Most of the film adaptations of Edward Morgan Forster‘s work are first-rate and faithful in style and spirit to the great Edwardian writer, but the Merchant/Ivory production of A Room With A View (1985) is possibly my favorite movie of all time, and the film adaptation of his great posthumous novel, Maurice (1987), is way up on that list also.
It seems to not matter that much anymore; coming out of the closet has never been easier with gay celebs doing it as a little mention in the seventh paragraph of an interview. But, no other piece of 20th century gay fiction paints a more authentic picture of how a coming-of-age gay man torn between his sexuality and the need to assimilate to social and cultural constructions of what is “normal” than Forster’s Maurice. Because it was written prior to any sort of Gay Rights activism makes it even more important. Forster does not offer any explanation or justification for his protagonist’s gayness. The result is an honest, often heartbreaking, poignant look at the inner-workings of a tortured gay man’s mind in an era where being out of the closet was nearly impossible.
Forster was ahead of his time, or, at least he was better suited to take on certain topics like gayness that couldn’t be written about with honesty during his own era. Although he always remained a true Edwardian, Forster embodied the modern gay male spirit more fully than any other writer of his era.
A champion of Liberal Humanism, Forster, in his later years, became a significant moral conscience for young gay writers in the 1930s like Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, and J. R. Ackerley.
He summed up his beliefs in as essay, What I Believe (1938), in which he explained his faith in personal relations and individualism.
“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. I hold the belief in an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky, who represent the true human condition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.”
Forster deserves an honored spot as a Gay Icon. He was not only one of the finest novelists of 20th century but he was also a tireless defender of humane values.
Forster had two great loves in his life. Remember, homosexuality in Britain was illegal and punishable with a prison sentence in that era. Like other Edwardians, Forster found a sort of freedom exploring the far-flung spots of The British Empire like Egypt and India (odd, now that both countries are so repressive in their policies towards gay people). Foster’s first great love was Muhammad el-Adl, a young Egyptian tram conductor.
“I have plunged into an anxious but very beautiful affair. It seemed to me, and I proved right, that something precious was being offered me and that I was offering something that might be thought precious. I should have been right to take the plunge, because if you pass life by its jolly well going to pass you by in the future. If you’re frightened it’s all right, that’s no harm; fear is an emotion. But by some trick of the nerves I happen not to be frightened.”
The second great love of his life was an English policeman, Bob Buckingham, who he met in 1930. Their love affair continued, perhaps even intensified, after Buckingham got married. The Buckinghams accommodated Forster in their relationship, with May Buckingham, the wife, enjoying his company before handing off the writer to her husband for the weekends. Only someone with Forster’s skill and imagination could have maintained such a daring, yet sweet, relationship over so many years. Forster died of a stroke in 1970 at 91 years old, at the Buckinghams’ home in Coventry. His ashes, mingled with those of Buckingham, were later scattered in the rose garden of Coventry’s crematorium, near Warwick University. This astonishing story is somewhat fictionalized in last year’s film My Policeman starring Harry Styles.
After he published his acclaimed and popular novels A Room With A View, Howards End and Where Angels Fear To Tread in his 20s, he did not complete a single novel in the second half of his life. After suppressing his sexuality as a young man, Forster, who was known to his friends as Morgan, lost his virginity to a wounded soldier in 1917 while working for the Red Cross in Egypt. That sexual awakening in his late 30s led to his series of romances before he met Buckingham.
After publishing A Passage To India, probably his greatest work, in 1924, Forster published only occasional short stories and some essays.
Although Maurice was published shortly after his death, it had been written nearly 60 years earlier.
His first novel, Where Angels Fear To Tread (1905), is the story of Lilia, a young English widow who falls in love with an Italian, and the efforts of her bourgeois relatives to get her back from Monteriano (based on San Gimignano). It was adapted as a 1991 film directed by Charles Sturridge. It stars Rupert Graves, Helen Mirren, Helena Bonham Carter, and has a fearless performance by Judy Davis. I was so obsessed with this novel and film that in 1991, I felt that I simply must travel to the town where the story, took place and where the film had been shot. I even found the Hotel La Cisterna where much of the action was set (and this was before that Internet thing).
