A Room with A View by E. M. Forster, film adaptation (1986) directed by James Ivory. Reviewed by Craig Storti.
We got excited here at BookMarks a few months back when we featured our first movie review. So this month we decided we’d have the best of both worlds and review a book that was made into a movie: A Room with A View, by E. M. Forster, the film directed by James Ivory (with a screenplay, incidentally, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala whose novel, Esmond in India, was reviewed previously in this space.)
E. M. Forster almost certainly did not know about the intercultural field; in fact, it didn’t even exist in his day, although anthropology was probably around. That said, he wrote at least two novels that are close to intercultural classics; the other is A Passage to India (also made into a film). While Passage sounds like it should be especially cross-cultural, and it is in many ways, to my mind Room, although set mostly in the UK, with a key early sequence in Italy, has even more to say about culture, especially about the impact of encountering a different culture on an individual’s personal growth.
The individual concerned here is one Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter in the film) who is engaged to the ever-so-staid, proper, buttoned-up Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) when she goes off to Florence with a stuffy chaperone (Maggie Smith) and where she meets and spends time with the Emersons, George (Julian Sands) and his father (Denholm Elliott), in the pension where they are all staying. Lucy and her chaperone had been promised a room with a view (across the river Arno), but they don’t get one, until they mention this fact at dinner, whereupon and the Emersons, who have such a room, offer to trade with the ladies. George Emerson, a passionate, romantic, rather un-English lad—he would have been a hippie if this were the 1960s—who also happens to be from not quite the right social class, George falls for Lucy even as Lucy falls under the spell of the vibrant, unrestrained, carefree Italian culture which is nothing short of a revelation to her.
A room with a view is a metaphor for a vision of and exposure to a wider world, and having had such a vision during her stay in Italy, Lucy goes back to England a changed woman. She has been prompted by her experience to examine herself for the first time, her feelings for Cecil and also her views of the social conventions of her time and her class. It has never occurred to her that she could live a different life if she chose to, that she could marry for love, for example, and even marry outside her class. None of which bodes well for poor Cecil.
That’s the set-up, after which the book and the film spin out the many consequences of Lucy’s personal, cultural, and emotional awakening, including the reactions of those around her, some of whom are delighted at who she has become (her own person) and not a few of whom are appalled. The book and the film alternate between passages of sheer hilarity and great poignance. A fine example of the latter is an especially touching scene in the film when the new Lucy breaks off her engagement to the uncomprehending Cecil, who until now has been presented mainly as a harmless and clueless fop, and then, in this scene, he suddenly becomes utterly sympathetic—a testament to Forster’s ability to draw multi-dimensional characters who you think you know until suddenly you don’t. For an example of hilarity, you need look no further than the scene when Lucy, her chaperone, the Emersons, and a visiting English prelate take a ride into the country in a carriage driven by a young Italian sitting next to a lovely maid to whom he pays much more attention than to his two horses. It’s scandalous.
No one deliberately sets out to write an “intercultural” novel—how boring that would be—but much of what is called expatriate fiction is necessarily intercultural, and Forster wrote the two mentioned in this review, as well as a third Where Angels Fear to Tread. While one of his two best-known novels, Howard’s End, is not intercultural, I have always thought that the celebrated, albeit enigmatic epigraph of that novel—Only connect—would do very nicely as a motto for the intercultural field. He may not realize it, but in A Room with A View Forster demonstrates very clearly that he’s one of us.
Be advised that there have been two film versions of A Room; this review refers to the 1986 film with an all-star cast, including those named above as well as Judi Dench, Rupert Graves, and Simon Callow. There is also an excellent 2007 film version, although many people of a certain age seem to prefer the earlier one.