EM Forster's 1910 novel Howards End is deceptively light and hurrying in tone. Beneath the rippling, bantering surface are complexities, ironies, deep problems of human society and spirit. The 1992 Merchant Ivory film, by contrast, has a rich, heavy grandeur in its telling but has in fact stripped out much of the depth and complication of the novel. I liked the film a lot, and I think on the whole the directorial decisions were wise. I can imagine it would have been rather messy had it tried to accommodate the novel's swirling contemplation of whole tracts of modernity. The central philosophical problems, experienced mostly in Meg's inward reflections, are merely skimmed: the dilemma of seeing life either steadily or whole, not both; the struggle to bring disparate parts of life and world together in a harmonious whole, embodied in the novel's persistent refrain: “only connect.” These lie too deep to trouble the film's gorgeous surfaces.
The novel's manifest aversion to motorcars, as one of modernity's avatars, has been entirely excised from the film, and along with it a crucial scene. On the way to Oniton for Evie's wedding, Margaret jumps out of a moving car and injures her hand. It's a key scene in the book's steady antipathy to motorised travel, but obviously out of place where that theme has been expunged. However, when we see Margaret at Oniton (Emma Thompson makes a delightful Meg) she has a bandage on her hand; a scene or two later, it's gone, without ever being explained: a mystery to anyone who doesn't know the book.
In fact I finished the film feeling that much of it had been more a homage to the book, or at least a continual respectful referencing of the book, rather than an adaptation. I wondered how much sense it would have made to someone who hadn't first read the book. They would no doubt have enjoyed the lavishly beautiful sets, costumes, photography, landscapes, and the fine acting of Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and even Helena Bonham Carter, who turns in a creditable Helen. But would the plot have been sufficiently illuminated, within the general brilliance of the film's lovely ambience? The whole film felt conscious of the ‘classic’ in whose service it was rendered. It took for granted the familiarity of its audience with Forster's world and preoccupations, and with his novel's status as self-evidently great. Such reverence is refreshing, where so many film adaptations seem to liberate themselves entirely from their source, but it was disconcerting to watch a film so clearly depedent on an external referent.
At the same time, as a devotee of the novel, I did find the film illuminating. I go back to the book a better reader having seen the film because it showed me patterns, connections, rhythms that I hadn't perceived before. The arrivals and departures on train platforms, the place of telegrams, letters and legal writs, the episodes of passionate abandon in outdoor places that mark Helen's passages in and out of polite society. The truncatory effect of the film condensed the novel's world so that I could see its connections, if not steadily, then whole.