The Bostonians: Directed by James Ivory; Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Ghabvala; Merchant-Ivory Production.
A popular film that is more than chewing gum for the mind is a rare treat, and a novel of power and poignancy, translated into a well-created film, is sheer bliss. The Bostonians is a love story about an archaic Southern man who falls in love with a beautiful feminist preacher who is simultaneously adored by her mentor, a rigid Back Bay feminist. It is no coincidence that Henry James selected a Southerner as his hero. For it is in this figure that James can portray the sensibilities of a feudal culture that still values romance and the felicities of courtship. In contrast stands the Massachusetts revolutionist whose cause is rooted only in modernism.
James offered a counterrevolutionary, commonsense plea for romance rather than war between the sexes and for the reassertion of individual will over redemptive causes. Although James recognized full well the lengths feminists would eventually reach in ventilating their ideological fervor, he was fur more interested in the degradation of the human spirit through the revolutionary deed.
James was ahead of his time in diagnosing the ills of a nation of long-haired men and short-haired women.” The older feminist who acts as the “teacher” will go to any extreme to maneuver her naive soulmate ever more deeply into the pit of outrage. James’s novel could be about any modern revolution where the faces in the crowd and the populist rhetoric are indistinguishable.
In the James Ivory film the feminist “teacher” (played by Vanessa Redgrave) has woven her future into the cause. Like any revolutionary, she is not interested in or even aware of what is natural. Nothing exists for her apart from what can be molded and shaped. People especially her young pupil-are clay to be molded into the plinth for a new social edifice.
Time and again this story has been told as tradition is tom from the past by the revolutionary who uses indignation as a tool for “reconstruction.” The word speaks volumes about the revolutionary’s true goals: destroy before you rebuild; make the new world a tabula rasa on which you print your own unique message. A feminist cannot admit biological differences when her passion is equality. The political revolutionary cannot admit to justifiable class difference when distinctions are considered an enemy of the people. The revolutionary believes he can rewrite the past to his own specifications. But for the rest of us this vision evokes painful memories of Auschwitz, Kampuchea, the Gulag, the Stalinist trials, and all other systematic efforts to recast the human spirit into a slave of the new social order.
Unfortunately for the film, no role that Vanessa Redgrave regards as her “most important” could entirely be true to Henry James. In the last scene, Ms. Ghabvala, the screenplay writer, at tempts to recast the teacher into a sympathetic character. Faced with an angry audience that has paid to hear her inspired, but now departed, student speak, Ms. Redgrave goes to the podium -and after several halting starts delivers an impassioned plea for feminism. This is a triumphant ending to what should have been a dismal and complete defeat In Hollywood feminism is as close to a religion as we get. This gratuitous finale is hardly surprising. However, even with this fabricated ending the Jamesian message emerges- a lesson for revolutionaries who dismiss the past and become, consciously or not, the architects of social hell. The revolutionary is provided an excuse for destruction and an invitation to nihilism. Those who made The Bostonians into a film may have their own social agenda, but even they couldn’t completely vitiate the universality of the Jamesian saga.