I get annoyed with books that are too big to fit in your pocket when you don't feel like carrying a bag, and though I wasn't too eager to read this novel, I had it on hand and it was small enough to carry, so along with me it went. This is a novel about a homosexual affair that E.M. Forster wrote around 1913, but withheld publication of because of its "controversial" content. It was finally published in the early 1970s, where it drew poor reviews for being drearily sentimental. However, to my surprise I found the novel totally delightful, with its convincing portrayal of religious shame, restrictive social mores, and above all, its vivid and moving portrayal of a true, passionate love and the anguish that follows when it is broken up. So of course I wanted to see the Merchant-Ivory adaptation as soon as possible, only to find that it is unable to convey everything that made the novel so special, and is unable to replace it with anything compelling.
We open on a beach where young Maurice (pronounced "Morris") is on a school trip when his teacher gives him a basic sex education. Then it's 1909 and he's a student at Cambridge, where he meets this rather flamboyant character Risley (based on Lytton Strachey), and his friend Clive Durham. Durham is played by a young Hugh Grant, who really was quite a dish back in the day, what with his heavy-lidded blue eyes. Before you know it, they're embracing, then kissing, then running off for a day in the country, which gets Maurice expelled. I say "before you know it," because their affair, which made up a full third of the novel, is dashed off in the first few minutes here, making you wonder what they're going to fill up the rest of the movie with. Sadly, in doing this they have also jettisoned a major portion of the content of the novel, and one that lays the basis the entire remainder of the story rests upon. In the novel, the love between Maurice and Clive is sweepingly emotional and beautifully lyric, so much so that you BELIEVE it, not a simple feat. Also the well-worn topic of dealing with internalized religious shame is quite convincingly portrayed. When the two men cut classes to enjoy a day in the country, it is the culmination of their hidden love, and the feeling of freedom from restriction it fills them with. And it ends with a lovely passage: "When they parted it was in the ordinary way: neither had the impulse to say anything special. The whole day had been ordinary. Yet it had never come before to either of them, nor was it to be repeated." Here, it's just another event, and we never really sense the deep love between the two men, and thus the script eviscerates the emotional core of the story it still has close to two hours to fill out. Nice job, fellas!
So perhaps you know that youthful homosexual affairs are legend at the major old British universities, and are often considered, and play out as, youthful follies that are brushed under the rug and forgotten upon graduation, whereupon the guys give up all that nonsense and marry women. Soon Risley is discovered to have had homosexual congress, and is sentenced to six months' hard labor, his career completely ruined (you know homosexuality was a criminal offense in Britain back in the day, right?). Clive is deeply affected by this, and scared, and refuses to support Risley for fear of being "compromised." He also drops Maurice like a hot potato, and we soon learn he is to be married. He establishes a small country estate, and wishes that he and Maurice could realize all that love silliness was just a youthful folly, and now it's time to marry women and be really good friends. Maurice doesn't quite see it that way.
SPOILERS > > >
So years pass. Maurice is often at Clive's home, but things are strained. Those who have read the novel will be surprised at the early entrance of servant Scudder. There's a lot of country home drama (we skipped their love relationship to allow for an hour of country home drama?) in which not much is really happening. Clive goes to see Ben Kingsley, trying on a slightly too broad American accent, as a hypnotist trying to cure him of his homosexuality.
They make progress, but their work is undone when Scudder comes in through Maurice's window one night and they make love. There's a pretty good element here, a bit more successful in the novel, where Maurice doesn't even think about Scudder--he is a servant, after all--until it suddenly becomes apparent that Scudder was watching him and interpreting Maurice's behavior as flirtatious. Then Scudder starts writing letters to Maurice, bidding him come to the boathouse for a midnight rendezvous, but Maurice is worried the letters, and the invitation, is an entrapment intended to indict him.
Scudder is burned by Maurice ignoring him, and soon it escalates to an actual blackmail threat, muddled by the movie, as they're afraid to make Scudder really villainous. Maurice realizes that Scudder loves him, they spend another night together, and Maurice is saying they should run off together. But Scudder is leaving that day for work in another country! Maurice shows up at the dock to see him off, meeting Scudder's family there (it had resonance in the novel), but Scudder doesn't show. Maurice has realized Scudder is waiting to run away with him, and he meets him in the mythical boathouse. The novel ends with Maurice sending a letter to Clive saying he's going to remain defiantly homo, and poo-poo for you. In the film Maurice actually goes to see Clive, and the film ends with a scene in which Clive remains distant from his wife, and we see him gazing longingly outside at the life he could have had. The last line has a inconsequential, casual feel that ends the movie with a squish instead of a boom.
< < < SPOILERS END
Merchant-Ivory movies are reputed to be so refined and low-key that they have snuffed out the feeling of their stories. I have not found this to be the case--I think the audiences are just illiterate and unable to follow psychological nuance--but in the case of this film, the charge sticks. The majority of the feeling of the novel has been smothered, and what we're left with is just a series of fairly dull events. The biggest problem is the short shrift the movie gives to their original affair, omitting their genuine feeling for each other and having the whole thing end almost before it begins. The reason this is a problem is that the virulence of their love is what powers the entire rest of the story, and if you take that out, you just have a series of events. Maurice is flailing is pain and anguish from this broken affair in the novel. Here he comes off like a naive, spoiled brat. Without this, the middle of the movie lacks any focus, and the feeling is that whenever things start to drift, rush to the old reliable "social outrage at repressive times" content.
Then Scudder is introduced way too early, and his affair with Maurice really has no basis, except the old standby: Scudder is soooooo dreamy. For me, this worked against the pro-gay agenda of the movie, by showing Maurice as falling head over heels, and entraining plans of running off together, simply on the basis of a physical attraction. They do not entertain issues brought up by their situation; differences of age and education and social class. No, they're both gay and Scudder is a hot boy toy, so obviously the next step is marriage. Since we cannot believe in this relationship, it's hard to get into the whole end of the movie, and it also invalidates whatever love they might have been trying to get across between Maurice and Clive. After everything the movie tries to get across, it ends up portraying gays as rather sad people who will grab at the cutest thing that sashays their way, downplaying the statement of genuine love the novel made into its primary motivator.
One version of the novel contained a final scene, several years later, in which we see that Maurice and Scudder are still together years later, and have both given up careers and society to live together as woodcutters in a rural town. They're poor, but they've got love. This was wisely dropped from the novel, but I thought it might be successfully revived for the movie, to try to bring its point back on track, and show that there actually is something between them. But no. The movie just ends with Clive regretting the life that might have been, envious that Maurice will remain true to himself and follow his dream and... a trifle politically correct, no? But by then the whole thing has been such a too-long snore you'll be happy simply for it to end.
So, a flop. The worst criticisms of Merchant-Ivory films proven true. Anyone who wants to read a quite good gay novel of the turn of the century will find something surprisingly moving and emotional in the book, but pretty much everyone is advised to skip the film. It's just a bore, and enacts the scenes of the novel without the emotional core that made the whole thing special in the first place. What a disappointment.
No, but you should read the novel for sure.