The early 1980s saw a renewed interest by the British in poking at their own contentious past in India, resulting in a series of different historical costume movies and TV series. There was Gandhi (1982), Heat and Dust (1983), The Far Pavilions (1984), The Jewel in the Crown (1984), and A Passage to India (1984). The later was also the first of E.M. Forster’s novels to be adapted for film and was followed by A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991), and Howards End (1992).
Forster died in 1970 and had resisted having his works adapted during his lifetime. He allowed Indian author Santha Rama Rau to adapt A Passage to India for the stage in 1957 but refused any film adaptions because he wanted to preserve the ambiguity of actually what happens in the Marabar Caves. Forster preferred allowing the reader to make their own judgement between the Indians and the British. Forster left the rights to his novels to King’s College, Cambridge, after his death, and they continued to refuse all requests and offers to make this book into a movie. Even Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were turned down. It wasn’t until 1980 that a new provost came in and was able to make a deal with Lord Brabourne, who had been seeking rights to the film for 20 years, as producer. He chose David Lean as director. They were supposed to use Santha Rama Rau’s stage script, but Lean imperiously deemed it “amateur” and rewrote it himself.
The result is definitely more cinematic, taking advantage of India’s dramatic landscapes with David Lean’s well-known flair. But while the film makes it more clear about what happens in those caves and supposedly makes the British seem like the bad guys, the film still is about the British perception of what this means and how this affects the British people, not the Indians. As one blog post notes, the film starts and ends in England, while the book starts and ends in India. Of course, the novel is written by a Brit from a British point of view, but Forster was more careful than Lean to veil the concrete meanings and allow for layered understandings (perhaps living as a closeted homosexual in a repressive society made that second nature to Forster?). The film version has broad visuals on its side and does preserve a great deal of Forster’s witty dialog, performed by excellent actors. But something is lost in translation.
What do you think of A Passage to India?