The novels of Edith Wharton, though all written over 100 years ago, are in the midst of a cultural resurgence: HBO’s buzzy The Gilded Age, while not directly based on her work, is aesthetically and thematically indebted to Wharton, and series based on The Custom of the Country (directed by Sofia Coppola) and The Buccaneers are reported to be upcoming on Apple TV+.
The usage of Wharton’s novels as grist for the content mill is unsurprising, given the hallmarks of her work: Her preoccupation with the upper-crust denizens of 19th-century New York allows for lavish period detail, and her novels’ razor-sharp social critique can lend intrigue and contemporary relevance. Quippy period pieces and soapy rich people antics have been hugely popular in the past few years, and one can see how a streaming executive might look to a Wharton novel for the best of both worlds.
Yet adaptation does not always entail respect or interest in source material. In Wharton’s case, I worry that the psychological insight, anthropological detail, and complex characterizations inherent to her work will be ignored in favor of shallow drama and extravagant hats. This has already happened on The Gilded Age, from Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes: In its first season, having assembled a massive cast of Emmy- and Tony-winners and placing them in an airbrushed 1890s Manhattan, Fellowes gave each character an easily identifiable Whartonesque archetype (imperious matriarch, new-money tycoon, glamorous social climber) and engineered a series of neatly resolved conflicts between them.
I appreciate the escapism of The Gilded Age, but it’s a comfort watch that riffs on material that is fundamentally discomforting. I don’t know what will come of The Buccaneers, The Custom of the Country, or any other as-yet-unknown Wharton-inspired projects, but I do know that, artistically speaking, The Gilded Age sets a disconcerting precedent.
An ideal model for adapting Edith Wharton may be Terence Davies’s The House of Mirth, a 2000 release that’s dishearteningly difficult to find, given its lack of availability on streaming. After I finished reading Mirth several months ago, I tracked down a copy of an out-of-print DVD on eBay. What I saw was both an incisive work of literary adaptation that transmitted the core truths and stylistic hallmarks of Wharton’s novel, and a singular work of cinematic art that manages to be both classical and experimental in form.
This combination of deep attention to the content of Wharton’s novel and commitment to the unique possibilities of film is a rare alchemy, yet it’s vitally important for literary adaptations. While some creators mine works of literature for parts and dilute the source material (or, alternatively, adapt literary work without a cinematic point of view), Davies uses his own distinct aesthetics to illuminate and expand upon Wharton’s work.
A satirical novel of manners that devolves into abject tragedy, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, was Wharton’s first major novel. Born into wealth, Wharton was married and living in Massachusetts at the time of Mirth’s publication, and had previously been an active participant in moneyed New York society. Mirth is a missive from this society, a novel which initially jabs at the ineffectual characters populating its narrative (protagonist Lily Bart’s acquaintances the Wetheralls are described as “human automata,” and her Aunt Julia is “one of the episodical persons who form the padding of life”), and ultimately condemns the deadly harm that their arbitrary social norms cause.
In Lily Bart, Wharton constructs the perfect victim. Lily is a beautiful woman with dwindling funds and expensive taste, who wants to marry into wealth to secure her social status but shies away from the offers she receives. She makes a series of fatal errors: She rejects wealthy suitors while also rejecting a poorer life with the man she loves, misconstrues her friends’ self-motivated machinations as acts of generosity, and refuses to compromise her morals in an amoral society, all of which lead her on a slow path to poverty and eventual death by a sleeping medication overdose. (Whether the overdose was accidental or purposeful is left ambiguous, as is the case in Davies’ film.)
Mirth was a canonized classic when Terence Davies elected to adapt it nearly 100 years after its publication, which made it a surprising choice given his previous work. Davies is a British filmmaker best known for a series of nonlinear, impressionistic memory films he made early in his career (Trilogy; Distant Voices, Still Lives; and The Long Day Closes), each of them closely based on his childhood and adolescence in 1950s Liverpool. His childhood was marked by physical abuse and the painful realization of his own homosexuality, yet also moments of joy and comfort within his family; in turn, the contradictions of his childhood influence the shifting tones and blurred memories of his films.
Quippy period pieces and soapy rich people antics have been hugely popular in the past few years, and one can see how a streaming executive might look to a Wharton novel for the best of both worlds.
