I just finished watching ITV’s new adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View in PBS’s Masterpiece Classics. Here’s the trailer:

In the interest of full disclosure, let me start with a couple of confessions. First, E. M. Forster is one of my favorite writers. I haven’t reread his novels as recently as I have Jane Austen’s, but I’ve loved them for almost 20 years now. Second, the Merchant Ivory film adaptations of A Room with a View, Maurice, and Howards End are all among my favorite movies. I’ve loved each one ever since I saw them. In sum, I love E. M. Forster.

Given that love, I suppose I could predictably have had one of two reactions to this new adaptation — either I would dislike it for not living up to the novel or the earlier adaptation or I would love it despite any reservations about it not living up to the novel or the earlier adaptation. So, I’m a little surprised to report that I loved this version on its own terms.

ITV adaptations are (in)famous for always coming in under 90 minutes, which means that they cut the heck out of a novel in order to make this time limit. In this case, the cutting didn’t bother me as much as some of the excisions in the recent Jane Austen adaptations. Likewise, these productions tend to rewrite portions of the plot. I think these changes seem to be part of an effort to make them more appealing to modern audiences. Again, the changes in A Room with a View worked for me.

This adaptation therefore departs from the novel in some key ways. On the one hand, some beloved scenes have been cut entirely or shortened. On the other hand, some scenes have been rewritten. While I miss some of the scenes with the Miss Alans, some of the latter changes have actually improved the work. For example, this adaptation (more or less) explicitly casts Cecil Vyse and Mr. Beebe as “ideal bachelors,” i.e., gay men. This makes these characters more complex and explains some of their motivations throughout the plot. It helps transform Cecil into a more realistic character and helps explain Mr. Beebe’s abandonment of Lucy when she marries George. (While one review I just read suggests that Mr. Beebe may be in love (or lust) with George too, which would make sense in Forster’s world, where lower class men are the pinnacle of gay sexiness, I think Mr. Beebe’s resentment over the marriage has more to do with his desire for Lucy to live life to the fullest, which would not include marriage with any man — he loves her as a passionate pianist and she should remain an aestheticized object, not a flesh and blood woman with desire and love for any particular man.)

This adaptation is also perfectly cast. Elaine Cassidy is excellent as Lucy Honeychurch, the innocent young girl who is transformed by a visit to Italy. Laurence Fox is also great as Cecil; I especially like that his Cecil is less of a caricature than Daniel Day-Lewis’s embodiment of the character. And Timothy Spall and Sophie Thompson are both good as Mr. Emerson and Miss Bartlett, George’s father and Lucy’s chaperone. But this version really belongs to Rafe Spall‘s George. (Side note: Rafe is Timothy Spall’s actual son.) He embodies George as a lower class man who is filled with optimism and love. He’s also just very normal. When he is nude (or semi-nude) in the movie, he looks like any other young man might look. (PBS blurred the butts in the bathing scene, which seems really stupid — what prudes are going to be watching A Room with a View?!) In part because of his normality, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him when he was on screen. His averageness allows him to capture George’s inner life very well.

What I like most about this production is its point of view. Andrew Davies, the screenwriter, and Nicholas Renton, the director, have approached this adaptation with a clear vision: realism. Where the Merchant Ivory production basked in Forster’s optimism and joy, Davies and Renton have reshaped the text into a more realistic look at class, love, and even Europe in 1912. This realistic vision could be described as somewhat bleak, and some reviews are criticizing this aspect of the movie — the color palette, for example, is washed out throughout the film. I think the muted tones reflect this larger thematic vision really well.

As soon as the movie ended, I ordered a copy of the DVD. Writers and producers do all sorts of things with Shakespeare’s plays. I think the liberties this production has taken with Forster’s novel are well grounded and thoughtful. I think they ask us to reconsider Forster’s works in much the same way that scholars and readers can’t help but question the optimism and romantic vision of Maurice and its ending. I’ve been thinking that I might teach a senior seminar on Forster next year. Watching this adaptation increases my desire to do so. I would love the chance to talk about what this movie is doing and whether students think it’s admirable or disappointing.

I think it’s an admirable and ultimately moving adaptation. I definitely recommend it.

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