The Merchant-Ivory film Maurice was released in 1987, a mere 16 years after the publication of the novel on which it was based. The writer, EM Forster, had finished writing the novel in 1913, but took no interest in publishing the work. It was finally published after his death in 1970.
The reason for Forster’s squeamishness was the novel’s subject matter: the struggle of a middle class English man with homosexuality. Maurice Hall is a fatherless boy who grows up with his mother and two sisters, attends the best schools and Cambridge, and becomes a stock broker. At a time when homosexuality was still a crime in England – the novel alludes on more than one occasion to Oscar Wilde’s trial – Forster presents Maurice’s condition as tragic but ultimately redemptive.
Maurice and another Cambridge student, Clive Durham, fall in love and spend a blissful three years in one another’s company until Clive decides to marry and live the “proper” life. This unhinges Maurice who undergoes abundant grief, tries to “cure” himself, and ultimately finds love in a gamekeeper, Alec Scudder.
In the film version, directed by James Ivory, James Wilby plays Maurice, Hugh Grant Clive, and Rupert Graves Scudder. As with most Merchant-Ivory films set at the turn of the century, Maurice explores a genteel British aristocracy that is only gingerly aware of its imminent demise. This is particularly true for Clive, who owns a giant estate in Penge, and is being groomed to become a politician like his late father.
The screenplay was written by Kit Hesketh-Harvey who, for the purposes of cinema, left out much of the philosophy underpinning the novel. As a modernist, Forster gives the reader rich insights into his characters’ motivations. This is especially the case with Maurice, whose initiation into same-sex love is triggered by Clive’s open wooing of him.
The novel devotes a substantial part to the two men’s Cambridge years, where Maurice loses his faith and discovers his sexuality not just in the arms of Clive but in the words of the Greeks, especially Plato. The university as a place for unexplored ideas is a seductive theme that the novel amply reproduces.
Much of this is greatly condensed in the film, so that Wilby’s Maurice can come across as a bumbling fool who cannot reconcile his Christian faith with his latent desires. It is perhaps silly to expect an interior medium like the novel to translate faithfully to the screen, but the richness of Forster’s descriptions sits uneasily with a medium that can only be driven by plot.
This is particularly annoying when the pruning is overdone. By the novel’s end, Maurice has suffered such soul-crushing loneliness that his caution at cavorting with a gamekeeper must bleed into his desire for companionship. A misunderstanding over Scudder’s intentions ensues between Maurice and him in the London museum.
In the book this is resolved with the sort of violent emotional intensity that is deservedly cathartic. In the film, however, the bad blood is explored only on the surface, giving no allowance to Maurice’s twisted feelings and leaching the scene of poignancy.
On the other hand, there is also the liberty that the screenwriter has taken with events in the novel, a necessity borne out of its weaknesses. Clive undergoes a sudden transformation during a vacation in Greece from where he returns determined to marry. For a novel that issues lucid depictions of its characters’ inner lives, this change of heart seems forced, certainly in light of what Clive and Maurice share.
The film takes a more straightforward approach. Risley, a Cambridge acquaintance of Clive and Maurice, gets arrested on charges of “gross indecency”, the same law that sent Wilde to jail. Clive is shown to turn irredeemably after this event, and Grant has several scenes that encapsulate the ruinous effects on Clive of the scandal that Risley is caught up in.
Indeed, there are some things only the moving image can achieve. In the book, Clive’s revelation of his plan to break up with Maurice is a tragic scene, but not one that is unexpected, given Forster’s detailed build-up.
In the film, however, the scene guts the unaware viewer. Wilby’s passionate “I am done for” captures a painful intensity rarely reached otherwise.
Ultimately, the book and the film work as complements. The book is an expansive look into the moral and social codes that kept homosexuality beyond the pale. It is a brilliant dive into the private torments of a class of people whose lives were marked by shame. The happy ending is a benediction that, while unreal, seems only justified.
The film has its own successes, narrating a gay love story that crosses barriers of class and time while refraining from all sentimentality. It shares this quality with Forster’s book, whose clear-eyed prose gives the subject matter greater heft.
The Merchant-Ivory team made many other films, all capturing, with a sureness of touch, the inspirations and impulses of English society. Yet, Maurice remains a seminal work, a brave precursor to imminent social and cinematic revolutions.
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