The Great Screenwriters – Part 12: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

By Martin Keady · March 21, 2017

Such was the contribution of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to Merchant-Ivory movies that the most famous double barrel in cinema history really should have been a treble barrel; “Merchant-Ivory-Prawer Jhabvala”, while more of a mouthful than plain old “Merchant-Ivory”, would have been more accurate. In turn, the ability of the Merchant-Ivory team to realise Prawer Jhabvala’s words and stories on screen meant that she became if not the greatest female screenwriter ever then certainly the most celebrated. 

Everything about Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was multi-faceted, from her name to her origins to her career. She was born into a Jewish family in Cologne in 1927, but even by the extraordinary standards of that time her “back story” is worthy of being turned into a book or a film. First, her father Marcus had actually been born in Poland but had fled to Germany to escape conscription, little realising that he was heading towards an infinitely greater danger as Hitler won power and turned the full might of the German state against its Jewish citizens. Secondly, as life in Nazi Germany became increasingly intolerable, Prawer Jhabvala’s family were among the last German Jews to escape from the country and reach Britain. However, there was no happy ending for them, as Marcus, upon learning after the war of the near-total destruction of the rest of his family, ended up killing himself. As Prawer Jhabvala must have mused on more than one occasion, given such a tragic, nomadic childhood, it was almost inevitable that she would become a writer.

Prawer Jhabvala survived the war, claiming to have improved her non-native English by reading Dickens and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, the account of the end of another civilisation) while hiding in air-raid shelters. Certainly English literature and the English language came to be of the utmost importance to her, and after receiving an MA in English Literature in 1951 she began writing books of her own. However, in another unusual twist to her already complicated life story, she would write them not in Europe but in India.  

In 1951, Prawer Jhabvala met the man who would give her the final part of her name, Cyrus Jhabvala, an Indian architect who went on to become the head of an architecture school in Delhi, where the couple lived for nearly a quarter of a century before relocating to America. There is something fitting about Prawer Jhabvala’s husband being an architect, given that she herself would exhibit her own structural genius by dismantling classic novels and reassembling them as screenplays.  

Prawer Jhabvala was a successful novelist for nearly 10 years before enjoying even greater commercial and critical success as a screenwriter, especially as an adapter of books, including some of her own. In 1963, it was one of her own novels, The Householder, the story of a young teacher falling in love, which she first adapted for the newly formed film-making team of Bombay-born Ismail Merchant and American James Ivory. Thus The Householder became the first ever “Merchant Ivory production”, a credit that would effectively go on to become its own genre over the next four decades. 

However, it was with Shakespeare Wallah (1965) that the team truly struck cinematic gold. The script was an original story inspired by the activities and antics of Geoffrey Kendal, a classically trained English actor who began touring India just as “the Raj” was giving way to Indian independence and English drama was being superseded by the Bollywood film industry. Kendal’s own family were among the film’s stars. In particular, his daughter, Felicity, who went on to become one of the great dames of the English stage and screen, played a thinly disguised version of herself as one part of an unlikely love triangle, alongside an Indian man and a Bollywood starlet (played by a young Madhur Jaffrey). 

Shakespeare Wallah is one of the great films about Shakespeare and Shakespeareans, and established many of the key features of Merchant-Ivory productions: a strong, witty script; a combination of English and non-English actors; and an examination of the importance of art and in particular literature to people’s lives. It was an international success and allowed Prawer Jhabvala to begin combining a lucrative screenwriting career with writing her own fiction. 

Nevertheless, it would be nearly another 15 years before the final and perhaps the most important ingredient was added to the Merchant-Ivory recipe, and that was the classic English (or, on occasion, American) novel upon which almost all of their greatest films would be based. There was domestic success in India with films such as The Guru (1969), in which a Western rock star travels to India to meet a legendary sitar teacher (which was obviously a gentle mocking of The Beatles’ relationship with Ravi Shankar), and Bollywood Talkie (1970), which was almost a remake of Shakespeare Wallah but with the second of Geoffrey Kendal’s daughters, Jennifer, playing an English author writing and researching a history of Bollywood. However, it was not until The Europeans (1979) that the Merchant-Ivory-Prawer Jhabvala triumvirate would achieve another breakout global success.