The House of Mirth marked a significant departure for Davies, in form and in content. This was his second literary adaptation, following The Neon Bible, which he called “transitional” because he merged John Kennedy Toole’s novel with the aspects of his own childhood he had previously explored. With Mirth, Davies made a rigorously faithful adaptation, following Wharton’s novel almost beat by beat, save the combining of two supporting characters and the excision of a scene or two. Davies did not abandon his individual artistry to take on Mirth, though—rather, he repurposed his aesthetic strategies and thematic interests to animate Wharton’s story for the screen.
For one, Davies does not simply carry over the linear structure and tightly controlled pace from Wharton’s novel, but makes them a pointed aesthetic strategy, associating the encroaching horror of Lily’s (Gillian Anderson) dissolution with the slow march of time itself. In an interview with Michael Koresky, Davies described his preoccupations as “the nature of time, the nature of mortality, and the nature of the soul. And how small things, in memory and life, portray the greater truth.” While The House of Mirth is a hard pivot from his dreamlike, semi-autobiographical films, the heightened consciousness of time is felt just as acutely.
In Mirth, Davies typically uses a small repertoire of understated visual techniques (shot-reverse-shot editing, closeups, slow pans) that train focus on interactions between characters. When each scene transitions into the next, Davies uses a dissolve, visually inscribing the gradual flow of time. As Lily’s social station takes an incremental step down with each chapter of Wharton’s novel, the same occurs in Davies’ film. Each scene sees a small indignity or misfortune suffered by Lily, until the youthful energy she possesses early in the film has been completely snuffed out, leaving her exhausted and afraid.
The one exception to this methodical emphasis on linear temporality occurs about halfway through the film. Lily, who has just been on the losing side of several destructive conflicts and has inadvertently incurred thousands of dollars in debt, accepts an invitation from her manipulative acquaintance Bertha (Laura Linney) to join her in the Mediterranean for the summer. At this point in the novel, Wharton concludes Book 1, and opens Book 2 with Lily having been overseas for several weeks.
Instead of cutting ahead as Wharton does, Davies includes an abstract, atmospheric transition that illustrates his interest in the passage of time. The camera floats through Aunt Julia’s (Eleanor Bron) house, where Lily has been living, and which has now been deserted for the summer. The camera then drifts to a rained-upon pond in the house’s yard, which gradually transitions into the sun-dappled Atlantic Ocean and reveals the shore of Monte Carlo.
What Terence Davies does with The House of Mirth is an act of focused, passionate adaptation.
This scene, absent of character or events, has no bearing on the plot, but it deepens and reveals the story. Lingering on a neglected house before turning toward an indifferent, ceaselessly changing natural world, we’re left to ponder Lily’s fate at a crux in the narrative. Koresky notes in his book Terence Davies that this “eloquent bit of time travel has only served to reaffirm Lily’s entrapment”—rather than make an escape, the slow pull toward Monte Carlo illustrates that Lily is confined to the same cage, even across the Atlantic. (Notably, another turning point in her downfall occurs when Bertha uses her as a pawn to salvage her own reputation, leaving Lily even more isolated than before.)
When the camera finally returns to Lily, dozing off on Bertha’s yacht, it’s clear that her strongest desires and visions for her future have been pulled away by time, as she herself slips into increasing passivity, dependence, and misfortune. By pulling away from Lily and inserting a scene that depicts the passage of time itself, Davies places the inexorability of her fate in starker relief. Despite this scene’s absence in the novel, it encapsulates why The House of Mirth is such a successful adaptation: Through visual techniques that can only be accomplished on film, Davies gives weight and depth to the narrative as effectively as Wharton does through language.
It should be noted that Gillian Anderson’s role is equal to Davies’ in illustrating Lily’s trajectory. Davies’ decision to cast Anderson was partially aesthetically based, as he first noticed her for resembling the subjects of John Singer Sargent’s portraiture. As such, the film can be read as an extended portrait of Anderson: She is frequently in close-up, we see her face from every possible angle, and the responsibility of communicating Lily’s inner life that has necessarily been made subtext in the film falls on her.
Anderson is adept at transmitting both the social performance that Lily puts on and the inner self lying underneath it: In her first appearance, we see her dark silhouette approach Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), revealing a bright, smirking face covered by a lace veil. Her voice takes on a shimmering edge, which is elegant on the surface but suggests the effort behind Lily’s social persona. At the film’s outset, Anderson projects strength, happiness, and confident femininity, and emphasizes the performance just enough that we know it is, in fact, a performance.
