“Daisy Miller (1974),” a fascinating if occasionally frustrating film based on an early novella by Henry James, presented a challenge to filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich — how to translate ambiguous literary nuance into dramatic cinematic language. (Director James Ivory had faced the same challenge in adapting James’s “The Bostonians” 10 years later.) It also became a lesson in the dangers of subjecting a private personal relationship to a very public filmmaking world.
Bogdanovich, initially a writer himself (albeit a film analyst and critic), had studied carefully how auteurs such as Orson Welles used cinematography and editing to define character, context, and compelling narrative. He put these lessons to work in his acclaimed previous film, the moody and evocative “The Last Picture Show” (based on a more straightforward narrative by popular writer Larry McMurtry). It was in creating that film that Bogdanovich met (and began a long-term relationship with) Cybill Shepherd, a hauntingly beautiful gamine who complemented the rough-hewn charm of the young Jeff Bridges.
Bogdanovich made a controversial decision to cast Shepherd as Daisy Miller — partially on the basis of her rawboned, all-American beauty (James’s Daisy was a similar ingenue from upstate New York), partially for her tabula rasa talent (she took direction from her Svengali all too well), but mostly because he was blindly enamored with her. Although Shepherd’s physical beauty and abstracted flirtatiousness were a perfect match for Daisy’s winsome, guileless simplicity, this casting decision came back to bite not only Bogdanovich but also (unfairly) his young star.
In James’s story, Daisy arrives with her newly-affluent family to an exclusive Italian spa — a naive, somewhat thoughtless young interloper stumbling into a viciously unforgiving society of bored, narcissistic American expatriates. As the venue moves to Rome, this social oppressiveness turns into vengeful ostracism. Winterbourne (Barry Brown), James’s jaded and not always reliable narrator, is both fascinated and put off by Daisy’s innocence. His inability to rebuke his own stultifying world and act in her defense has an inadvertently tragic result.
To capture the tone of the book, Bogdanovich directed Shepherd to exaggerate all too literally the flirty, thoughtless patter described by James (“. . . It was many years since he had heard a young girl talk so much. It might have been said of this unknown young lady . . . that she chattered.”). When the film first introduces Daisy, the director’s overly rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue is jarring — Howard Hawks or Robert Altman on steroids. This failed direction was a disservice to his actress’s earnest attempt to embody Daisy’s literary persona.
Based on these initial awkward scenes, some viewers dismissed Shepherd’s performance (a criticism also overlain with a somewhat snarky attitude toward Bogdanovich’s hubris in casting his girlfriend). However, as the film settles into its narrative pace, Shepherd finds her own comfortable fit within the role, resisting overbearing direction and exerting more conscious control over her actually winning performance.
“Daisy Miller” carefully follows Henry James’s action and plot. Daisy’s impulsive rebelliousness is reinforced by the rejection of her peers and compounded by Winterbourne’s vacillation at her attempts to forge a deeper relationship. She embarks on an ill-advised midnight visit to the mosquito-infested Coliseum, contracts malaria (“Roman fever”), and abruptly dies.
As yet another interesting example of the translation of books into film, in James’s story, Daisy’s sudden demise is almost downplayed, except for the reader’s conjecture of its impact on Winterbourne, who soon resubmerges himself in his shallow world of social connections. Is he really able to sublimate all that has happened, or is he paralyzed with unacknowledged guilt as to whether he could have prevented it?
In the film, however, unable to express such an ambiguous ending, Bogdanovich focuses on a dramatic concluding incident — the post-funeral reaction of Daisy’s young brother. Shocked out of his self-centeredness by her death, he leaves Winterbourne with a scathing, accusatory stare that speaks volumes, replacing James’s novelistic ambiguity with an appropriately cinematic certainty.
CODA: As an interesting footnote to James’s novelette and adaptation, check out a short film based on his fellow author and friend Edith Wharton’s startling short story “Roman Fever,” which builds on the same Coliseum-based malarial malevolence as “Daisy Miller,” albeit a generation later. Where Daisy’s fate in the Coliseum was partially self-inflicted, however, this nasty tale of two romantic rivals involves one’s forged letter to the other — an invitation to this same poisonous site, anticipating the same deadly outcome. However, the result decades later is instead an unexpected and long-suppressed revelation.
This exquisite small film, adapted and directed by Derek Coutts for a British film festival, captures in a 20-minute, knives-out lunchtime conversation one of the best short stories ever written. Together with “Daisy Miller,” the two related films promise an evening enjoyably spent in the company of two great writers and two thoughtful filmmakers.
Streaming is a periodic look at classic films, available on home networks and apps. “Daisy Miller” is currently available on Amazon, VUDU, Google Play, and iTunes. “Roman Fever” may be found on Vimeo.