What We Know about What Maisie Knew: A Critical Conversation

By Ryan D. Fong, Kalamazoo College, & Victoria Ford Smith, University of Connecticut

The following conversation took place via e-mail in July and August 2013, after we each viewed the most recent film adaptation of Henry James’s 1897 novel, What Maisie Knew.  In the collaborative spirit of the film’s directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, we decided to write a joint review, analyzing the film from our respective areas of expertise. What Maisie Knew is still playing in select theatres, and is available for digital download on iTunes and Amazon.


RF: Given my areas of research, I’m interested in starting by thinking about the popular reception and adaptation history of Henry James, and of What Maisie Knew more particularly.  While he has not generated the same kind of culture and film industry as authors like Austen or Dickens, James has enjoyed some significant success in the adaptation and appropriation circuits over the last twenty-five years.  The late-1990s and early-2000s saw the The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, Washington Square, and The Golden Bowl all made into major studio films, along with the loose adaptation of Turn of the Screw into The Others.

Furthermore, a whole string of contemporary novels inspired by James were published in 2004, from Colm Toibin’s The Master to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. Interestingly though, McGehee and Siegel’s film is the first major return to Maisie—a 1968 television adaptation notwithstanding—and I’m intrigued to think about why this might be, especially in thinking through why the filmmakers decision to re-set the plot in contemporary New York.  Those questions, though, make me wonder what the place of Maisie is within the literary trajectory of representing children.  Certainly, Maisie seems a part of the Dickensian “good child” tradition of figures like Oliver Twist and Little Nell, but I’m curious to know how James’s construction of her fits within a larger framework.

VS: I certainly see in Maisie a “good child,” whose lineage stretches back to Wordsworth’s angelic children and includes the pure heroes of George MacDonald’s fantasy literature and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy—even Jane Eyre, although she is much more of a firecracker than Maisie. (Perhaps Helen Burns is a better example.) While each of these characters, of course, is nuanced in its own way, I would say all are, in some way, social critics or even redeemers. They make apparent, through their innocence, the flaws of the adult world—and, in a few lucky cases, to set the world (or at least their small part of it) right.

I think Onata Aprile, the young actress who plays Maisie, performs the good child so well. Not only does she appear small and vulnerable—qualities made even more striking when her small stature is shown alongside the towering frame of Alexander Skarsgard—but she is wide-eyed and watchful, filling up the silence that surrounds her parents’ poor decisions with this sad bewilderment. It’s the good-child quality that makes her character so damning to the adults around her. Aprile’s Maisie, like the character in James’s novel, is a witness whose power relies, in part, on the precariousness of her innocence.

But as someone interested in the particularities of childhood at the fin-de-siècle, I’m more taken with James’s goal of representing the dissonance between what Maisie sees and understands and what we deduce as readers or viewers. Influenced by his brother William’s work in psychology, James was interested in parsing out both the richness and limitations of a child’s mind. In that way Maisie is akin to a tradition of lesser known Victorian novels, such as Florence Montgomery’s A Very Simple Story, Being a Chronicle of the Thoughts and Feelings of a Child (1867). I would say it’s harder to capture this element of the novel visually. McGehee and Siegel do suggest Maisie’s moments of confusion, loneliness, and knowingness, and they construct a sense of her child-world through a backdrop of toys and crayons. Yet I can’t help but feel that I’m not really inside Maisie’s head. (Perhaps the novel doesn’t really achieve that, either.) Despite the difficulties in using literature and film to unlock children’s minds, and despite our investment in the child innocent, we’re still preoccupied with that project. Evidence: the success of novels like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Emma Donoghue’s Room.

I wonder if Maisie, as a novel that rehearses a number of Victorian ideas about childhood—ideas that rely both on our idealization of childhood and its realities—is particularly challenging to adapt. But while Maisie is very much a fin-de-siècle child, I think setting the film in present-day New York City worked very well, and the story felt very modern. What is lost, do you think, in relocating the story, historically and geographically? And what is gained?

The poster from What Maisie Knew (2012)
What Maisie Knew (2012)

RF: I absolutely agree that Onata Aprile embodies Maisie as the “good child” type with captivating force.  As the narrative—and indeed moral—center of the film, she needs to do so, and the film largely succeeds because she is so effective in that role.  Furthermore, your comments about the tight (if sometimes tenuous) link between what Maisie sees and what we as readers/viewers deduce connects with many of my own observations about how McGehee and Siegel manage to evoke certain emotional responses from the viewer and do so by capitalizing on some of the formal features of James’s novel.

