‘A Passage to India’: David Lean’s Rocky Road to Creating a Most Powerful Adaptation

In 1924 E.M. Forster published his highly acclaimed novel A Passage to India. Exactly sixty years later David Lean’s film adaptation saw the light of day, received a huge applause from the audiences and entered the history books as one of the greatest screen adaptations the world has ever seen. But to think that the road from point A to point B was anything but a rocky one would be a grave mistake. The obstacles that Lean had to encounter on his way to making this adaptation were almost too many to mention. First of all, Forster cultivated an intense feeling of distrust towards the world of film. He coldly rejected many offers from filmmakers who wanted to tell his story, being afraid they would ruin his work of art by missing the whole point of the novel and turning it into a biased depiction of either the British or the Indians. Even after his death, the rights still remained unattainable for all interested parties, because the head of King’s College, which gained the rights to Forster’s work, shared his feelings towards Hollywood. Things changed in 1980, when Professor Bernard Williams, a true filmlover, became in charge at King’s College. And who was his favorite among the directors capable of transferring Forster’s story to the big screen? Nobody other than the great David Lean, the man who was out of work for 14 years, trying to recover from the devastating impact the underappreciated Ryan’s Daughter had on his career.

Since one of the conditions was that Santha Rama Rau, a playwright who brought A Passage to India to the stage with the author’s blessing, had to write the screenplay, Lean first had to review her draft, which failed to please him. It was too stagy, too claustrophobic, most of the scenes were designed to be played indoors, and that was something Lean wasn’t interested in doing. He wanted to deliver on the promise that the novel held in its name: he wanted to show the natural beauty of the mysterious country that piqued everybody’s interest, insisting on as many outdoor scenes as possible. Dissatisfied with Santha Rama Rau’s effort, he spent nine months writing the script himself. Being the hardened perfectionist he always was, Lean had to quarrell with his cast, especially with Alec Guinness and Judy Davis, to get what he wanted out of them. His fighting to bring his vision of A Passage to India to life, therefore, continued on set, but all the struggles ultimately paid off when the film was finished and all the problems, like the troublesome task of securing financing for a project deemed outdated in style and subject, suddenly disappered from memory. A Passage to India went on to harvest numerous recognitions from the critics, receiving eleven Academy Award nominations and being universally accepted as Lean’s finest work since Lawrence of Arabia. The final film of this filmmaker’s career is a demonstration of sheer power of a true visionary and craftsman, an ode to all those films that made Hollywood into the giant it still is today.

Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read David Lean’s screenplay for A Passage to India [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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David Lean interviewed by Harlan Kennedy. This article appeared in the Jan-Feb 1985 issue of Film Comment.

David Lean has spent 55 years in the film industry trying to live down his surname. Was ever the son of austerely named English Quakers so given to pathological gigantism? Did ever a former clapper-boy, cutting-room apprentice, “wardrobe mistress,” and assistant director realize—on such wall-to-wall scale—his dreams of directorial grandeur? In the last 30 years Lean movies have come ever more vastly built and budgeted, and with ever vaster breathing spaces between them. Five years each between The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and then three between Lawrence and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Five years between Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Now 14 years between Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India (1984). The mind boggles at the age Lean, now 76, will be when by mathematical progression, he is ready to make his next film.

The shade of E. M. Forster must be casting sympathetic sighs Lean’s way. The novelist’s own travails in writing A Passage To India (ten years, including a break midway to write his homosexual novel Maurice) were almost as momentous as Lean’s own in reaching the starting line on his longest cherished book-into-movie project. Yet, insists Sir David (knighted last summer), “I would rather make one good picture in three years than make four others in the same time.” Who could doubt it? Who could fail to be impressed by it? In a British cinema stuffed with oddball loners—Michael Powell with his hothouse romanticism, Robert Hamer with his gallows farce, the myth-seeking modernism of Nicolas Roeg and John Boorman—Lean’s oddness is less outre but no less provocative.

In the beginning was the clapper-boy, and to the clapper-boy the cinema was God. One can describe almost in a straight line Lean’s early, brisk rise—devoid of any hint of Brobdingnagian things to come—from manning the clapperboard for Gaumont Pictures (he quit his father’s accounting firm for films in 1927, aged 19) to becoming a writer-editor-commentator for Gaumont British newsreels to editing feature films (As You Like It, Pygmalion, One of our Aircraft Is Missing) to his co-directing baptism on In Which We Serve (sharing credit with Noel Coward) through to his own early movies, from the Forties’ Coward and Dickens adaptations up to Summertime in 1955.