Forster stayed at Pensione Simi, now Hotel Jennings Riccioli in Florence, in 1901. Forster took inspiration from this journey for his third novel, A Room With A View (1908), his lightest and most optimistic work. It was started in 1901, before any of his others; its earliest versions were titled Lucy. The novel is about the young Lucy Honeychurch’s trip to Italy with her cousin, and the choice she must make between the free-thinking George Emerson and the repressed aesthete Cecil Vyse. George’s father Mr. Emerson quotes the great thinkers who influenced Forster. The film version stars Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, Julian Sands, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench and Simon Callow. It was a box-office hit, receiving universal critical acclaim. It was nominated for eight awards including Best Picture, winning three; Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. It also won five BAFTAs and a Golden Globe Award.
Where Angels Fear To Tread and A Room With A View are both about narrow-minded middle-class English tourists abroad.
Howards End (1910) is about different groups within the Edwardian middle-class society, represented by the Schlegels, bohemian intellectuals; the Wilcoxes, thoughtless aristocrats; and the Basts, members of the struggling lower middle-class. Howards End was adapted as a film in 1992 by Merchant-Ivory. The film received nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture for Ismail Merchant and Best Director for James Ivory, starring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, even more Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, and James Wilby. The film won three Academy Awards including Art Direction, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala‘s screenplay, and Emma Thompson for Best Actress.
In 2017, a four-part adaptation by Kenneth Lonergan was broadcast by the BBC in a co-production with Starz. On Broadway in 2020 was The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez, a two-part stage adaptation that gets inspiration from the Forster novel to portray the generation of gay men that came after the height of the plague.
A Passage To India (1924) is about the relationship between East and West, seen through the lens of India in the later days of the British Raj. Forster connects personal relationships with the politics of colonialism through the story of the Englishwoman Adela Quested, the Indian Dr. Aziz, and the question of what did or did not happen between them in the Marabar Caves. It was adapted to a play in 1960, and as a film in 1984, directed by the great David Lean. It was his final film and the first film he had directed in 14 years, since Ryan’s Daughter in 1970. A Passage To India received 11 Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Lean, and Best Actress for Judy Davis. Peggy Ashcroft won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress making her, at 77 years old, the oldest woman to win the award, and Maurice Jarre won his third Oscar for Best Original Score.
Maurice was adapted to film in 1987 by the Merchant-Ivory. The film stars James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, and Ben Kingsley.
Forster had based the characters in Maurice on real people, and he was keen that it should have a happy ending. He did not want to publish the novel while his mother was alive, but he showed the manuscript to Christopher Isherwood. Even after his mother had passed away, Forster resisted publication because of public and legal attitudes about homosexuality. He was also ambivalent about the merits of the novel. A note found on the manuscript read: “Publishable, but worth it?” It was published posthumously in 1971.
The late James Ivory was interested in making a screen adaptation after the critical and box office success of A Room With A View. He read all of Forster’s books, and eventually came back to Maurice. Ivory, who was openly gay, wrote:
“It was interesting material and would be enjoyable to make, and also something we could make in that it wouldn’t require too much organization and wouldn’t cost all that much. People’s turmoil and having to decide for themselves how they want to live and what their true feelings are and whether they’re going to live honestly with them or deny them. That’s no different. Nothing’s any easier, for young people. I felt it was quite relevant.”
Following Forster’s death, King’s College at Cambridge inherited the rights to his books. They were initially reluctant to give permission to film Maurice, not because of the subject matter, but because it was considered an inferior work. Ismail Merchant, Ivory’s partner in life and art, was very persuasive and won them over.
Forster was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 16 different years.