Here’s how it should’ve gone.
I watch Martin Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of The Age of Innocence as a culture-starved preteen in a Colorado multiplex and catch a glimpse of Art. I’ve never heard of Edith Wharton and New York is a fantasy but suddenly knowing about these things feels more important than anything else. I rent the film so many times than my dad deems it more cost effective to buy me a copy. Craving more, I seek out Wharton’s oeuvre and by the time I escape to Chicago for college I’ve traded my VHS tape for dog-eared Signet Classics. I declare myself an English major. I discover George Eliot and Have Opinions on Joyce. I go to graduate school. I become (o luck!) an English professor. I reflect back Scorsese’s Age and the rash of 90s literary adaptations that attended it with slightly embarrassed nostalgia. I turn again to Wharton’s brilliant novel, grateful to the film for guiding me toward the real thing.
Except what actually happens when, twenty-five-ish years later, I return to The Age of Innocence is that I can’t shake the feeling that Scorsese has somehow managed to out-Wharton Wharton. I want to remember the tastes of thirteen-year-old me and say, “look how far you’ve come,” but instead I find myself feeling like it’s the novel and not the film that’s the quality knockoff.
Of course, Wharton’s novel is undeniably great – a 1920 elegy to the Gilded Age of her childhood, it’s shrewd, poignant, catty, and tragic all at once. And it’s unarguable that Scorsese’s Age has faded out even as all the Merchant Ivories and Austen adaptations of the 90s have achieved pop culture status (something a lush new reissue from Criterion will hopefully change). But I also believe that there is something more to my adolescent fixation than just naïve longing. In a way, preteen me was the film’s ideal viewer, because Scorsese’s Age is itself obsessed with–feverishly devoted to–its source material. It’s faithful in a way that is gratuitous and elaborate, distilling the narrative’s interests into visual metaphors, heaping symbols upon symbols. The film doesn’t so much adapt Wharton’s story as thicken it.
How does an under three-hour film made from a roughly 400-page novel manage to follow the plot to the letter and feel more languorous than the source material? I have no idea, but the pace is just right for a romance that burns at the near-static speed and volcanic temperature of one of those prehistoric underground coal seam fires. The love triangle at the story’s core is, of course, all Wharton: earnest dilettante Newland Archer meets worldly ex-pat Ellen Olenska just as he’s finalized his engagement to her girlish cousin May. Newland and May marry, but he and Ellen, fleeing her own horrible spouse, nurse a painfully chaste mutual fixation. The kicker is that Newland and Ellen are the only people worried about whether their sex is real or sublimated. They alone have mistaken the morality preached by their peers for something other than superficial convention. Speed all this up and you risk bathos. Let it smolder and it has all the comic poignancy of mortality.
This combination of slow burn and ironic distance is echoed in the cinematic conventions Scorsese appends to Wharton’s novel. A corker of an opening credit sequence and a voiceover that serves as much to conjure Wharton’s tone as to explain things feel hallucinatory. Against the aching strains of the prelude to Charles Gounod’s Faust, the film opens with flushes violet and neon pink as time-lapsed blossoms swell and split. A lacy script – Wharton’s manuscript – becomes an overlay of actual lace, flimsy lingerie for those bursting buds. It’s two minutes of all the sex that will not happen, and reminder that not sex is the sexiest sex of all.
When we’re finally deposited, breathless, in the middle of an 1870’s opera house, the wry yet warm voice of Joanne Woodward is there to give us the lay of the land. The script, by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, lifts whole chunks of Wharton’s third-person narration for its voiceover, but this device never feels didactic. Instead, Woodward convinces you that she is Wharton, and that Wharton sounds like a well-aged Hollywood screen star from Georgia. The effect is both intimate and overwhelming, and paired with mobile cinematography that pans over opera boxes, multi-course feasts, and painting-stuffed walls, it makes the viewer feel less like a voyeur than a privileged tourist. We’ve been invited by an insider to behold a spectacle.
Even the casting amplifies meanings already present in the novel. With Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland, Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen, and Winona Ryder as May, three stunning actors having very different kinds of moments are improbably brought together so that the unique conditions of their fame refract onto their characters. In 1993 Day-Lewis was the epitome of serious method acting, having won everything for his performance in My Left Foot. Pfeiffer was alternating between criminally typecast sexpot/everywoman roles. Ryder, in a career moment sandwiched between Edward Scissorhands and Reality Bites, had achieved indie icon status. Seeing these three together on screen feels odd but it works. Day-Lewis makes Wharton’s easily hateable Newland sympathetic, a self-serious aesthete who knows how to deflate everything but himself. Pfeiffers’s Ellen is an alien goddess just trying to fit in. She speaks her lines like she’s translating them from a dead language. And Ryder makes May less empty (Wharton’s adjective) than inscrutable. If Wharton emphasizes Newland’s lack of interest in May’s inner life, Ryder shows how May uses such obliviousness to her own ends. Considering Age’s obsession with the burden of appearances, these choices are so dead-on they flirt with parody. In its sensitivity to spectacle and identity, the casting is deeply Whartonesque.
But the thing the film does best is to understand that Wharton’s Age is as much about what we use art to do for us as it is about character. The novel namedrops every cultural and decorative artifact an 1870’s 1-percenter would have had opinions about. A very partial list includes Paris fashions, operas, cigars, melodramas, contemporary painters, old painters, stationary, neighborhoods, Newport, novelists, and bookshelves without doors. In the text, such references either elicit a knowing laugh or glance off you – they’re to Wharton’s novel as “Rapper’s Delight” is to TV shows set in the 80s. Revivified in the film, however, they telegraph rich affective meaning that stands in stark contrast to the characters’ stunted expressions of feeling, their way of never saying what they mean. Watching Day-Lewis’s Newland cry at Victorian melodrama and ponder spare impressionist paintings in Ellen’s sitting room, you realize that all the art, all the trappings, are more truthful than the rest of his life. At one point, he observes a plein air painter at work in Boston Common. As the camera follows his gaze from canvas to subject, we see that it’s Ellen, engrossed in a novel. It’s when you know that Newland and Ellen are made for each other, that they will never know who the other really is, and that ultimately, that fact doesn’t matter all that much.
Maybe if by some miracle I’d stumbled on Wharton’s novel before Scorsese’s film I’d feel toward it as I do the latter. I doubt it, though. Alone in the suburban multiplex, the promise the film held out to me wasn’t just in its story or its images, but in how it shows that loving art also means responding to it, manipulating it, even as you let it take you over. This idea inheres in Wharton’s novel, but it’s the film’s glory. To preteen me, it was truer than anything else. Sometimes it takes an imitation to let you see the real thing.
—Anna E. Clark is an assistant professor of English. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnaElizClark