Nov 4, 2000

The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton is a storyteller who shows characters trapped within a system. This is advanced storytelling and the most challenging kind of fiction writing you can do. Wharton is a master at showing that the real currency in a close, hierarchical society is status, not money.

But in The House of Mirth, Wharton makes the deadly mistake found in much of advanced fiction: creating a passive character. Lily Bart simply reacts to the attacks of others around her. Wharton compounds the mistake by making her hero foolish. That means that the plot is stripped of almost all turns. The hero is beaten on for the entire story and then falls. But we've known the final destructionwas coming for a long time. About the only element of story interest here is the fact that Lily's ultimate downfall is caused by her own misplaced sense of right.

Terence Davies' adaptation makes the weaknesses of Wharton's story worse. This film defines slow. Wharton doesn't have to be this dull, as The Age of Innocence proved. Here everything is pounded into the ground.

Some important lessons: if you write about characters within a system, make your hero active, even if he or she fails to defeat the larger system. Keep the scenes tight. And remember, this is film, which uses the cut, and that means that the juxtaposition of scenes is more important than what is in any individual scene. The placement of one scene before or after another should create new information.