When Lily feels uncertain, Anderson allows the mask to fall just a touch, a frown flickering across her face, but quickly retrieves her focus. The balance between Lily’s emotions and projected identity shift as her circumstances grow more unstable. As the film inches toward Lily’s final fate, Anderson’s face grows noticeably weaker: Her pale skin becomes pallid, her focused gaze vacant, her poised features sagging. In her final conversation with Lawrence, the man she loves but would not marry, the mask falls completely as she unleashes agonized sobs about what a “useless person” she is.
What Anderson achieves in her performance (and Davies in his guidance and framing of it) is subjectivity. Literature is adept at portraying an individual’s subjectivity, since it can liberally share a person’s thoughts and feelings through language; cinema is conversely poor at it because the medium thrives on images and surfaces. A common workaround to this problem in literary adaptations is voiceover narration (such as Martin Scorsese did in his own Wharton adaptation, The Age of Innocence). Davies and Anderson take subtler yet equally effective approaches: Through Anderson’s rigorous approach to subtext, and Davies’ commitment to keeping Lily as the focal point of nearly every scene, Lily’s inner life becomes as nuanced and complex as in Wharton’s novel.
When we dread what will happen to Lily, we place ourselves in the shoes of someone who has been rejected by the dominant culture.
This laser focus on Lily’s inner life comes somewhat at the expense of Wharton’s broader social critique. In Mirth, Wharton creates detailed, often brutal illustrations of moneyed New York’s denizens, and takes the time to describe their histories, personalities, and social standing. The societal portrait Wharton paints runs alongside her portrait of Lily Bart—both equally important, and both needed to express her critique of this rarefied society as superficial, hypocritical, and cruel.
Davies’ adaptation is decades more removed from the height of Old New York than Wharton’s novel, and the pointed criticisms of the individuals that populate it are of less interest to him than Lily’s personal experience on the receiving end of their judgment. Two hallmarks of Davies’ films are their heightened degree of subjectivity and their focus on social outsiders—for example, The Long Day Closes centers a pre-adolescent boy’s impressions of life in 1950s Liverpool, and his separateness from his community because of his burgeoning queerness.
While The Long Day Closes hews closely to Davies’ own upbringing, and The House of Mirth centers a time and place unknown to him, Davies locates the same level of subjective experience and pain in Mirth. Rather than explain who each character is, Davies allows them to enter into Lily’s life with little exposition, and shows their tangible and emotional effects on Lily’s life through their encounters with her. Many scenes in The House of Mirth are conversations between Lily and an acquaintance, and they’re frequently power struggles that end with Lily on the losing end. These scenes reveal both the frequently malicious intentions of her social circle and the anxiety that their manipulations and rejections cause in Lily. Every time Lily loses an argument or is condemned for a perceived transgression, we see her descending social standing written on her face.
Davies’ interest in the peripheral characters of Mirth may be less than Wharton’s, but in his proportionately greater interest in Lily’s inability to meet their standards, Davies intensifies Wharton’s critique. If the satirical jabs of Wharton’s novel occasionally give it the quality of a dark comedy of manners, then Davies’ excision of them creates a slow burn “horror film” (in Koresky’s words), as Lily’s ultimate rejection and isolation create an unease that slides into terror. Davies’s fostering of this dread-soaked tone brings out the darker shades of Wharton’s novel, and crucially continues his project of centering social outsiders: When we dread what will happen to Lily, we place ourselves in the shoes of someone who has been rejected by the dominant culture. By the film’s end, we have identified with Lily, been anxious for her, and have grieved for her—the results of Davies’ clear empathy for her, and his intention that his audience feel the same. His accomplishment builds upon Wharton’s moral tragedy, and creates a heightened emotional immediacy unique to cinematic art.
What Terence Davies does with The House of Mirth is an act of focused, passionate adaptation. Locating his own interests that he could highlight from the source material, while paying close attention to Wharton’s intentions and techniques, Davies created a singular film—a tense, visually hypnotic psychological portrait that leads the audience to identify and empathize with its heroine. A poor adaptation full of artistic compromises can be a dilution of both the director’s and the author’s craft, but The House of Mirth captures what I love about both Terence Davies’ and Edith Wharton’s work, and highlights the surprising commonalities between them. The House of Mirth should be held as a model not only for adapting Wharton—an author whose works’ complexities are so easily smoothed over with period detail and superficial drama—but for adapting any work of literature.