The Masters: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 
The screenwriter-novelist behind the legendary Merchant Ivory catalogue on the key to her longevity and how she “disrespected” the classic novels she adapted.

Written by Denis Faye  

“I honored those books [I adapted], and I loved them, but the moment I started to make them into a screenplay, I became most disrespectful, did exactly what I thought I should be doing to make it interesting for a cinema audience.” 

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala warned me at the onset of our conversation that it might be a short one. At 84, her asthma sometimes gets the best of her, so talking can be a challenge. Regardless, the veteran fiction writer, winner of two Oscars, the WGA Screen Laurel Award and the Booker Prize felt she’d be able to give me a good ten minutes.

Considering these achievements, along with the fact that she’s the pen behind the lion’s share of the legendary Merchant Ivory film catalogue, I’ll take what I can get. Luckily, our conversation went on far longer than ten minutes. Maybe she just enjoyed the conversation. Maybe I caught her on a good day. Or maybe, considering the amazing length and breadth of her writing career, she’s just unstoppable.

Most readers of the Writers Guild of America, West Web site’s Masters series probably know Jhabvala (pronounced “Job-va-la”) for her screen adaptations, particularly Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, for which she won her first Oscar; Howards End, for which she won her second Oscar; as well as Room with a View; Remains of the Day; and countless others. These scripts, however, are just a small portion of her literary output. Long before James Ivory and Ismail Merchant approached her in 1963 to adapt her novel The Householder, Jhabvala had established herself as a fiction writer with internationally published novels and frequent contributions to the New Yorker. Having been born to Jewish parents in pre-World War II Germany, Jhabvala and her family fled the Nazis in 1939. She grew up in England, where she met her husband-to-be, architect Cyrus Jhabvala. The couple married and moved to his native India in 1951. They eventually relocated to New York, where they currently reside.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Filmography

The City of Your Final Destination
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the Novel by Peter Cameron

Le Divorce
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala & James Ivory
Based upon the Novel by Diane Johnson

The Golden Bowl
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
From the Novel by Henry James

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries
Screenplay by James Ivory & Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Surviving Picasso
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the Book Picasso: Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington

Jefferson in Paris
Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

The Remains of the Day
Screenplay by Ruth P. Jhabvala
Based on the Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

Howards End
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the Novel by E.M. Forster.

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the Novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell

A Room With a View
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the Novel by E.M. Forester.

The Bostonians
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the Novel by Henry James.

Heat and Dust
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on her Novel

Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

The Europeans
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Based on the Novel by Henry James

Jhabvala’s life has been rich with the literary inspiration that she channels into her fiction, yet when she writes for the screen, she prefers adapting other writers’ works. Indeed, her output over the years has included few original scripts, namely Jefferson in Paris, as well as the adaptation of her own books, The Householder and Heat and Dust.

“For me, writing an original screenplay is more difficult. That’s why adaptation is more of a joy in film,” notes Jhabvala in a lovely, proper accent that falls somewhere between German, British, and Indian. “It’s simpler when you follow some great master like Henry James or E.M. Forster. You follow in their footsteps. You have something very solid. Whereas, if you’re on your own, you don’t really have anything. You have to spin it yourself.”

As much as this are great footsteps to follow, however, Jhabvala admits that there’s a Machiavellian aspect to adapting even the most beloved of literally works. “I honored those books, and I loved them,” she continues, “but the moment I started to make them into a screenplay, I became most disrespectful, did exactly what I thought I should be doing to make it interesting for a cinema audience. I changed things. My love for the book always remained, but I knew I had to let go of it. I had to feel absolutely free to make the characters move and live the way they would on the screen rather than on the page.”

One of the authors that Jhabvala has most successfully “disrespected” (her words, not mine) is E. M. Forster, the writer behind Howards End and A Room with a View. She credits these successes to a few things, including that old adage “write that you know.”

“I have great rapport with Forster and his life,” she explains. “I grew up in England, and I went to India, the same as him. I knew the sort of characters he wrote about. I knew the Indian characters he wrote about. I knew them well. It wasn’t strange territory for me. For example, sometimes people send me books set in Iowa or somewhere. I would have no idea! A book set in England or India? Okay, that’s fine. Or even here on the East coast, that’s fine. I’ve met those people.”

Jhabvala also credits the Forster film successes to their director, James Ivory. “Forster was very suitable for James. They have a lot in common. They were both great travelers. They have the same kind of sensibility. That was always in the foreground. It should be suitable to him, and it was.”

The Ivory/Jhabvala professional relationship, which has gone on for over 40 years, is rare for an industry in which loyalty and continued writer/director collaborations aren’t all that highly prized. What makes their work together all the more unique is that their early projects required intercontinental communication sans Internet – or even telephones for that matter.

“In the first 20 years, I lived in India, and he lived, well, all over the place,” the writer explains. “At that time, telephone connection was out of the question. You had to book it days before, and it was for three minutes at a time. I had to write it down. I just couldn’t do it any other way.”

So Jhabvala would write a note or a draft and send it via the post, which would take about five days to get to Ivory. “I’d give him a couple days in between, then five days to get back to me. It never took more than two weeks.”

Even today, the notion of corresponding via pen and paper is ingrained in Jhabvala’s process. Despite the fact that she and Ivory are in the same building, when she wants him to know something, she writes it down and sends it to him. “He gets notes from me,” she laughs. “I just can’t sit down and talk.”

She rarely uses e-mail and when she does, she uses it on her husband’s computer. She refuses to install the Internet on her Mac. “I don’t want any interference,” she insists. “You keep getting messages if you have e-mail or Internet. If you don’t have it, it’s just you and the computer.”

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala flanked by her frequent collaborators, James Ivory (left) and Ismail Merchant.  

Jhabvala’s last film with Ivory was 2008’s The City of Your Final Destination, based on the novel by Peter Cameron. While she’s open to the notion of writing another script, she doesn’t see it happening. “Ismail (Merchant) died, and he was the one who really got everything going. Jim and I can work on screenplays – okay, that’s fine – but who’s the one who’s going to get it all going? Who’s going to get the money? Who’s going to do all the distribution? That was all Ismail.” She pauses to ponder. “Maybe if it comes up.”

But this doesn’t mean she’s slowed her creative output. She continues to write fiction. Her most recent short story collection, A Love Story for India, was released in the United Kingdom this year and is due in the states in February 2012.

While she loves the structure and limitations of screen adaption, when it comes to her fiction, she thrives when coming up with something completely original. “With fiction, it’s mine entirely,” muses the writer. “You have to do everything yourself that, in a film, the director does, the actors do, the set designer does, the camera man does, the whole crew. A novel is more than a blueprint. You have to work out everything yourself.”

And this, in turn, has given Jhabvala a sense of freedom she credits as the key to her longevity. “I like to do something original for myself, by myself without the screenwriting process. I feel completely free. I never care whether all that much is going to be published or not. As long as I can sit down in the morning and all these things come alive for me, that’s fine. And it does come alive still.”