The original novel of the same name by Henry James was an account of the culture clash between the wealthy Americans who had begun travelling to Europe in the second half of the 19th century (like James himself, of course) and their European hosts. Thus, it was appropriate that its screen adaptation should have been completed by Prawer Jhabvala, who herself had been an “outsider” for most of her life: first, in Germany as a Jew; then in England as a native German speaker; and finally in India as a Westerner who often struggled to come to terms with the cultural practices and appalling poverty of her adopted homeland. She seemed to bring her own acute sense of “otherness” to the adaptation of the novel, in which the great Lee Remick, in one of her final film appearances, plays Eugenia, a young American brought up in Europe who lives almost as peripatetic an existence as the young Prawer Jhabvala had.  

The Europeans began for Prawer Jhabvala a near 20-year career of adapting for the screen some of the finest late Victorian and Edwardian novels, which she must have first read as a young woman after arriving in London from Germany. In the process, and like Henry James himself, Prawer Jhabvala became one of the finest foreign observers of English manners and attitudes. She also played her part in the creation of a cinematic template that was ultimately so successful that almost all “period dramas” came to be seen as variations on the theme of “Merchant Ivory”.

Of course, not all of the novels that Prawer Jhabvala adapted were old. In particular, she continued to adapt several of her own novels for the screen, notably Heat and Dust (1983), which dramatises the type of historical research that she herself often had to undertake, as Julie Christie, in one of her finest post-1960s screen roles, plays a young English author researching the romantic entanglements of an illustrious relative. However, it was A Room with a View (1985), an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name, that finally catapulted Merchant-Ivory productions and their in-house screenwriter into the big league.

In A Room with a View, a young and luminously beautiful Helena Bonham-Carter, literally looking like a pre-Raphaelite painting brought to life, conveys all the confusion of a young English woman coming of age in northern Italy and finding herself caught between the vice-like grip of tradition, as personified by her snobbish suitor Cecil Vyse (played by a young Daniel Day-Lewis), and the intoxicating power of independence, embodied in the form of George, a free-thinking philosopher (played by Julian Sands). Ultimately, Bonham-Carter’s character, Lucy, chooses freedom – a “room with a view” over the hills of Tuscany – rather than the stultifying atmosphere of the English drawing room that she had once seemed destined for. 

If A Room with a View examined the innocence and indecision of youth, Howard’s End (1992) was an adaptation of a Forster novel about the complexities and compromises of adult life. Just as David Lean’s war movie, In Which We Serve (1942), is “the story of a ship”, so Howard’s End is the story of a house, specifically the country house of the story’s title, which over time brings the members of different social classes into conflict with each other, culminating in the accidental killing of a poor young man by an aristocrat, whose own life is ruined by the prison sentence he subsequently receives.  

The final great literary adaptation by Prawer Jhabvala is not of an Edwardian novel by E.M. Forster but of a modern novel by a Japanese writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, who, after studying in England, became fascinated by the English class system and wrote The Remains of the Day (1993) about it. The film reunited the romantic leads of Howard’s End, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, only in this story they are destined never to consummate their relationship, as Hopkins’s butler is ultimately unable to admit (perhaps even to himself) the strength of his feelings for Thompson’s housekeeper.

In their mastery of clipped English dialogue and complex story structure, Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptations (of her own work and that of other authors) for the Merchant-Ivory team are among the most successful examples of a screenwriter working so closely with a director and producer that their work together seem to exhibit a common, apparently seamless DNA. Certainly the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thought so, awarding her the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for both A Room with a View and Howard’s End, which were the pinnacle of the many awards she won as a screenwriter. However, even those accolades paled into relative literary insignificance when compared with the Booker Prize she won for Heat and Dust in 1975. She remains the only person of either gender to win Britain’s premier literary award and Oscars for screenwriting. 

Prawer Jhabvala continued to write almost up until her death in 2013, at the age of 85. The final films she wrote for Merchant-Ivory lacked the effervescence of the early works such as Shakespeare Wallah or the maturity of the masterpieces such as A Room with a View and The Remains of the Day, perhaps because they ceased to be concerned with such strong and emotive material as the English class system and instead switched focus to examine very different subjects, for example Picasso’s love (and sex) life in Surviving Picasso (1996). Nevertheless, in her classic adaptations of great English and Indian tales of life and literature, Prawer Jhabvala proved herself to be one of the finest and most successful screenwriters of the late 20th century, using all the upheaval and complexity of her own upbringing to adapt for the screen the stories that Forster and James had written nearly a hundred years before about young men and women in exile, even (or perhaps especially) from their own emotions.