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SATO Kazuki

Visualising ‘Barriers’ in the Film: Adaptation of E. M. Forster’s Maurice

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  • 1 See "Terminal Note," pp. 223 in the novel, where the author explains the ba...

1In his novels, E. M. Forster (1879–1970) describes many different people based on their class, gender, age, race, and nationality. Among his works is the novel Maurice (1971), a Bildungsroman that describes how an Englishman with the same sexual orientation as the author’s constructs his identity. Forster wrote it in the beginning of the 1910s and left instructions that it was to remain unpublished until his death. The main text of the novel does not specify the setting of the story, but Forster says that the story is set ‘about 1912’ (223)1, during the reign of George V. This accords with references in the novel by Maurice to Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) in a conversation and by the narrator to ‘the King’ (190). Through the ideal relationship with Clive, a friend at university who is an heir of gentry, and meeting with Alec, a gamekeeper of Clive’s estate, Maurice gradually discovers himself as an outsider and feels more positive about this status, presenting the gap between the homosexual as drifters and the heterosexual as the establishment. This novel was adapted into a film in 1987 by director James Ivory and screenwriter Kit Hesketh-Harvey. It is considered a heritage film that emphasises the time period with its historical setting and period costumes.

2This paper focuses on a timeless but inevitable question of adaptations : Does a newly inserted part in an adaptation compromise the fidelity to the original ? In this three-part paper, we advance the argument that the adaptation emphasises the motif of the gap between Maurice and the English heterosexual society.

3Part 1 poses the central problem in the paper, presenting the scene in the adaptation of Viscount Risley’s downfall which is absent in the original. In contrast to the novel, which allows readers to interpret Clive’s motivation to break up with Maurice in various ways, this episode, newly added to the film takes on an important role by suggesting that Risley’s loss of position is the main reason that Clive decides to reject Maurice. Earl G. Ingersoll comments that this episode is intended for the international audience of the 1980s, added merely as an explanation of the historical context in the beginning of the 20th century, when homosexuality was a crime (119).

4Part 2 addresses several parts of the original text and the film in order to show the characteristics of the narration in the novel and the difficulties in adaptation that result from them. At the same time, this part discusses the imagery of the ‘barrier’ presented by the narrator of the source text, specifically focusing on the narrator’s use of metaphor and imagery and his value judgement toward events in the story. This section then goes on to examine how the pictorial narrations are shifted or eliminated due to the difficulty of editing for the screen by the filmmakers.

5Part 3 re-evaluates the episode of Risley along with other newly inserted scenes at the end of the film, such as the one in Clive’s house where he and his butler close the windows. This part suggests that some of the insertions, no matter whether they are entirely new episodes or just new scenes added to pre-existing episodes, represent imaginative conflicts between the minority and the majority, using the imagery of a barrier. The film gives a different reason than does the source text to Clive’s changing his mind, but by doing so, the film illustrates the important barrier motif that is more hidden in the original.

Part 1

6This first part presents the central issue of this paper and references earlier criticism.

7Among the several differences from the original to the adaptation of Maurice, one of the most controversial is the addition of Lord Risley’s arrest, trial and sentence to hard labour due to his ‘immorality charge’. Risley, a former schoolmate of Maurice and Clive, is attracted to a member of the cavalry in a bar. Risley intends to have a sexual relationship with the cavalryman in the alley outside the bar but has not noticed that his companion is a stool pigeon of the police. The moment Risley attempts to kiss him, he gets captured. After his arrest, Risley directs a look of despair to the audience through the door of a black maria.

8This event is not unrelated to Clive and Maurice. Clive is especially shocked because he, like Risley, is landed gentry and a member of high society. He learns the news in the press, which he reads secretly. When Risley calls to Clive to petition for his defence, Clive refuses because of the social risk and because there is no hope of success in court.

9After the trial, Clive goes to court to hear the justice’s decision in the Risley matter. Exposed to public attention, the scandal impairs the dignity of the gentry, which has a responsibility as a role model for English people. The judge, referring to homosexuality as social degeneration and to Risley’s position in society, sentences him to six months of hard labour despite his high place in society and status in the political world. The judge’s criticism of Risley’s behaviour and his subsequent sentence of hard labour upsets Clive, who has the same sexual orientation as Risley. The film shows Clive’s closed, confused expression during the announcement. Afterwards, Risley, accompanied by security personnel, is sent into the dark, narrow and low-ceilinged downstairs. The shots of Risley going downstairs are filmed from above, dramatically representing his downfall.

10In the film there is no doubt that this event causes Clive to reject Maurice and to get married. After Risley’s shameful arrest and public punishment, Clive avoids being close to Maurice, especially during his own illness. When he falls down due to illness, Maurice kisses him and Clive cries. Maurice deals with Clive’s chamber pot despite Clive’s pleas for him not to. Maurice pledges to care for Clive, but Clive calls a nurse instead. Clive, later in his convalescence, takes trip to Greece, during which he never replies to Maurice’s letter. Back in England, Clive visits Maurice expressly to tell him that they should ‘change’ their relationship, referring to the social dangerousness of two men loving each other.

