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Seeing Between the Lines: Terence Davies’s «The House of Mirth» and the art of adaptation

Par Wendy Everett : Professor - University of Bath
Publié par Clifford Armion le 02/03/2015

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Examining Terence Davies’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s ((The House of Mirth)), this article identifies ways in which the creative interpretation of the filmmaker may serve to open up new insights into both the original text and the language of cinema itself. It considers, in particular, aspects such as music, painting, and visual metaphor in its presentation of cinema as an essentially multilayered and complex medium which requires of the spectator an imaginative and creative engagement, just as the novel requires of the reader.


Both Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth, and Terence Davies’s adaptation (2000), are complex, multi-layered, subtle, and challenging works, and in this paper, I hope to explore with you the relationship between the two, briefly referencing the context of adaptation, and then identifying a number of ways in which, far from constituting a pale reflection or limitation of the source text, an adaptation might actually open up new perspectives on, and new insights into both the original text and – possibly  ̶  the language of cinema itself.

I have used the somewhat problematic term “language” in relation to cinema at this point because it serves to highlight the traditional – but sadly, still common – notion that a filmic adaptation of a novel (especially a “classic”), constitutes an attempt to replicate an inherently superior linguistic form, using an inevitably inferior, image-based medium; that, in other words, the iconic, mimetic images of cinema can never adequately replicate the linguistic complexities and ambiguities of literature.

It is particularly ironic, therefore, that the same critical voices that argue that film is inferior because it cannot offer the spectator the creative freedom that a book offers the reader, all too frequently berate a given film for its lack of fidelity to the original: the settings, characters, ambience are “wrong” (for example, too fat, too thin, too beautiful, not beautiful enough, and so forth) (see, for instance, McFarlane 2000, 1996; Taubin 2001).

They cannot have it both ways. If the particular strength of literature is the freedom of interpretation it accords its readers, then they cannot be criticised for getting it “wrong”. The very act of reading involves inventing, imagining, visualising, in a dialogue between reader and novel, much of which takes place in the spaces between the words or between the lines; in the silences and interstices in the text which the reader fills in with her or his personal experiences and fields of reference. Recognition of this fact automatically leads to two others: first, the process of adaptation is, essentially, a reading of the source text; the shooting script or film which results is born of the process of creative imagining which occurs through a dynamic dialogue between novel and filmmaker. Secondly, and perhaps more controversially, it follows that the film resulting from this dynamic dialogue must be allowed to offer the same challenges and ambiguities that inspired it. It is far too simplistic to see film images as fragments of reality; they too must be read, interpreted, and imagined. It is thus up to the viewer to have as open and receptive a response as does the reader.

Therefore, the filmmaker, embarking upon a work of adaptation, is not involved in a straightforward process of translating, decoding, and “accurately” reformulating, but in the on-going, creative act of reading, that is to say, imagining, visualising, and inventing. The resulting adaptation situates us, the spectators, in the privileged position of seeing the familiar (our own personal reading and interpretation) from an alternative perspective. We are transported inside someone else’s mind; where we rediscover the known and the familiar through the unknown and the unfamiliar. What makes this experience so potentially shocking is that the film director confronts us with a vivid visualisation; quite literally, the interior processes of her/his interpretation are projected before us, on the screen, and thus accorded what might strike us as a brutal, new reality. For the transition from one medium to another, from – if you like – a linguistic medium to one which is imaged-based, is complicated by the requirement that the adaptation must work as a film, in its own right; although firmly rooted in the original text, its branches must reach out widely into a new creative universe. “The text tells you everything and you try to keep in mind its tone, which is important, and the look and feel of it. But it’s got to be cinema as well” (Davies 2001). This change, from literature to cinema, which offers us a privileged access into Davies’s reading of The House of Mirth, may also influence our personal interpretations of the novel, and modify and extend the meanings that we originally imagined.

It is not my intention in this brief essay to provide a general commentary on the film, knowing that I can assume your close familiarity with it. Nor am I going to consider the major changes to Wharton’s text which Davies introduces: his refusal to replicate the anti-Semitic current that runs throughout the novel, for example, or his decision to conflate the characters of Grace Stepney and Gerty Farish. These aspects have already received widespread critical attention. Instead, I want to consider some of the areas in which it is possible to see how the moments that most clearly reveal Davies’s personal interpretation (the moments, we might say, at which the film’s identity as film is paramount) serve to enrich our understanding of the film, but also to give us new insights into the original text. Instances, that is, where Davies’s interpretation carries us between the lines and the images of the The House of Mirth.

