What’s in a Passage?: David Lean’s Interpretation of E. M. Forster’s A PASSAGE TO INDIA
15 July 2012
It is fascinating when a film adapts a piece of complex, dexterous literature. Even though film adaptations of literature are now (and always have been) a dime a dozen, the adaptation of a narrative from one medium to another is an interesting translation to ponder. How will the plot change to serve the needs of film viewers, as opposed to a literary audience? Will the director attempt to uphold textual ambiguities, or will he/she assert a distinct interpretation(s)? Will anything be added to the film that was not in the text? Will anything be removed? How can the film communicate the same thematic and emotional qualities with its own cinematic devices? Will the film be well received?
In 1984, David Lean adapted E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, originally published by the novelist in 1924. This particular adaptation is interesting for many reasons, among them being Lean’s interpretation of Forster’s text. As the credits role at the start of the film, the first tile reads, “David Lean’s film of” and the second reads “A Passage to India by E. M. Foster” (size adjusted intentionally), noting this film is not Forster’s Passage; this cinematic Passage, for which Lean wrote the screenplay, is all Lean’s.
Briefly, A Passage to India follows English-born Adela Quested (Judy Davis) in India, where she traveled with the elderly Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), whose son, Ronny (Nigel Havers), Adela hopes to marry. However, once in India, Adela’s marital hopes dwindle as Ronny, who is a British magistrate, is constantly consumed with work and seems rather disinterested in her. Desperate to see “the real” India, Adela and Mrs. Moore arrange an outing with Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), a local Indian physician, to the Marabar Caves. Even though it’s controversial for an Indian man to lead two British women on a sightseeing tour, Dr. Aziz’s kind spirit and upstanding reputation suggests he is a trustworthy leader. While on this expedition, the heat becomes too much for the elderly Mrs. Moore, so Adela and Dr. Aziz continue exploring the caves alone. Trouble arises when Aziz and Adela separate and Adela finds herself alone in one of the caves. As Aziz searches for her, Adela’s built up sexual repression erupts into a sexual awakening, which terrifies her. She dashes out of the cave and down the steep slope of the mountainside, and Aziz, confused, catches sight of the fleeing Adela jump into a passing car and drive off. When everyone returns from the expedition, Aziz is arrested for attempted rape. Because Adela is a well-to-do British woman, and Aziz a local Indian in British infested India, Aziz’s trial is treated less than fairly, until Adela takes the stand and must decide whether to tell the truth about what happened in the Marabar Caves or have Aziz imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
Sexual awakening is a major theme in Forster’s novel, explored primarily through the character of Adela; however, it is not discussed explicitly because of strict publication policy during the early 1900s. Nevertheless, Lean was not bound to the same strict policy in the early 1980s. Therefore, one of the things Lean added to ”David Lean’s film of A Passage to India” is a five-minute sequence highlighting Adela’s brewing sexual awakening prior to her visit to the Marabar Caves.
Venturing off all alone, Lean films Adela on a bike ride shortly after arriving in India. During her excursion she encounters a deserted crossroads sign, in the shape of a cross, on a dirt road. Adela heads away from this sign, leaving the cross behind her as she enters the ruins of a temple. Peddling through high grass, Adela comes upon statute after statue, until she reaches the temple itself. At the temple the statues depict sexual encounters between men and women, which fascinate Adela. Interrupting her gaze, a group of wild monkeys residing atop the temple spot Adela and chase her from the temple’s ruins. She peddles feverishly back to her home, promoting Ronny to ask if she is alright. Disheveled and shaken, Adela tells Ronny she made a mistake in thinking she and he shouldn’t be married. Obviously aroused by the temple ruins, she grabs hold of Ronny and tells him she wants to marry him after all, regardless of his evident disinterest in her.
Lean’s decision to include this scene heightens the sexual stirring present in Adela prior to her visit to the cave. This scene foreshadows, and, in turn, makes the film’s conflict more powerful. Additionally, the scene helps Adela’s character development. The cross symbol (crossroads sign) represents Adela’s English upbringing. Her decision to peddle away from that cross signifies her strong curiosity and widening distance from that upbringing. The scene makes it very clear to the audience that Adela is sexually inexperienced, confused, and fearful, yet intrigued. Also, this scene helps Lean build tension, and, retrospectively, makes Adela’s experience in the Marabar Cave more understandable to viewers.
Adding this sequence is, by far, not the only change Lean made in his film version of A Passage to India. Lean also excluded a good amount of Forster’s narrative for the film. The most interesting of Lean’s exclusions revolve around Aziz. The novel’s Aziz is less wholesome and perfected than the film’s version. For example, in the novel, when Aziz cannot find Adela at the Marabar Caves, he punches an Indian guide who is with the party. Evident by this outburst, the novel’s Aziz has a violent streak and is prone to bouts of anger. Lean excludes this altercation in the film.
Moreover, at an earlier point in the novel, when Aziz happens upon Mrs. Moore sitting in a sacred mosque, he yells at her furiously for what he assumes is her ignorance to his culture by entering a sacred mosque with her shoes on. Aziz does not realize Mrs. Moore is well-versed in the culture and has removed her shoes before entering. In the film, Aziz never yells at Mrs. Moore, and their exchange in the mosque is romanticized through soft lighting.
Lastly, the novel explores Aziz’s hypocrisy, which the film almost entirely removes. In the novel, Aziz strongly resents the British intrusion in India. He feels he is a stranger in his own land who is treated like a second-rate citizen. However, the novel also discusses Aziz’s relationship with his deceased wife. Aziz felt superior to his wife because she was a woman, and treated her like second-rate. Aziz is angered by the intrusion of the British into his culture because he and his culture are not treated as equal to the British and their culture, but cannot recognize how his own culture does not treat all people equally, namely its women. The film avoids Aziz’s hypocrisy by showing other Indian men’s irritation with the British, but downplaying Aziz’s greatly. Also, when Aziz does mention his wife, there is not a trace of misogyny.
Even though the novel’s Aziz is a flawed character, he is still likeable. In fact, his flaws make him dynamic, which makes him relatable to the audience. Lean’s Aziz is static. He is too perfect a character; he does everything right and is consistently the victim of circumstances far beyond his control. When Lean ventured away from the novel to include the scene of Adela’s bike ride it worked in his favor, but simplifying characters, such as Aziz, to make them fit stock “good” and “bad” characters works against him.
Static characters are Lean’s A Passage to India’s biggest flaw. It is not just Aziz; Fielding (James Fox), Mrs. Moore, Ronny, and Professor Narayan Godbole are all static. Yet, A Passage to India is not a poor film. Clearly, Lean worked diligently on the adaptation, and used his keen eye and attention to detail in creating a rich visual spectacle conveying meaning that aligns with the thematics of Forster’s novel.