As I wrote in an earlier review of the most recent film version of Jane Eyre, I have often felt that the retrospective first-person narrator is not a structure that translates particularly well to film.  Since the power of this particular form of narrative perspective relies upon producing a sense of psychological interiority, it is not one that is easily reproduced in a visual medium.  Within the cinematic form, viewers are kept, very generally speaking, outside the minds of the characters—as narration is transformed into external observation.  Interestingly though, in both the novel and film versions of Maisie, the title character is our focalizer rather than our narrator, which allows for a much more seamless transition from page to screen.

In this sense, I was struck by the central visual importance given that the film gives to Maisie’s eyes.  They are preternaturally large and piercingly blue, and the filmmakers rely on them to construct a visual economy of gazes; we look through the lens of the camera at Maisie as Maisie looks at others through the lenses of her eyes.  As such, the lines between what she sees, what the narrator/camera wants us to see, and what we understand about those refracted looks become very thin indeed.  Thus, they allow for a slippage between what we project onto Maisie, what the camera filters for us, and what Maisie actually sees, let alone knows.

Perhaps, in a round about way, this is why my partner and I were able to joke at the end of the film that “if all kids were like Maisie, everyone would want one.”  In the end, Maisie isn’t really a child at all.  Rather, she is a narrative construction—like the trope of the “good child”—or even more instrumentally, she is the narrative mechanism that animates certain responses and emotions.  This is why I think Maisie manages to translate so well in the film’s new historical context.  There really isn’t very much content to translate at all.  But what’s trickier for me to parse out is what happens to the other characters, who are much more fleshed out in both novel and film in my view.  Does it make sense that Ida Farange becomes Susanna, the rock star?  Certainly, Julianne Moore plays the complex role brilliantly, and inspires both sympathy and loathing in her portrayal, but I wonder if these kinds of changes make apples out of the novel’s oranges?

VS: Excellent point about the way Maisie’s role as focalizer translates to the visual. I would add that I appreciate how McGehee and Siegel capitalize on the aural dimension of film, as well, to make even more apparent Maisie’s perspective and the way it aligns (or doesn’t) with the perspectives of the adults around her and the audience. For example, I was struck by the silences that often surround Maisie. While we see her in a range of moods, from somber to playful, I found her overall to be an oddly mute character, almost preternaturally quiet for a little girl. When faced with particularly heinous instances of her parents’ misbehavior, her wide-eyed gaze is usually accompanied by that silence. For example, when her father asks her, without providing any sort of explanation, to go pack her bags in preparation for her departure from her mother’s home, she says nothing. The film allows her silence to spool out in a way that suggests both her confusion and our own helpless concern for Maisie. Set against Maisie’s silences is her parents’ incessant bickering. Their fighting is ongoing and unresolved, as in the novel, but here it feels like a soundtrack, leaking from another room or buzzing through a cell phone. It gives you, as a viewer, the sense that this is the everyday noise of Maisie’s life, a sort of static.

And perhaps no one is a better bickerer than Julianne Moore. While I found Aprile’s performance as Maisie the best in the film, a close second would certainly be Moore as Susanna, the updated Ida. I agree that Moore’s performance inspires in its audience a productive and complicated sort of ambivalence: a simultaneous love and hate that left me feeling conflicted even as the credits rolled. (That’s quite an achievement: Moore’s ability to maintain her audience’s sympathy, even after dumping her daughter unchaperoned at a bar.) I’m glad you mention the decision to adapt her into a rock star, which I read as an interesting way to exaggerate and modernize the personality of Ida Farange. Celebrity culture here might act as a modern shorthand for the selfishness, vanity, and frivolity that characterizes Ida. The preoccupations and pleasures Ida indulges in the novel might not resonate strongly for contemporary audiences, and replacing them with tour buses and (albeit scraggly) entourages is, I think, a smart substitution that accomplishes similar ends. The fact that Susanna’s fame is dwindling—at least according to her ex—frames her investment in her music career as all the more selfish. Why neglect your daughter for the stage when there isn’t a real audience? It also contributes in interesting ways to the sense of desperation that seems to swirl around Susanna each time she’s onscreen. Her smudged eyeliner and indolent, drunken bashes at her apartment provided, for me, a sense of decadence that was true to the novel.

A change that I found a little harder to digest: the ending of the movie. We never see Maisie as a teenager, and because of this we lose the sense of a child’s mind awakening to the maneuverings and manipulations of the adult world. That maturation is something I find essential to the plot of What Maisie Knew. By allowing Maisie to grow up, James grants her a degree of agency, an ability to speak out, to choose when it comes to piecing together her own family. I don’t see that reflected in the film. As a scholar invested in those moments in Victorian fiction that recognize young people as complicated subjects, I bristled at this decision. Without that plot development, Maisie might be a powerful character, but that power is always a passive one, her strength registered only through her big-eyed, voiceless innocence. What was your reading of the conclusion of the movie? Maybe you didn’t find it as troubling as I did!