Seeing between the lines

Perhaps the most blatant example of seeing between the lines is the transition sequence which Davies introduces into his film. The novel is divided into two parts: Book 1 opens with Lily’s chance meeting with Selden at Grand Central Station, New York, and ends with the arrival of a telegram from Bertha Dorset, inviting her on a Mediterranean cruise: “Sailing unexpectedly tomorrow. Will you join us on a cruise in Mediterranean?”  Book 2 opens with Selden, already in Monte Carlo, enjoying “the whole outspread effect of light and leisure” (261), and ends with him kneeling beside Lily’s lifeless body, “draining their last moment to its lees” (461). Davies retains this basic narrative structure, but whereas Wharton executes what we might see in filmic terms as a jump cut from New York to Monte Carlo, he, instead, creates a 3 minute long transition sequence: an exquisite, fluid composition of textured light and music. It might well be argued that there is no justification for this abstract and lyrical interlude; that it is simply self-indulgence on the part of the film maker and is essentially irrelevant to the text. In fact, however, this process of transition, Lily’s journey, is seen by Davies as the fulcrum of her story, the point around which everything pivots. Leading up to the journey, the first book is marked by Lily’s continuing (if diminishing) sense of hope, but by the second book, immediately after the journey, it is clear that nothing can save her. In fact this apparently abstract, even irrelevant visualisation functions on multiple levels to explore and reveal Lily’s situation, and its embedded and proliferating layers of meaning directly contribute to our understanding of The House of Mirth by transporting us deep into Lily’s un-worded, innermost hopes and fears.

The sequence is both structured and motivated by music to which there is no reference in the novel. As the first notes of “Soave sia il vento”, the trio from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, are heard, the camera begins a series of slow, left-to-right pans across a vast drawing room whose furniture is shrouded in dust sheets, a visualisation, perhaps, of both the closed mind of Aunt Peniston, and the claustrophobic and hopeless situation from which Lily strives to escape. In a series of lap dissolves, the constantly mobile camera deconstructs space and time as it slowly transports us from the dismal rain of New York to the sparkling light of the south of France. There is no dialogue, apart from the (Italian) lyrics, but in this dazzling example of seeing between the lines we move into the very heart of Wharton’s text.

Furthermore, this sequence beautifully illustrates the multiple and complex levels at which film images themselves function. Let us note some of the metaphorical levels:

  • The visual transition from rain and darkness to sunshine and light reflects the journey that Lily herself longs to make: away from the lonely desolation of her life in New York, towards freedom, light, joy, and love.  (It is of course ironic that for Laurence Selden, such a transition is possible, but not for Lily, who remains tightly enmeshed in a plot by Bertha Dorset, from which she cannot escape.) That Lily is both too naive and too innocent to extricate herself is revealed by the on-screen images. While Selden stands on the shore contemplating the vastness of sea and sky, she remains within the confines of the yacht, and although the idea of a boat moving across the fluid expanse of ocean would normally suggest freedom, Lily is shown seated in a corner, tightly framed by the vertical and horizontal bars that surround the deck, trapped in a position she does not understand, and from which she cannot escape.


  • Further metaphorical meanings emerge from the sequence’s blend of musical and visual textures.  The plot of Cosi fan tutte (a work which is heard on two other occasions in the film) follows the Opera Buffon tradition, and is structured as a complex interplay of mask, disguise, and reality, reflecting, as Charles Rosen convincingly argues, the notion that the social, outward personality is a mask hiding an individual’s real identity (1971, 315). For Davies, such ideas are directly relevant to the society portrayed in The House of Mirth, where everyone is obliged to hide her or his true feelings under the appropriate social trappings. And, of course, behind her mask, Lily is vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.
  • In the aria we hear the voices of two young women bidding a tearful farewell to their lovers, apparently sailing off to war, and wishing them a safe voyage and a speedy return. However, all is not as it seems, as the voice of Don Alfonso, intervening from time to time, reminds us: the situation has been elaborately constructed by him as an experiment to prove that the young women will not remain faithful. In other words, just like Lily, the young women are, in fact, the victims of a deliberate act of manipulation.