The plum puzzle at the heart of Lean’s life story is this: How can a man spend a 20-year apprenticeship learning the editor’s craft of concision and precision, of slicing the fat off films, and then evolve into a director who seems allergic to using scissors on his films at all? Whatever happened to Lean the lean? In 1942 Noel Coward, lips pursed and eyebrows akimbo, clipped out advice to his co-director on In Which We Serve: “Never pop out of the same hole twice, dear boy.” And though Lean has popped out of the same hole twice, of course, from time to time (two Dickens films, two Celia Johnson stiff-upper-lip epics), he has never popped out of the same hole three times. It’s the mixture of judicious repetition and sudden spectacular direction-changes that makes Lean hard to pin down.

Even in his young days as a snipper-together of unconsidered footage, working in the primeval dawn of the editing art (“There was no moviola,” Lean has said. “You just ran the film through your fingers and cut with a pair of scissors”), Lean wasn’t contributing only to the reductive requisites of the craft. In the heyday of the British quota quickie, when theaters had to field a proportion of British film fare far exceeding what the industry could decently assemble, Lean was hired to stretch and pad thin narrative material into feature-length program-fillers. In his hands, films would fatten through the ingenious plundering of stock footage, the artfully prolonged closeup, or the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t recycling of identical shots. Here, in the unexpected ingenuities of expansionist editing, we might sense the first stirrings of Lean the epic-maker. “The hell with quickfire cutting and helter-skelter montage,” he might have meditated. “May not the camera as profitably linger as leap about?”

The two warring sides of Lean the artist—the reductive and the accretive—are in full cry in his first directing assignment, In Which We Serve. Two of the sequences Lean is known to have masterminded, without the Master apparently minding, are the dive-bombing of the ship and Celia Johnson’s Christmas dinner speech about the life of a sailor’s wife. The first sequence is an example of the newsreelist’s art transferred to feature film: a rat-a-rat montage of action and reaction, melee and mayhem, kaleidoscopically evoked. But in the second, linear Lean takes over to daring effect. He holds the camera on Johnson’s face throughout the long speech without a single cutaway to the listeners, profoundly intensifying the emotional effect. Already in Lean’s priorities the unblinking camera is favored for scenes of human interaction, while montage is ghettoed off for action scenes.

Startlingly early in his directing career, furthermore, Lean was flirting with the ambitious wonders of the 70mm lens. In Great Expectations he and art director John Bryan used 70mm and 50mm lenses in addition to the more normal 35mm; they even designed the sets to compensate for 70mm’s shortened perspective by making them slope away from the camera. The strategy behind the use of different lenses is ingeniously illustrated in the depiction of Miss Havisham’s house. When seen through the boy Pip’s eyes, the sets look vast and cavernous (shot with a 24mm lens); but when seen through the older Pip’s eyes, they seem small and enclosed (75mm lens). It’s the high definition and vivid fore-grounding of 70mm that give Lean’s Dickens films their immediacy—those luminous closeups that swirl across the screen with the vastness and detail of a natural landscape. When a journalist questioned Lean as to whether the average filmgoer would actually notice he was using a 70mm lens, Lean snapped quickly back, “Well, they don’t notice the 14 coats of paint on a Rolls-Royce, but they’re still there.”

Lean detractors will argue that cinematic Rolls-Royces are exactly what the director has increasingly devoted himself to creating. Vast, sleek, cushioned, and purring, his Kwai-and-after epics are designed to make ordinary feature films look like beat-up Chevvies. To filmgoers who couldn’t give a damn about paintwork or upholstery, and just want to be driven wittily or dramatically from point A to point B, the late Lean style sometimes seems like so much inflated snobbism. Whereas the 70mm lens is used for precise dramatic purposes in Great Expectations, it’s merely used for all-purpose five-star spectacle in Kwai or Lawrence. Whereas the sophisticated soundtrack in Lean’s 1952 The Sound Barrier was used to evoke the experience of mach-1 flying, in Zhivago or Ryan’s Daughter the sophisticated sound is just used to blandish us with wrap-around Muzak. Whereas the star casts of Oliver Twist or Great Expectations were handpicked to do justice to Dickens’ exotics and grotesques, the star casts of the Lean blockbusters have less to do with the perfect or even plausible matching of actor to role (Guinness as an Arab prince? Robert Mitchum as a tongue-tied Irish teacher? Omar Sharif as a struggling Russian poet-doctor?) than with shoring up the boxoffice with a roll call of thespian glamour.

To understand Lean, you have to understand the principles of detonation in the British artistic temperament, a process unlike any other on earth. When frustrated British reticence reaches fission point, it turns straight into holocaust grandiloquence: the paintings of Francis Bacon, the films of Michael Powell, the magic moments in Olivier’s acting. It’s after Summertime that Lean became, spectacularly, his own master. It’s as if the repressed British artist has sensed release at the call of Fifties blockbusterism, just as in Summertime skittering Hepburn sloughs spinsterhood at the mating call of the Brazzi. There is no holding him as his screens get wider, his stories get longer, and we enter the strange new obsessive world of Lean elephantiasis. Here it can be argued that Lean’s late luxuriant epics are more interesting, for all their fatuities, than his “perfect” apprentice work—as the products of individual preference are always more interesting than the execution (however flawless) of received rules (however golden).

