoted to a genial bartender called Lincoln. But more than names have been changed to protect the innocent. Rather than a woman on the make and a charming aristocrat with a weakness for the other sex, Margo and Lincoln are a sweet and guileless pair, who appear to have no greater bond than their shared devotion to Maisie. Though by the end of the film we presume that they are sleeping together, the erotic charge in their liaison has almost entirely disappeared, to be replaced by a childlike playfulness that bodes very well indeed for the future happiness of a 6-year-old. One particularly affecting sequence has Lincoln and Maisie engaging in a spirited romp on the Manhattan High Line — their evident joy in the game and fondness for one another providing a vivid anticipation of the child’s subsequent avowal to Margo: “I love him.”

 James’s heroine also has reason to love her stepfather, whose genuine feeling for the child makes him the most attractive adult in the book. But Sir Claude’s love for Maisie is finally no match for his erotic susceptibility, and when the time comes to choose between the child and his mistress, he cannot bring himself to break with Mrs. Beale. That such a choice is at issue in the novel, as it is not in the film, is at once the most dated aspect of James’s fiction and the most daring. Watching as Lincoln and Margo join forces in the care of Maisie, few of us are likely to worry much about the couple’s marital status. But for James’s Victorian readers, the fact that Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale were engaged in an adulterous relation — a union, moreover, almost impossible to regularize — would have made them very dubious guardians of the child’s welfare. (Despite the awful behavior of their spouses, as the novel strongly implies, neither of the parties is in a good position to sue for divorce.) The key spokesperson for this point of view is a character that the filmmakers have understandably chosen to marginalize: an elderly widow named Mrs. Wix, who becomes Maisie’s governess after Miss Overmore decamps to Maisie’s father. Homely and “dingy,” as well as foolish, but sincerely devoted to her charge, Mrs. Wix is both a principal butt of the novel’s comedy and the instigator of its crisis. When she demands that Sir Claude leave Mrs. Beale to set up house with herself and Maisie instead, she inadvertently precipitates the choice that marks the end of Maisie’s childhood. For while Mrs. Wix speaks in the name of a “moral sense” that is little more than a code for Victorian respectability, what Maisie asks of the man she loves is a sacrifice of equals: she will give up Mrs. Wix, if he gives up his mistress. When Sir Claude proves incapable of rising to the occasion, she leaves with Mrs. Wix alone.

 The film, too, ends with a crucial choice, but the difference between its scenario and James’s makes for a more sentimental version of Maisie’s story. The novel’s final scenes take place on the coast of France, where Maisie, now on the cusp of adolescence, is beginning to contemplate the meaning of “amour,” even as she discovers her capacity to choose for herself. The critic who long ago concluded that she was offering Sir Claude her virginity in exchange for his sacrifice of Mrs. Beale was engaged in a vulgar misreading, but he was not wrong to sense the erotic overtones in Maisie’s awakening. The film makes no attempt to replicate the novel’s time scheme, and its heroine grows wiser while remaining to the end pretty much the same appealing 6-year-old. She is also at the seashore when she makes her decisive choice, but this is somewhere in New York, not Boulogne, and the shots of sand and waves are meant to conjure up a natural idyll, not the sensuous pleasures of the Continent. Sir Claude can’t keep his eyes from the “shining limbs of a young fishwife” even while talking with Maisie, but Lincoln apparently wants nothing more than to play an animated game of Monopoly with Margo and the child. When Maisie’s mother interrupts her rock tour to show up at the beach with a van full of toys, no amount of bribery can compensate the child for the nuclear family she has magically reconstituted. Maisie chooses the loving parents she has never had, and it is hard not to be moved by her happiness. But for all the film’s clever updating, there is also something both regressive and old-fashioned about this solution to our heroine’s troubles. James’s early notes for his tale suggest that he, too, once saw no farther than a nice pair of lovers who would get together for the sake of the child, but when he actually came to write the novel, he appears to have delegated all such wishful imaginings to Maisie. His version is not only funnier and more erotic, it’s more grown-up.


Ruth Bernard Yeazell is Chace Family Professor of English at Yale. She is the author of Language and Knowledge in the Late Novels of Henry James (1976), among others books, and teaches a seminar entitled, “Henry James and the Movies.”

LARB Contributor

Ruth Bernard Yeazell is Chace Family Professor of English at Yale. She is the author of Language and Knowledge in the Late Novels of Henry James (1976), Fictions of Modesty: Women and Courtship in the English Novel (1991), Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature (2000), and Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel (2009). She teaches a seminar entitled, “Henry James and the Movies.”


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