Adaptation Review: The House of Mirth (2000)

After finally reading Edith Wharton’s classic turn-of-the-century novel, The House of Mirth, last month I sat down to watch the most popular (and maybe the only enduring) film adaptation: the 2000 retelling by Terence Davies, which stars Gillian Anderson as Edith's protagonist, the unforgettable and tragic Lily Bart. Supporting members of the star-studded cast include Eric Stoltz as Lawrence Selden, Dan Aykroyd as Gus Trenor, Laura Linney as Bertha Dorset, Anthony LaPaglia as Sim Rosedale, Elizabeth McGovern as Carry Fisher, and Jodhi May as Grace Stepney, to name a few. Despite the estimated budget of the film being a fraction of what costume dramas seem to cost now - only thirteen years later - this really struck me as a lavish adaptation. That’s due, I think, to the massive cast, the gorgeous costuming, and the glorious filming locations in Scotland (which, I should add, does a very good job of passion for early 20th century New York; I wondered where we were hiding these amazing houses in the States). I was so drawn into this adaptation, much in the same way that the novel captivated me, and while there were (as always) a few things I wasn’t fond of, I was really pleased with the film on the whole. I enjoyed most of the liberties Davies took in his writing, particularly the extra jolt he gave to Lily and Selden’s tremulous relationship. It added an urgency, I thought, which I had felt would’ve been interesting in the novel; as adaptations are often “what if” circumstances, it was a great opportunity to explore how the mood of the story would have increased if Edith had been a bit more impassioned in her writing of Lily and Selden.

The House of Mirth, Eric Stoltz, Gillian Anderson Given that The House of Mirth covers a great deal of ground – literally and figuratively – it’s predictable that a film wouldn’t quite be able to take it all in. Because the adaptation’s story didn’t explain itself quite as often as the book, I felt like it moved a bit fast and maybe compromised some of the subtler nuances that were so appealing to me in the novel; mainly Wharton’s extreme depiction of the social culture and the intricacies of its falseness. I wouldn’t have changed a thing, though. What I did realize is that I’d be very curious to see the novel adapted into a miniseries, which would allow for much more time and perhaps a bit more luxuriating over the finer points of the novel. (This was done in the ‘80s on PBS, but unfortunately that adaptation doesn’t seem to be available anymore.)

I loved the cast. I was a little lukewarm to Eric Stoltz as Selden at first, but I warmed up to him quickly. I thought Gillian Anderson was quite wonderful as Lily and especially in her most desperate, heartrending moments. Her transformation through the story was amazing and terribly sad, brought to life (as it were) in a really stunning way. Her performance played out Lily’s plight, her highs and lows, much like I saw them in the novel, but with an added something extra that kept it from feeling like a reiteration.

The House of Mirth, Laura Linney I was surprised at the idea of Laura Linney as Bertha Dorset, and she was amazing; the way she so breezily handled Bertha’s contemptible character was vastly entertaining. Everything from the way she spoke to the subtle gestures she made was so fascinating to watch. Bertha was somewhat cardboard in my mind, a study in jealousy and scheming that we tend to see somewhat often in novels of manners, but she really took on a new life here. I loved Elizabeth McGovern’s naturalness and her energy as Carry Fisher (I only wish she'd been introduced sooner!), and Anthony LaPaglia’s Sim Rosedale was as likable as I eventually found him to be in the novel (though not quite low-brow enough in the beginning). The only casting I lamented was the lack of Gerty Farish, who was one of the characters in the novel that most intrigued me.

Overall, the whole tone of the movie, I thought, did a lovely job of capturing the essence of The House of Mirth and laying it out from a visual perspective. I watched a bit nervously, wondering if the slight darkness of the novel would translate, and I thought it did, wonderfully. Visually it’s just stunning, from the costuming to the locations and the physical acting of the cast. There were plenty of silent moments that had me mesmerized, and they seemed to tell the story on their own, without words.

Title: The House of Mirth Based on: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905) Genre: period drama, romance Distributor: Sony Pictures Classic Format: DVD Release date: September 23, 2000 (theatrical) Source: Netflix Buy the DVD: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

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