11In contrast to the film, the novel does not as clearly lay out why Clive breaks up with Maurice. In the novel, Clive settles the matter without a face-to-face conversation and instead writes a letter to Maurice from Greece : ‘Well, he [Clive] had written to Maurice at last. […] Maurice would get it as he was starting for his work. “Against my will I have become normal. I cannot help it.” The words had been written’. (101) Here, the narrator’s language is intentionally ambiguous and avoids Clive’s feelings and thoughts directly. In the novel Clive does not reply to Maurice’s letter, telling Maurice later that he is not going to love him any longer because of his ‘change in me [Clive] merely physical’ without any further explanation (111).

12The book does contain conflicts between Clive and Maurice that foreshadow the demise of their relationship : their difference of opinions about a nurse and the chamber pot in the film is in line with the source text (93) ; there is a conversation between Maurice and Clive about Clive’s marriage and heir to succeed to their house and estate (83) and the narrator suggests that there is a decisive difference between ideal ways for Maurice and that for Clive to love each other. (97).

13Ingersoll argues that such modifications in the process of adaptation are a compromise, which is settled after consulting with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the scriptwriter of A Room With A View (1985), this results from foreseeing the difficulty for young audience to understand the context.

14Arguing that the source text fails to explain what motivated Clive to get married, Ingersoll reasons :

The filmmakers were dealing with the differences between English culture a century ago and primarily American culture in the later twentieth century. Although Merchant-Ivory’s audiences might be puzzled by Clive Durham’s dramatic shift in sexual orientation, the exigencies of Clive’s position as a member of the country gentry would have been sufficient motivation for Forster’s contemporaries to accept his decision to avoid further contact with Maurice and accentuate his performance of heterosexuality. (119)

15Ingersoll stresses how it is difficult for North American audiences in the later 20th century to grasp the background of social status of gentlemen in the English society before WW1.

16As mentioned, there is a clear difference in Clive’s behaviour between the source text and the film : the novel depicts Clive’s motivation ambiguously and enables readers to interpret it in many ways, and in the film, Risley’s downfall and Clive’s explanation assimilate to form the reason. A similar technique is found in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining (1977) by Stephen King. Hatooka Keita argues, referring to Frederic Jameson’s essay on the film, that Kubrick focused on one of the elements suggested in the long novel, using the method of ‘condensation’ (Hatooka 126). Frederic Jameson affirms that Kubrick’s adaptation ‘takes on its power as an articulated and intelligible symbolic art’ (129) as follows :

For where the novel stages the ‘past’ as a babel of voices and an indistinct blast of dead lives from all the generations of historical inhabitants in the hotel’s history, Kubrick’s film foregrounds and isolates a single period [twenties], multiplying increasingly unified signals: tuxedoes, roadsters, hipflasks, slicked-down hair parted in the middle … (129; suspension points in original)

17It is possible to say that Ivory follows a similar method to Kubrick’s to condense the original text by inserting Risley’s scandal. Ingersoll opines that Ivory’s addition of the new episode is meant to restrict the interpretation and adapt the film for audiences living in the late 20th century. While Ingersoll stresses the cause of the change, this paper think the result from it : the new episode not only makes the film easy to understand but also reinforces and condenses the motif of the gap between the homosexual and the heterosexual. To pursue this thought further, the next part will examine illustrative examples from the film adaptation of Maurice. At the same time, it compares the film and the novel, focusing on the features of each medium.

Part 2

18The purpose of this part is to describe the characteristics of the narration of the novel Maurice and elucidate the problem in the adaptation related to these features of the narration. As June Perry Levine points out, the central function of the narrator of the source text is ‘that of a witness and guide in describing and analysing Maurice’s development from confusion to clarity’ (313). In the process, the narrator describes the ‘confusion’ in Maurice’s quest for identity. Maurice, in fact, wanders between the life expected of him as a heterosexual Englishman and the life of an antisocial homosexual. To depict this state of mind, the narrator uses metaphor and imagery rather than stating obvious facts, which arguably makes it difficult for the filmmakers to accurately portray Maurice onscreen. The imaginative conflict between the homosexual and the heterosexual that this paper focuses on is actually a by-product of the narrator’s metaphor and imagery and reflects the narrator’s attitude toward Maurice.

19As seen above, Maurice depicts an Englishman’s journey of self-discovery as a homosexual. The novel is narrated by an omniscient narrator and tells of Maurice’s struggle against society especially in the second half of the novel. Below is an excerpt from the novel, near the end, that suggests an imaginative conflict around England between the homosexual and the heterosexual :

They [Maurice and Alec] must live outside class, without relations or money; they must work and stick to each other till death. But England belonged to them. That, besides companionship, was their reward. Her air and sky were theirs, not timorous millions’ who own stuffy little boxes, but never their own souls. (212)

20This excerpt depicts the battle between the homosexual and the heterosexual for England, and it suggests that the winner is not the latter, stuck in a rigid social system, but the former, free to love. The fight they have is a metaphorical one, a motif that will appear later in various forms.

21In contrast, there is no part in the film that parallels these expressions in the novel. The omniscient narrator in the source text wields a great deal of influence on the reader’s value judgement. It is difficult to represent internal imagery of characters on screen without the help of a narrator. Addressing Maurice’s first appearance in the film as a student at Cambridge, Laurent Mellet hints at the difference between two media, ‘The camera sweeps around the room and turns Maurice into nothing more than part of the furniture, a mere prop. His first appearance as a grown-up reveals his commonness, which, along with his invisibility and blindness, is determinant in Forster’s characterisation’. (3632) As Mellet opines, Maurice is, so far, an invisible character with no specific personality or talent, which resembles other protagonists in Forster’s novels. The narrator of the source text hints at his ‘invisibility’, which is depicted in the adaptation by sweeping shots of the camera.

22The effect of the camera reflecting the narration can be seen not only in the protagonist’s appearance but also in other scenes. In the scene of a cricket game, the novel’s narrator reveals Maurice’s state of mind rather than describing the actions of the players :

His mind had cleared, and he felt that they were against the whole world, that not only the Mr Borenius and the field but the audience in the shed and all England were closing round the wickets. They played for the sake of each other and of their fragile relationship - if one fell the other would follow. They intended no harm to the world, but so long as it attacked they must punish, they must stand wary, then hit with full strength, they must show that when two are gathered together majorities shall not triumph. (178–79)

23Here the narrator concentrates not on the objective explanation of the scene but Maurice’s internal imagery of the game symbolising the conflict between the two of them and the others, the majority of society. He imagines that they fight against people who persecute the homosexual.

24The film presents this scene in a different way than the novel. The camera focuses not only on Maurice and Alec but also on the other players and the applauding spectators, thus portraying the other players and the spectators in the role of society and expressing the standoff both visually and aurally.

25This scene exemplifies strengths of both the written and cinematic versions : the novel succeeds at explaining events and feelings metaphorically, and the film can display the scene concretely.

26On the other hand, however, some of the important metaphors and imagery in the novel are ultimately eliminated in film adaptation due to difficulties in dealing with literary internal focalisation : ‘He was an outlaw in disguise. Perhaps among those who took to greenwood in old time there had been two men like himself - two. At times he entertained the dream. Two men can defy the world’. (118–19) Here the forest functions in Maurice’s imagination as a shelter in the fight against the majority of society ; this metaphor does not make it into the film adaptation.

27The narrator’s attitude toward the story is also difficult to adapt in film. An example of this is the narrator’s discussion of Maurice in his puberty in the first half of the novel, ‘He sank far below them now, for he was descending the Valley of the Shadow of Life. It lies between the lesser mountains and the greater, and without breathing its fogs no one can come through. He groped about in it longer than most boys’. (15)

28The narrator takes the phrase ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ from Psalm 23 of Bible and turns ‘death’ into ‘Life’, ironically commenting on the state of Maurice during public school days. At the same time, the narrator depicts ‘the valley’ as if in a picture, imagery that could confuse the audience if it were visualized literally.

29Among the metaphors and imagery used by the narrator, an especially important one is the imagery of a ‘barrier.’ This motif, in the story, is used to separate homosexuals and their opponents. An illustrative example is the scene in which Maurice walks in the central area of London :

[…] while beyond the barrier Maurice wandered, the wrong words on his lips and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air. (145)

[…] when he stopped outside the park, because the King and Queen were passing, he despised them at the moment he bared his head. It was as if the barrier that kept him from his fellows had taken another aspect. He was not afraid or ashamed any more. After all, the forests and the night were on his side, not theirs ; they, not he, were inside a ring fence. (190)

30In the text, the ‘barrier’ is what separates the homosexual and his opponents by shutting them on one side. The King and the Queen are implicational symbols of norm, authority, and heterosexual society as the opponents of Maurice and his comrade. ‘A ring fence’ would function in the same way as the "barrier." The language including words such as ‘the prison house’ (86), ‘the swing gate [...] against the freedom’ (166) and ‘the brown cube of such a room’ (169) are also suggestive of imprisonment, while the above-mentioned ‘greenwood’ represents shelter.

31The word ‘barrier’ and its synonyms are used by the narrator to reveal Maurice’s state of mind via the internal focalisation. The next section of this paper will further examine the barrier imagery to rethink of the meaning of the inclusion of Risley’s scandal in the film adaptation.

