Smooth Translation

book to film: The House of Mirth

“There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions (The House of Mirth, 5).

Edith Wharton wrote these words in 1905, at a time when the upper stratum of New York society was (in relative terms) in the stages of infancy. This was a time after the Industrial Revolution, when lines of division between the classes were virtually etched onto the sidewalks of Manhattan. Wharton was raised as a member of the privileged class and often turned her pen to expose the hypocrisy of the world of which she was a part. Aside from The House of Mirth, she is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence. These two books deconstruct the façade that was New York’s turn-of-the-century society. Describing balls, nights at the opera, and weekends in the country with a keen eye, Wharton never hesitated to expose some of her peers and elders as shrewd and manipulative people. These elements of deception, social slights, and the consequences of nonconformity make these two novels at once antiquated, in the descriptions of the strict social constraints by which New York socialites abided, and also immensely timely, for these are days when we see the divisions widen between rich and poor.

With such ideas that translate smoothly into our modern times, it comes as little surprise that several of Wharton’s novels have been adapted into films. On the surface, the temptations of elaborate turn-of-the-century costumes and decadent New York nightlife are simply too great. Even Martin Scorsese couldn’t resist trying his hand at filming that type of ‘New York’ film. (And indeed, his 1993 version of The Age of Innocence ranks among the director’s finest.) One who is aware of the detail and vibrant characterizations in Wharton’s House of Mirth would expect a filmed version to be as elaborate. Terence Davies, however, director of the soon-to-be-released Mirth, is not a filmmaker who utilizes many of the conventional narrative elements. With the exception of 1995’s The Neon Bible, his array of films have been autobiographical accounts of his childhood in wartime England. Davies’ films, such as Children, and Distant Voices, Still Lives, are usually bleak, harsh portraits of familial conflict. He’s not exactly the figure that leaps to mind to adapt Wharton’s material. Despite this reputation as a purveyor of the bleak, Davies has a sure hand with The House of Mirth. Forgoing many traditional narrative elements, such as keying in mood music at poignant moments or filling the viewers’ eyes with elaborately choreographed ballroom scenes, Davies adapts Mirth subtly and simply. And he does this to very moving degrees.

Told primarily from the point of view of the lead character, Lily Bart (played by Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame), Mirth is equal parts love story, tragedy, and social critique. Lily Bart is a 29 year-old socialite, born poor, yet raised around wealth, who is infatuated with the luxuries of the upper class. She plays bridge and summers with the heavy-hitters. The upper crust of New York society welcomes her, but constantly reminds her that she must marry (and marry well) to remain in the society’s infrastructure. She is empowered with the belief that she has the power to do just that—Lily Bart is beautiful. In the novel, her grace and beauty are said to arouse passion in countless men and inspire jealousy in other, more cunning and devious women, who exploit her for their own means.

Lily’s greatest flaw, if one can call it that, is her absolute and uncanny tendency to ‘do the right thing at the wrong time’ and vice versa. A striking example of this occurs early in the film, when Lily travels by train to the country to stay with the Van Osburghs, a formidable family of great wealth and privilege. While on the train, she spies a gentleman, Percy Gryce, a bachelor (and, it goes without saying, a man who possesses copious amounts of money). Lily lays the groundwork for a conquest, and, ideally, a proposal of marriage, but later in the film, does not meet him in favor of a casual meeting with her close friend, Lawrence Selden (played by Eric Stoltz from Mask and Mr. Jealousy). Lily and Selden are rumored to be having an affair and they do little to dispel the rumors. It is clear that they are in love—Lawrence tells her as much—but though she reciprocates in her heart, she cannot do so in her daily life. Put simply, Lawrence is not wealthy enough for Lily’s means. This does not mean that their passion is unobserved by the other members of New York society. Rather, it is the implication of such passion that comes with great cost. Lily is the sacrificial lamb. She is cast off from society, becomes estranged from Selden, and (well, I won’t ruin it entirely) sacrifices herself because she ceases to be “of use.”

A story such as this seems, at first glance, easy prey for a melodramatic film of the Merchant-Ivory variety. Keep in mind, however, that Davies is not this type of filmmaker—he rejects conventional uses of aching string music cues and elaborate sets in favor of a dialogue-laden film. Davies also adapted the novel into the screenplay, and is said to have worked diligently to hold true to the style of Wharton’s words. In scenes where he found it necessary to add dialogue of his own, Davies does succeed in keeping with the tone, pace, and structure of Wharton’s words. And there is much to be said about the dialogue in this picture.

In the opening scenes, we are introduced to Anderson’s Lily as she accidentally meets Selden in the train station. Following this initial encounter, they have several scenes of deliciously loaded interchanges. It is clear that Anderson has great fun in these early scenes, where I believe she is at her best. Blessed with a beauty that the Pre-Raphaelites could love, Anderson seems to balance each syllable on her tongue before uttering it, emphasizing Wharton’s line about her intentions being, or seeming to be, far-reaching. Perhaps this is due to her tenuous social position; she is forced to be a carefully measured construction because she has no fortune of her own. Lily’s ironic downfall is that she cannot live out that construction fully—she cannot betray her dignity to do that which she knows she must—find a rich husband. The tragedy is that in maintaining her dignity, even as a financial misunderstanding with Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd), Lily’s best friend’s husband, threatens to uproot it, Lily damns herself from society.

A persistent and tactless suitor, Sim Rosedale (played wonderfully by Anthony LaPaglia), also plagues Lily. Wharton writes of this character in a decidedly anti-Semitic tone, for Rosedale is said to have come of his fortune through several shrewd business deals on Wall Street. He is New Money and is socially inept, and offers Lily his hand (and with it a great fortune) if she will help to bring him into the folds of New York society. Though the temptation is great, Lily initially refuses. (She does consent later in the film, however, only to be rejected by him.) In the novel, Wharton sketches Rosedale as a repugnant man. I do believe that Davies toned down this character for the film, for LaPaglia, while excellent in the role, is not nearly as repulsive as the character demands.

Stoltz’s Selden is more ambiguous of a character. Of course, it is clear from Wharton’s novel (and Davies’ reading of it) that men—even not exceedingly wealthy bachelors like Selden—have a greater amount of mobility and freedom than women do. They need not be as concerned with artifice, though they are still a part of the hypocrisy in society. Throughout the film, Selden is aware that Lily will never consent to marry him, even after she falls from the graces of society and suffers the betrayal of her friends. It is Selden’s acknowledgment of her need for things external and his acceptance of his social inferiority that adds elements of the tragic to his character.

The House of Mirth, as suggested by the title, is a film about a human-constructed structure—New York society—that seems to be whimsical and delightful. Of course, as Lily begins her spiral down into obscurity, her world is anything but whimsical. She is a character who possesses the need to hold fast to her morals in a society that cares more for the appearance of morality than the undertakings of moral responsibility. Using this theme as a backdrop, Davies has made a subtle and quietly moving film—a rare thing in this genre. It is this remarkable subtlety that lends The House of Mirth its honest moments of tragedy and conflict, and its moments of grace and beauty.