These are just a few of the many possible examples of the metaphoric levels at which filmic images may function, and it is, of course, true that one’s reading of such images and music will be limited by one’s cultural knowledge and understanding. However, the point I want to make here is that the alert spectator can discover multiple layers of meanings and metaphors through an essentially ongoing and open-ended dialogue. Just like the reader of a novel. Apparently mimetic film images thus actually function as openings, points of access to the complex layers of metaphor and meaning they contain.


In fact, the whole issue of the use of music in adaptations is fascinating and significant, given that it is heard in virtually all of them, although rarely sourced in the original text. Music thus is automatically positioned in the spaces between words and images, and its generic identity, its function, and the point at which it is heard, can reveal a good deal about the nature of any adaptation we are watching.

It is well known that Davies is passionate about music, to the extent of seeing filmmaking as a musical, rather than a narrative process. He claims that well before writing his shooting script, he knows exactly what music the film will contain, where it will be heard, and how long it will last (see Everett 2004).  This is true of The House of Mirth as of all his other films, and we might argue that, in a way he understands the novel through the music it suggests to him. It is, therefore, clear that the music he chooses reveals vital aspects of his interpretation of Wharton’s text, creating insight into the characters it accompanies, and the world they inhabit. (It is worth pointing out that, for example, unlike Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, where a specially composed score is heard almost constantly, Davies uses excerpts from specific classical works that are central to his interpretation. His music is both sparse, and tightly targeted, thus performing as a key signifier rather than a general accompaniment. Moreover, it is important to recognise the importance of the way it is used to contrast powerfully with the oppressive silences that mark other moments in the film.

In the novel, there are some eleven references to music, but these are almost entirely generic: individual composers or works are not cited, so that Davies’s choice of music, just like his transition sequence, is not dictated by the text.  The single exception in Wharton’s novel is that Wagner is mentioned, but only when George Dorset moans at the extreme length of his operas and their unwelcome effects on his digestive system (96). In fact, Wharton gives music a background role: it is heard at various social functions, where its prevailing interest seems to be how much it has cost (110, 106, 142), and its “distant drift” accompanies Selden and Lily’s passionate discourse after the tableaux vivants (111).

In Davies’s score, which comprises six different works dating from the early eighteenth century to the 1970s, music, as I have said, functions as a key signifier: never merely providing continuity or emotional background. It is classical, with a preponderance of the baroque (marked by its love of ornamentation; its complex patterns and tonal shifts).

We hear:

  • Three excerpts from Cosi fan tutte: the Overture, which is heard during the opera sequence, the first aria, “La mia Dorabella”, which is played as Lily leaves the Opera House with Gus Trenor, and the trio, “Soave sia il vento”, which we have already discussed.
  • An excerpt from the Oboe Concerto in D minor by Alessandro Marcello, first heard as Lily arrives at Grand Central Station, and repeated when she and Seldon kiss for the first time. The piece is closely associated with Lily, and just as it is heard when we first see her, so too it is heard at the end of the film, as she swallows a lethal dose of chloral, and as Seldon holds and kisses her dead body.
  • A brief excerpt from Haydn’s Lark Quartet, Op. 64, No. 5, in D major is played during the Van Osburgh wedding,During the Monte Carlo sequence we hear the rondo from Rossini’s third String Quartet.
  • The delicate fourth movement from Rothko Chapel: Why Patterns? by the twentieth century American composer, Morton Fieldman, is heard as we see Lily drink chloral for the first time.
  • “Shtiler, Shtiler” (Quiet, Quiet) an Estonian Resistance song, reflects Lily’s brief, but doomed, determination to fight, and is heard as she attempts to confront Bertha Dorset with the incriminating love letters in her possession.

Each piece of music, therefore, works together with specific images to cast light upon Davies’s complex and fluid interpretation. (Never underestimate the power of music in film in general and, in the films of Davies in particular.) But it is also important to remember that even when music is not being played, the rhythms and movement of the film still function as music. What I mean is that Davies conceives of film as a musical structure in which the deepest meanings are accessed through the film’s underlying rhythms and textures.

Art and the visual

If the novel plays relatively little attention to music, it is obsessed by art and the visual. In fact it was its strikingly visual qualities that first attracted Davies to The House of Mirth, leading him to view it as, above all, a modern piece of writing.

