Written by: Emely Ricci
Last summer I finished reading E. M. Forster’s Maurice. I read it front to back, again and again, reread my favorite parts, imagined and reimagined them. I anguished over the relationships and their results. But I think one of the most wonderful surprises was when I found out about its 1987 movie adaptation by James Ivory. So naturally, I watched the movie. And just like when I read it, I loved the film for all it captured and conveyed from the book and more.
While a novel can move us to tears, adapting a novel to film can be a complex and daunting task. Film scholar Linda Hutcheon puts it well by saying that “there is something about [the] pleasure of a familiar story that we like and enjoy, but seeing [the novel] in a slightly different way,” when talking about film adaptations in the Books On Film series from the Toronto International Film Festival. We imagine what we read in our minds all the time, and there is joy in seeing favorite stories in a different medium.
But let’s now look at how film transforms the novel of Maurice. First, adaptations are like translations. Adaptations aren’t always the complete transfer of the source material to film. Are all scenes in a novel sufficient and necessary to adapt in a film?
Rather than simply representing every scene from the novel, adaptations often try to capture some of its essences. When watching an adaptation, having already read the novel first, you take notice of what is missing, included, or added; your experience is changed. When watching Maurice, I found myself feeling the film captured the different themes and emotions from the novel: class, love, sacrifice, and self-realization. It honed in on what I most valued about the novel. I enjoyed it and made reading the novel again better.
I noted how the film emphasized the role of the hypnotist, left out the scene of Maurice’s sexual advances on Dickie, and added the imprisonment of Lord Risley. These decisions made me think about whether the changes were necessary for a successful adaptation. I wondered why the filmmaker had chosen to diverge from the novel here, rather than taking a more faithful adaptation.
In my view, these changes made the film ‘stay true’ to the emotional center of the book. Dickie isn’t necessary to the main plot between Maurice, Clive, and Alec. I even forgot about that scene until I went back to the book. Meanwhile, the emphasis on the hypnotist gives us insight into Maurice’s symbolic visions of pain in choosing a heterosexual marriage. Lord Risley’s trial shows us the severity of his punishment and ostracization due to being gay that finally pushes Clive to choose the safety of traditional marriage that was typical of the early 20th century.
The inclusion of the trial speaks to the historical period and its real consequences, and the time the movie was filmed. The work this film did represent a real struggle of a gay relationship and the choices many had to make in order to avoid rejection from society. This film gave a hopeful outlook at the end with Alec and Maurice choosing to stay with each other regardless of the risks, a sentiment that was running high during the 80s when the movie was filmed.
As adaptation theorists point out, faithfulness to the exact plot of a novel does not necessarily result in a successful film. In this case, the ending of Maurice the novel, and the film are different. The novel ends with Clive left ditched at a restaurant waiting for Maurice who has already departed with Alec — and then leaving to go home. The film ends with Clive retreating into his home after his confrontation with Maurice, looking out his window while his wife hugs him from behind. Both novel and film present the confrontation, but they end on different notes with the same essences, disappointment and missed opportunity, and feelings of what-ifs. Yet, why did I feel more impact with the film’s ending, and why did the film give me more pity on Clive?
The experience showed me that an adaptation can offer the familiarity and joy of the original work while delivering surprises in its divergences. A good adaptation has the power to encapsulate the essence of the novel while also expanding it. I can say within my own view, Maurice has a special place right next to the novel, in that I keep going back to watch it.