Harry Guerin talks to Oscar and Booker Prize winning author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala about her script for the adaptation of Henry James' novel 'The Golden Bowl'.
Harry Guerin: Tell me about the first time you read 'The Golden Bowl'
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: I was about 25. It took my breath away – as it still does. Every time I read it, I feel 'could this be? Can a novel reach such heights?'
HG: You've adapted two James novels – 'The Europeans' and 'The Bostonians' – in the past. What were your feelings about working on a third?
RPJ: I always wanted to do one of the great and so called difficult novels of James' last period.
HG: Were you heavily involved with the pre-production process on the film?
RPJ: I never really have anything to do with the pre-production or production process. I do know that is took all Ismail Merchant's skill and effort to raise the money – people were not willing to invest in such a complex and difficult classical novel. Production of the script for me means doing a lot of reading in and around the period, the author, his other novels etc. Then I write a whole lot of drafts and I hand the first one over to James Ivory. Then I'm out of it until he has a rough cut, at which time I spend some weeks in the editing room, helping to tighten and strengthen the story.
HG: 'The Golden Bowl' has been described as James' most complex and ambiguous novel. What challenges did you face in preparing the script? I believe you described the experience as "the nicest and hardest" of all the James adaptations?
RPJ: The greatest challenge was to translate the subjective movings and conjectures of the characters about one another into objective scenes with one another. No one in the book knows what the others are doing or thinking. It's all guess work for them, and so in adapting it was largely guess work for me too, complicated by the fact that they are all busy lying to each other.
HG: How did the experience differ from your work on 'The Europeans' and 'The Bostonians'?
RPJ: In the other two novels, the scenes are actually there. But as I said, in 'The Golden Bowl' you have to extract them out of the minds of the characters and then build them up out of hints and guesses.
HG: When 'The Golden Bowl' was adapted by the BBC in the 1970s there were six 45-minute episodes, was it difficult to 'house' the story within a shorter film format?
RPJ: No, one accepts the format and takes pleasure out of fitting oneself into it. It's like working on a sonnet - you want to keep within 14 lines and don't hanker to extend them.