“It’s about what do you look like and how much money have you got. And what is modern society about? Nothing changes except for the frocks that are worn . . . That’s why the book is very modern, it’s about surfaces” (in Everett, 2004, 214). Not only did Davies equate the novel’s dominant concern with surfaces, with appearance, with modernity (not least, contemporary Hollywood society), but he also found, on first reading, that he instinctively knew where he would position the camera, and how he would use it (static/mobile/ CU/long shot etc) (Everett, 2004, 143). However, the visual qualities of Wharton’s writing far exceed mere  description, for The House of Mirth is a novel about sight: physical and metaphorical, and about the complex power struggle between the (looking) subject and the (looked at) object of the gaze. Not surprisingly, it is this aspect that shapes much of Davies’s film. Of course, the question of the gaze is central to cinema, and is at the basis of dominant film theory from Laura Mulvey to Jacques Lacan to Michel Foucault and beyond. As a director, Davies is fascinated by the power and implications of the gaze, which he foregrounds through close-up observations of characters’ faces and eyes, and with a repeated play with mirrors and reflective surfaces. He thus creates a modernist and highly self-conscious narrative, shaped by its awareness of its status as film, and requiring from its spectators a critical acknowledgment of their own complicity within the dynamics of looking.

This aspect is strikingly illustrated in the four minute sequence set in the interior of the Opera House (chapter 7, 44.40- 48,13). This is another telling example of seeing between the lines, since no such scene exists in the novel (although there is mention of going to the opera, and Davies transposes to this setting some of the dialogue which occurs earlier in the text). The Opera House provides the perfect opportunity to exploit the cinematic dynamic of the gaze, something hard to achieve in a novel. In a brilliant piece of daring and economical cinematography, Davies crosscuts between multiple gazes to expose the plots and counter plots that will ultimately lead to Lily’s ruin and death. I see this filmmaking as “economical” because, merely from watching the brief exchange of glances that occurs, we acquire a good deal of knowledge. We learn, for example, that Gus is a sexual predator, believing that he has effectively bought Lily; that Grace is plotting to destroy Lily, hoping to obtain Aunt Peniston’s money and Seldon’s affection; and that Bertha Dorset is planning to destroy Lily’s reputation, in no small part because she resents the fact that Seldon is no longer attracted to her.

And while we, the spectators are busy reading these gazes, we also see that the characters, including Seldon, are often hopelessly bad at interpreting what they see, for instance: Lily believes Gus when he asks her to leave with him in order to help his wife; Aunt Peniston, who prides herself on her clear vision, readily changes her view of Lily as a result of Grace’s malicious tales; and Seldon, who thinks he alone understands Lily, entirely misreads her situation and actions, thus unknowingly contributing to her ultimate downfall. As John Berger reminds us, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (1972, 8).

At the same time, the extreme self-reflexivity of the sequence also highlights the gaze of the camera and, inevitably, that of the director, for the mise-en-abyme of the Opera House (which recalls the interior of a cinema), and the central notion of performance, make the spectators aware that they are watching a film. In other words, the very act of transporting the characters into the auditorium of the Opera House can be seen to exemplify the idea that an adaptation must self-consciously function as cinema, rather than pretending to be a mere illustration of a novel.


In relation to the visual qualities of the novel, it is pertinent that Wharton was particularly interested in art, and that extensive artistic references are found throughout all her work. Davies too is very knowledgeable on the subject and his interests are at least as wide ranging as hers. We know, for example, that he chose Gillian Anderson primarily because she reminded him of a John Singer Sergent portrait (Johnston, 2000, 5), and, as I have argued elsewhere, his mise-en-scène and use of light and texture in this film frequently reference artists such as Vermeer. However, in my final example, I wish to consider briefly the tableaux vivants sequence in the novel, and Davies’s unexpected treatment of it in the film. The scene in question takes place at the home of the Welly Brys, as part of their campaign to achieve social respectability. In the novel, it  is accorded considerable importance, occupying some five pages, and comprising detailed descriptions of the build up to the event, the various tableaux – climaxing with Lily’s presentation – the emotional responses of the spectators (particularly Laurence Selden), and the subsequent discussions and repercussions ((The actual performance starts on page 108, and continues to page 110, when the music that signifies its end is heard.  However, the build up to the occasion starts on page 106, and the discussions and repercussions continue until page 111, and lead up to Seldon’s declaration of love (111).)).

