The Age Of Innocence

The following was written some years ago.  The references to page numbers refer to an edition I can no longer remember, and I apologize for that.

Edith Wharton’s novel The Age Of Innocence is among the greatest novels in modern American Literary history, which finally gave a voice to a gender whose voice had been denied.  Wharton’s novel is both satirical and objective in its analysis of the social hierarchy of old New York.  It is this novel that filmmaker Martin Scorsese adapted to the screen in 1993.  Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence is as much a character study of Newland Archer as it is satire in the strictest sense of Dark Comedy.  This suggests that Scorsese, in adapting Wharton for the screen [with fellow screen writer Jay Cocks], has also re-interpreted the novel, manipulated and paraphrased the text so it may bare the fruit he so desires.  The real question is, what are the ramifications of a film adaptation?  How can Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence still claim the name of its original source?  If Scorsese’s film varies in themes from Wharton’s text, and therefore fulfilling a different purpose, it’s legitimacy, as an adaptation, may seem faulty.

From the very beginning of Scorsese’s film, the focus is Newland Archer.  He is first to appear, and it is from his box at the opera which Scorsese allows his audience to see the sequence unfold.  The audience’s empathy is immediately invested in Newland Archer, the audience also becomes aware or rather assumes that this is his story.  In Wharton’s text, the immediate assumption tends to be an objective social commentary.  The first two paragraphs deal exclusively with the societal goings on at the opera, best demonstrated in the opening paragraph of the book.

“On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”  [Wharton, page 3.]

Scorsese seems to bypass the significant action in the introductory pages of chapter one, simply allowing those menial events to play out almost unnoticed in the background of Newland Archer’s scene.  Where further, Wharton reinforces the notion that hers is a book about a society with no one central hero.   Wharton dutifully follows through with a sort of “background story” for each character, no matter how trifle, in her objective analysis of old New York.

“Lawrence Leffterts was, on the whole, the foremost authority on ‘form’ in New York.  He had probably devoted more time than any one else to the study of this intricate and fascinating question; but study alone could not account for his complete and easy competence.  One had only to look at him,” [Wharton, page 6-7]

Thus, from the start of Scorsese’s adaptation of Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence, he seems to be on a different page with a different purpose.

Even in Scorsese’s cinematic style he empowers the character of Newland Archer in a way uncharacteristic of the book.  Archer, in the novel, is a character Wharton seems to use as a ship on which she sails her reader through the complex world whose social scrutinies she so satirically sends up.  Scorsese’s empowerment seems, as such, ridiculous if to be a faithful adaptation of Wharton’s intentions, which as an adaptation it assumes to be.  Through out the film, and especially at the van der Luyden’s party for Countess Olenska, Scorsese permits Archer to lead the frame and in turn the audience.  This device implies that Archer moves the narrative, that his story is the focus, his is the important character, and that all of Wharton’s other characters are merely present to support and help to explore the character of Newland Archer.  This is graphic support of Scorsese’s infringement on the principals of adaptation.  In the same sequence, Scorsese and his cinematographer, Michael Balhaus (this was their second film together, the other being The Last Temptation Of Christ), provide numerous eye line matches for Newland Archer.  The audience is only permitted then, to look away from Newland Archer when he looks at a person or object out of frame that has some significance to his character.  Newland Archer, throughout all of the film, with little exception, is completely empowered with carrying the audience narrativly and empathetically; hence the film becomes Newland Archer.  Sorsese’s choice to deploy these cinematic devices the way he does simply reiterates his interest in the character of Newland Archer over the complete context and purpose of Wharton’s novel.

In contrast, when Wharton writes of the van der Luyden affair, she is skeptical and objective, all seeing and all critical.

“The dinner was a somewhat formidable business.  Dining with the van der Luydens was at best no light matter, and dining there with a Duke who was their cousin was almost a religious solemnity.” [Wharton, page 43]

Wharton does not immediately go to Newland Archer to paint the scene; her backdrop is a tongue in cheek analysis of the hosts, the van der Luydens.  Scorsese’s incorporation, and less illustrative interpretation, was a pan of a table at which the characters (not dissimilar to the moving camera shots of interiors in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) were seated, a pan whose direction followed Newland Archer’s gaze.  At this point, Wharton seems less concerned with her narrative, but rather her political meaning, for all social commentaries are political in nature.  These ‘commentaries’ [like the one cited above] have little ramifications in Scorsese’s film by contrast.  The same commentaries, when touched on in his film, emote from the Archer character by virtue of plot focus and the before mentioned shot design.  It would appear Scorsese has little of a political nature to say unless it is in direct confrontation with Newland Archer.