RF:  I found the ending just as troubling as you did, and for many similar reasons.  Although I would argue that Maisie is allowed to have a really interesting moment of agency when she chooses not to go with Susanna, I agree with you that this narrative move keeps her in a relatively static position.  She gets to stay the Maisie as Onata Aprille plays her, the good and angelic child who “knows” but perhaps naively so.  She doesn’t “grow up”—and her observing consciousness doesn’t change and evolve into something more active and “adult”.  And while I think we can complicate the ways in which active and passive work as categories in how we construct and understand childhood, this choice by the screenwriters really limits the scope of James’s novel.

In addition to limiting Maisie’s development as a character, I also think that the choice problematically limits the development of Lincoln and Margot, who are played by Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham respectively and who are the film’s versions of Sir Claude and Miss Overmore.  By having the film end in the way that it does, they become stuck in their own version of static goodness like Maisie.  Their growing affection for and movement toward one another as the film progresses is intimately tied up with their desire to care for and parent Maisie—as well as with their marked ability to do so better than her biological parents.  Both blonde and both at least ten years younger than Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, who plays Maisie’s father, they are also interestingly positioned as the better choice aesthetically.  Moore and Coogan are certainly not unattractive people, but Skarsgard and Vanderham are a far “prettier” pair to be sure.

All of these choices really strip the complexity that James’s ending offers the story.  I understand that every film adaptation of a novel is required to distill and eliminate key aspects of the plot, and I am not an adaptation studies scholar who adheres to a strict standard of textual fidelity—but I think the screenwriters stumbled in this regard.  Indeed, what allowed James’s novel to translate from the late-nineteenth to the late-twentieth century so well and so seamlessly is its striking modernity.  The way that the novel treats disintegration and instability of marriage as a central theme feels more modern than Victorian.  As such, the film’s ending feels more Victorian in a conventional sense—which is to say that it felt maintained an investment in moving towards re-instituting the stability of the nuclear, heterosexual family.  Certainly there’s plenty within the narrative that disrupts and troubles this linear trajectory—including the fact that Lincoln and Margot and Maisie form a family by choice rather than by blood—however, the film institutes and enforces a closure based on romantic love that James’s novel just does not have.  It’s a happier ending to be sure, but not a Jamesian one.

VS: I hadn’t considered the conclusion in those terms, as a more decidedly Victorian ending than even James provides, but your reading makes a lot of sense to me. Like you, I did not expect or even hope for total fidelity to the novel, but I suspect I felt particularly let down during the movie’s final scenes because the screenwriters’ decision to modernize the narrative seems to require, if only for a sense of internal logic, adherence to James’s modern conclusion. The ending also indulged in what I thought was some needlessly heavy-handed symbolism: a kite that we spied tangled in some electrical wires at the beginning of the movie is now free. For a film that remained, for the most part, attentive to the messiness and ugliness of Maisie’s situation, the final shot of Maisie running (in slow motion, no less!) down a pier was a groaner for me, an over-simplification.

Happily, the ending did not undermine my enjoyment of film. I thought it was compelling, well acted, and beautifully shot. Reflecting on the movie now, some weeks after I saw it, what adheres to my memory more than finer plot points are the movie’s striking visual vignettes. Maisie seen through the glass door of her elementary school, quiet and patient, waiting for a neglectful adult to remember to fetch her. Or a high domed ceiling Maisie glimpses while her mother drags her through a court building on the way to a custody hearing. Maisie’s world as lit by Central Park afternoon light or by the bleared headlights of cars leaving a bar at 2 am. I found McGehee and Siegel’s adaptation impressionistic in a way that recalls faithfully my experience reading a James novel: a little meandering—those sentences!—but, when complete, a comprehensive whole, a clear sense of tone and color.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Maisie, Ryan! I’ll be ready with the popcorn for the next Victorian novel that hits the big screen.

RF:  Thank you too, Victoria—and you have yourself a deal!  I think (and hope) that our conversation reveals how complex this film is, and that it is well worth the time for any scholar interested in James, What Maisie Knew, and film adaptations of nineteenth-century fiction.

Victoria Ford Smith is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. She specializes in children’s literature, and has recently finished a book manuscript on adult-child partnerships in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature.

Ryan D. Fong is an Assistant Professor of English at Kalamazoo College, where he teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature, as well as gender and sexuality studies. He is working on a book project that analyzes the afterlife of late-Victorian narrative forms in contemporary Neo-Victorian fiction.

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