Reading Henry James’ novel What Maisie Knew is like staring at a Magic Eye image and patiently waiting for something knowable to emerge from the patterns. James’ sentences are exceptionally long, the meanings of which are often delayed by incidental descriptions and cordoned off with multiple commas. Many believe this complicated prose style of James’ later years was the result of switching from writing to dictation after his wrist became rheumy.
Believing it would make me smarter, I persisted with What Maisie Knew. As I forged into the archaic maze, a rhythm of speech emerged and eventually, I felt as though I was wandering through the scenes of a small girl’s childhood with James himself leading the tour. He’s an articulate guide, sometimes gossipy and inappropriately wry, yet profoundly wise, showing how Maisie’s fledgling consciousness is forced into maturity following her parents’ ugly divorce.
Throughout the book, Maisie’s parents Beale and Ida are vain, self-absorbed creatures, and she ends up under the supervision of a parade of strangers, nannies and step-parents, with no one place to call home. Her parents’ new spouses – Sir Claude for Ida, Miss Overmore for Beale – find their budding marriages to be less than satisfactory. After they fall in lust with each other, Sir Claude and Miss Overmore try to get custody of Maisie. The girl has a passionate crush on the charming Sir Claude, who is attentive but sleazy and weak. She shares this love for her stepfather with her peculiar governess, Mrs Wix, a faded, sad-sack of a woman who lost her own daughter under a hansom cab. Mrs Wix is the only adult looking out for her, but in the end Maisie is drawn in by the games of the beautiful and selfish.
It follows that adapting James’ complex narration of Maisie’s responses to the immoral adults in her life would be a significant challenge. Voice-overs in cinema can be interminably obvious and lazy, and only actors skilled in tongue twisting could orate James’ literary voice to good effect. Shooting an entire film through a kid’s perspective is also precarious, not just because casting is difficult, and the welfare hoops for children on film sets plentiful, but the creative task of how to capture a child’s worldview is tricky.
The recently released adaptation What Maisie Knew is made by directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and screenwriters Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne. Cartwright was inspired by his own ugly custody battle for his daughter, whom he observed closely during his divorce, with the idea of adapting the novel. Like the book, Maisie is at the centre of the drama and the filmmakers do a visually competent job of seeing the world – that of affluent Manhattan rather than the novel’s late Victorian London – through her bleary eyes, which are mostly looking at expensive toys and high-end apartment furnishings as they flutter to sleep.
While six-year-old Maisie’s vulnerability and innocence are endearingly expressed in the baby-like face and gangly awkwardness of actress Onata Aprile, the adaptation ends there. The film abandons some of the crueller elements of James’ story, namely the fact that Maisie’s parents don’t love her. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan do a great job of portraying self-involved, absent parents, but they are far more sympathetic than James allows. Ultimately, the viewer is asked to forgive Maisie’s parents for their narcissism and dysfunction. Moore is good, however, instilling some of Ida’s angry beauty in her performance:
‘…her violent splendour, the wonderful colour of her lips and even the hard stare, the stare of some gorgeous idol described in a story-book.’
Mrs Wix is also done away with and merged into Maisie’s step-parents, Lincoln and Margo. There is a disconcerting scene in the film, in which Maisie is left alone one night and ends up sleeping at a stranger’s house. Just as the story goes somewhere with this spectre of the deserted child, Margo and Lincoln – young, kindly, beautiful blondes – come to her rescue and provide Maisie with easy comfort and an unlikely way out of her murky childhood.This ending feels like a weak retreat from the complicated relationships and acerbic wit of the novel. But the film’s most disappointing omission is Maisie’s emotional intelligence. The morally ambiguous journey of the literary Maisie is fascinating to behold; she is an incredibly clever, curious child who strives to understand the world better despite the slim pickings she’s got to work with. The cinematic Maisie, on the other hand, is a vague sketch of a sweet child who ends up with the good she deserves.
Ultimately, the film plays out like a perfectly nice, visually pleasing divorce drama dressed up with some New York lifestyle-porn, instead of an adaptation of what Henry James called the ‘epitaph for the tomb of Maisie’s childhood’. Watching it, I wished I hadn’t read the book beforehand.
Maggie Scott is a writer. There, she said it. She recently co-edited and contributed to Just Between Us, an anthology about female friendships published by Pan Macmillan. Maggie is also a film buff who loves spoilers. You can be spoiled at her blog, pictureskew.net.