Part 3

32In adaptation studies, one of the most timeworn discussions concerns whether one should respect the fidelity to the original or the creativity of the adaptation. Ingersoll’s comment on the addition of Risley’s episode shows that he attaches great importance to fidelity to the source text and considers the addition a compromise. His argument is, in other words, that the film loses fidelity to the source text when it distorts the original story for commercial reasons. At the same time, Ingersoll does not acknowledge the artistic contribution that this modification may make. The final section of this paper reevaluates the problematic part of Risley’s scandal, relating it to the barrier imagery referred to in the previous section.

33We turn now to the inserted scenes of windows at the end of the film. After the last conversation between Clive and Maurice at Durham’s house, Clive enters the house and Simcox, the butler, closes the door and windows. Clive then repairs to his marital bedroom, where he also closes the windows. Just before closing the last window, he looks outside and experiences a hallucination of Maurice calling him from campus in their university days. This illusion of Maurice in the film is based on this description in the novel, ‘Out of some eternal Cambridge his [Clive’s] friend began beckoning to him, clothed in the sun, and shaking out the scents and sounds of the May Term’. (218) The imagery of two men closing the windows are not however found in the source text.

34Here, the windows function as ‘barriers’. As explained earlier, barrier imagery is used to represent the imaginative conflict between homosexuals and the majority of English society, not only in the source text but also in the film. At the same time, the motif of windows here reminds the audience of another scene of the film : in the anterior scene, windows serve as the way Alec gets into Maurice’s room in Pendersleigh.

35It should be noted that when the motif of windows is repeatedly used in these scenes, the character of the butler takes on a notable role. The film traces the tradition of heritage films describing the era of Pax Britannica when the gentry owned a palatial mansion, a huge estate and servants like Simcox. Many filmmakers give servants an important role in their film : At the moment Maurice attempts to embrace Clive in front of the old house in Pendersleigh, Simcox passes by bike ; after the Risley scandal the butler asks Clive if he knows Risley and shows disdain for his predicament, which annoys Clive so much that he tells Simcox to keep silent about the matter as long as he hopes to work in Pendersleigh and when Maurice receives a telegram from the hospital, the butler looks at Maurice carefully. These scenes and those of closing the windows are absent in the novel, but Simcox’s personality and behaviour in the film are in line with what is written about him in the novel and the film. In the film, he performs the function of monitoring blackguards in the estate, for example wondering why Alec’s ladder is set by the window of Maurice’s room in the morning. The butler’s enhanced role shows that the filmmakers presumably attached more importance to Simcox than in the novel.

36The night-time setting of the window scenes should not be ignored ; the novel suggests this time is momentous to Maurice and Alec : ‘the forest and the night were on their side, not theirs ; they, not he, were inside a ring fence’ (190). These scenes illustrate the attempt of the majority of society to protect themselves against the dark forest and night. That is, as it were, the majority is sent away to inside of a fence by Maurice and Alec.

37With the scenes of windows as its counterpart, the Risley scandal becomes easier to understand. In contrast to the scene of closing windows, which focuses on the side of heteronormative society, Risley’s scandal embodies the persecution of the homosexual with the imagery of the prison carriage and the downstairs prison. The addition of the Risley scandal in the film emphasises the motif of conflict between the homosexual and the heterosexual, a conflict suggested repeatedly in the original text.

38Even though it originally resulted from a compromise of the filmmakers, the inserted episode about Risley’s downfall, far from distorting the original, reinforces its fundamental motif.


39This paper’s re-evaluation of the inserted episode of Risley’s downfall focuses on the barrier imagery that separates the homosexual and the heterosexual. This conflict, a primary theme in the source text, is conveyed to the audience visually in the film. Forster’s novels often address the opposition of people in different positions in society, including the division between the homosexual and the majority in Maurice. In the novel, the narrator helps to intricately portray this conflict with pictorial imagery distinct from the world of the story ; this descriptive language may cause readers some difficulty in understanding the plot. The filmmakers, however, working in admittedly different conditions from novelists, are successful in bringing the barrier imagery alive on the screen by using the shots of Risley in a closed room like a black maria and the downstairs and of the windows that Clive and Simcox are closing, as mentioned. This paper ultimately determines the importance of the Risley scandal not only as an explanation of the historical background of English society but also as a solution to an important problem in adapting Maurice for the screen.


1 See "Terminal Note," pp. 223 in the novel, where the author explains the backgrounds of the novel.


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Pour citer ce document

SATO Kazuki, «Visualising ‘Barriers’ in the Film: Adaptation of E. M. Forster’s Maurice», Acta Litt&Arts [En ligne], Acta Litt&Arts, La traduction du savoir et ses méthodes, B. Transferts littéraires : Textes et images, mis à jour le : 09/05/2019, URL :

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Tohoku University