What political concern is apparent in Scorsese is Wharton’s theme of romantic and sexual suppression.  Scorsese illustrates this most effectively with the visual palette in the Coach Scene.  Here, Newland Archer removes the glove of his would-be mistress as they take a carriage ride from the train station to the Mignott house.  In slow motion with a warm tone to a slight under exposure, Scorsese and Balhaus collaborate to push the sexual tone further, while the suppression is read by the audience in the character’s facial expression (this sequence is only comparable to Balhaus’ cinematography for In A Year With 13 Moons, in so far as his filmography is concerned).  Scorsese’s political narrative is one of suppression, the sexual suppression of a by gone era.

Unlike Scorsese, Wharton’s notion of political commentary extends as far as to criticize the traditions brought about by the very virtues of the political landscape of the times.  She remains ever skeptical throughout her novel of its characters and their purpose.  She insists on second guessing her characters every step of the way.

“It was undoubtedly gratifying to be the husband of one of the handsomest and most popular young married women in New York, especially when she was also one of the sweetest-tempered and most reasonable wives; and Archer had never been insensible to such advantages.  As for the momentary madness, which had fallen upon him on the eve of his marriage, he had trained himself to regard it as the last of his discarded experiments.  The idea that he could ever, in his senses, have dreamed of marrying Countess Olenska had become almost unthinkable, and she remained in his memory simply as the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts”. [Wharton, page 145]

Wharton remains Archer’s skeptic, playing devil’s advocate as it were, undermining her reader’s expectation of an all too ordinary novel, which Scorsese seems to prefer.  The critical difference here is that Scorsese still harbors a naïve trust in the factious narrative and the role of the so-called hero, which Wharton quite readily rejects in her approach to The Age Of Innocence.  This in turn justifies or rather explains each artist’s take on tradition and its political ramifications.  One may assume that Scorsese perceives these traditions as a foil or plot device in the romantic story of Newland Archer.  While on the contrary, one may assume that Wharton uses the subversive effects on her characters induced by tradition to further dissect and criticize the society which her characters occupy.  Does Newland Archer not desire Countess Olenska simply because he cannot posses her, is that not the root of his obsession?

To propose that Scorsese uses the traditions and their subverting effects as romantic material through which Archer’s passions flourish may also propose an explanation for his treatment of the book in the second half of the film.  Scorsese’s approach to the romantic side of his ‘hero’ Newland Archer is a retro one, or maybe even an unsung homage.  This is most strikingly proven in the cinematography of the Pier sequence in which Archer watches Countess Olenska from the shore as a boat passes the lighthouse.  That shot is eerily similar to the harbor shots in Fassbinder’s final film Querelle, on which Xaver Schwarzenberger was the cinematographer.  Quoting another film that way has its implications, Querelle is, after all, a film about subverted sexuality in the classic melodramatic sense that so obsessed Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Can we, the audience, then assume that Scorsese is referencing that film and the sensations it emotes?  Is Scorsese suggesting that Jean Genet and Edith Wharton are both dealing with similar themes and similar heroes?  This is uncertain, but it’s a justifiable assumption given that the similarity between the two films extends further than just similarities in cinematography, but also to set design and special effects.  Both the sailboat in The Age Of Innocence and the steam ships in Querelle move in the same fashion as the  effects found in the dance films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger [whom Scorsese also admired and actually knew].  But Scorsese goes so far as to isolate these instances of heightened cinematography and ‘retro’ effects to what may be called glimpses into the mind of Newland Archer (a sensibility favored by the German Expressionist filmmakers).  These cinematic instances only occur when Archer is alone as the spectator in the before mentioned scene and at the end of the Boston sequence.  The audience is given an exceptional insight of Archer’s world in these sequences that no other character receives, which once again contradicts the nature and intentions of Wharton’s novel.  Scorsese quotes Fassbinder and Powell but only as privy insights into the mind of his hero, Newland Archer.

Scorsese is then making a film about one man’s journey through life employing the cinematic devices of his influences to tell that man’s story which unravels in Edith Wharton’s world of Old New York.  The basic plot is still the same, but the execution and the emphasis differ immensely.  Wharton seems concerned with a conservative political and traditional landscape no longer in existence, but wishes to scrutinize it thoroughly with the narrative as a device to do so.  While oppositely, Scorsese is interested in the individual, not the whole of a society, and will only permit a pin hole view of that society to the audience if his main character, by narrative inclination, allows it. Given what appears above, one may say that Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence is merely an interpretation (which perhaps all adaptations of novels to films are) of a novel called The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

-Robert Curry

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