The tableaux have been taken, as Wharton explains, from “old pictures”, and the scene clearly demonstrates her artistic knowledge: she provides detailed descriptions of each of the tableaux: a Goya, A Titian, a Van Dyck, A Kauffmann, a Veronese, and a Watteau, all of which, however, are eclipsed, by Lily’s depiction of Mrs Lloyd, by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

In the film, however, Lily instead embodies Summer, by Watteau, and moreover, Davies reduces this long sequence to a single shot. Unsurprisingly, these changes have been widely criticised, but I would argue that, instead, we should attempt to discover what new insights they may offer.  While it is the shift from Reynolds to Watteau that has attracted most criticism, in this context, in my opinion, far more significant is Davies’s decision to reduce this lengthy sequence so drastically.

It has been suggested that a possible reason is that Davies’s audiences would be confused by the sequence, given that although a once popular form of entertainment, tableaux vivants are no longer feature of cultural life. However, I’m not convinced by such a trivial explanation. Not least because Davies is never afraid to challenge his audience, as we have already seen.

Wharton describes the tableaux vivants as achieving their dramatic effect through “the shifting of lights and shadows” (106) and, on this occasion, she remarks, they are particularly successful because, under the direction of the artist, Morpeth, the tableaux flow smoothly from one to the next: “the pictures succeeded each other with the rhythmic march of some splendid frieze” (106). In my reading, and I suspect in that of Terence Davies, the notion of still images succeeding each other in a rhythmic march, reflects the process of cinema itself, where the illusion of movement results from the projection of still images at a ‘rhythmic march’ of some twenty-four frames per second. And film itself has repeatedly been described as the play of lights and shadows.

Moreover, the final tableau, in which Lily appears, to an audible gasp from the spectators is, as Wharton comments, in marked contrast to the others because, despite her characterisation as Mrs Lloyd, her persona is, above all, that of Lily Bart, of herself (109). In other words, if Morpeth can be equated with the director, Lily is certainly the star of the show and, like most stars, she knows how to manipulate both her performance and the emotions of her audience.

The spectators too are accorded a central role in the scene. Wharton even explains the mental processes necessary for them to appreciate the spectacle fully: “To unfurnished minds they remain, in spite of every enhancement of art, only a superior kind of wax works; but to the responsive fancy they may give magic glimpses of the boundary world between fact and imagination” (108, my emphasis). The same might, of course, be said of the very spectacle which Davies is creating, an explanation which renders the actual scene from the novel entirely redundant. Because of the self-consciousness of Davies’s film, its spectators, some of whom, like Seldon, will be drawn emotionally into the plot (like the average film spectator), are also required to be aware of the film’s status as film. Davies therefore could see no reason to replicate the actual scene from the novel, and that very fact may well enable us to recognise the filmic nature of Wharton’s text, something which certainly was not part of her intention, but which might serve to give us a new and fascinating perspective on the contrasting notions of vision in novel and film.


Davies’s adaptation of The House of Mirth works convincingly as film. The fresh perspectives it grants us certainly enable us to reread the novel with new insights, while its ability to externalise the spaces between the novel’s lines and words, carry us ever deeper into the creative processes that characterise reading, adapting, and – of course – filming. Ultimately, through its self-conscious engagement with issues of representation and the metaphorical, non-realistic, nature of the image, it also casts new light on cinema itself.


Berger, John, 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books.

Davies, Terence, 2001, Commentary on the film by the director included as one of the ‘Special Features’ on the DVD recording of The House of Mirth. London: Granada Film Limited and FilmFour Limited.

Everett, Wendy, 2004. Terence Davies. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Johnston, Trevor, 2000. ‘Even my therapist hates my father now’, Independent, 1 October, 5.

McFarlane, Brian, 2000, ‘It wasn’t like that in the book’. Literature/Film Quarterly 28(3), 163-9.

McFarlane, Brian, 1996. Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Taubin, Amy, 2001. ‘The Age of Innocence: dread and desire’, in Vincendeau, G. (ed.), Film/Literature/Heritage. London: BFI, pp. 61-65.

Rosen, Charles, 1971.The Classical Style, New York: Norton.

Cette ressource est issue d'une communication donnée lors d'une journée d'étude sur le programme de l'agrégation, organisée à l'Université de Caen le 23 janvier 2015. Organisation : Penny Starfield, avec la collaboration de Christophe Gillissen, Armelle Parey, Mickael Popelard et Andrew Ives.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Wendy Everett, "Seeing Between the Lines: Terence Davies’s «The House of Mirth» and the art of adaptation", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2015. Consulté le 21/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/cinema/seeing-between-the-lines-terence-davies-s-the-house-of-mirth-and-the-art-of-adaptation