Lean’s epics have been known to cast a spell on impressionable and by no means negligible movie minds. No sooner did Luchino Visconti, for example, emerge in a guilty but rapturous glow from his first viewing of Doctor Zhivago than he said to his companion, “Let’s see it round again. But don’t tell anyone!” To hungry filmgoers who hold out their senses to the cinema saying, “Please, sir, can I have some more,” Lean dishes out every ingredient we secretly want to guzzle. The all-star cast; the engulfing screen; the epic landscapes; the retina-whopping colors; the lush music; the wall-to-wall (and floor-to-ceiling) sound; the action—and passion-packed story; the rolling narrative surge, like a soap opera writ large, lyrical, and extra-lathery. The trouble with Lean, of course, is that he takes all this so seriously. Instead of just giving us lavish potboilers, he pretends they’re magna opera. Gone with the Wind and Duel in the Sun we can relish for their pop-operatic hyperbole, but there isn’t a hint of camp or purple bravura in Lean. Ten-ton literary classics are out diet, or earnest hymns to the heroic spirit in war, or the growing pains of Irish history rhymed with the growing pains of Irish womanhood in Ryan’s Daughter. Anyone caught laughing at the films or their perfervid pathos must stay and see Mr. Lean after class.

In adapting A Passage to India, Lean was keen to insure that Forster’s independent-minded women—the young Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and the older Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft)—didn’t come over as `aggressive’. Ironically, Lean’s women, certainly in his early films and even (if more simplemindedly) in Ryan’s Daughter, have often been the feistiest of independents: Jean Simmons’ spitfire Estella in Great Expectations, Hepburn yacking her way to late-blooming sexuality in Summertime, and, of course, Celia Johnson taking a gulp and throwing propriety to the winds in Brief Encounter. For the male artist—especially the British male artist—depicting the growth of passion and independence in a woman is a challenging task. Lean, who made his boldest attempt at it in Brief Encounter, perhaps never got over the traumatic experience of that film’s first preview: “A woman in the front started laughing at the first love scene. Pretty soon the laughter spread right through the cinema… I fled, convinced that I had a total disaster.”

There’s a strange reticence, a kind of throttled emotionalism, in Lean’s films that does indeed suggest a fear of feeling or of the ridicule attending vulnerability. Lean is often far more confident handling the absurdist agonies of the constipated British soul—Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson in Kwai, O’Toole’s pale, agonized Lawrence—than with plonking big uncorseted emotions down on the screen. Yet so, in a way, was E.M. Forster—that miniaturist of the heart whose characters never quite trust their own emotions, even when they’re most passionately gripped by them. Lean’s challenge in A Passage to India was to marry hill subtle gaucherie of feeling with an insight into the novel’s tragic collision of human value systems and cosmic nihilism and to make the British movie about India “to which all others are trailers.”

Old stone bridge, fluffed-up swans gliding on artificial lake, palms and orange trees, rioting ferns, flaming oleanders, trees I cannot name. Pink stone arches, long corridor leading to a lush rattan-furnished suite with indoor palm. No, not India—Hollywood. The Bel Air Hotel, where Sir David Lean, silver and seigneurial, welcomes me in. Glimpses of our conversation about A Passage to India follow.

When did you first read A Passage to India?
You know, I cannot remember. It’s a jolly hard book to read—it’s tough. Have you been dipping in? (Yes.) I’ll tell you a fascinating thing about it. Do you want me to go on and talk like this? (Sure.) I like a fairly strong narrative in a film and [E.M.] Forster—I don’t think he’s as concerned with narrative as a lot of people would claim. The trouble with making a film is that he keeps going off on the most wonderful sidetracks, and one is tempted to go down them with him. One writes pages of script and then thinks, “Well, wait a minute; I’ve gone off the story.” And then you have to cut, because it’s a huge book. It was terribly difficult, because he’s got a narrative there but it’s awfully hard to find it. I used to sit myself down and think, “Now what is this section really about?” Now the end section—that’s a fine kettle of fish. New characters popping up, a dying Rajah, and so on. Aziz letting his instruments rust.

Obviously you had to collapse incidents, and a portion of the film totally invented by you, which does not derive from Forster, is the scene where Adela Quested (Judy Davis) goes cycling in the country and discovers an overgrown temple encrusted with marvelous erotic carvings of couples… well, coupling.
That’s totally mine, yes. You see the reason why?

It depicts the sexual stirrings and awakening of desire within Adela.
Correct. In the book and in the play particularly, I must tell you, Miss Quested was an absolute “stick,” and I thought she was quite uninteresting. And when the idea is presented that Aziz had attempted whatever he attempted, in the caves, I thought, “What?” It didn’t work. And I wanted to set it up so that you could argue afterwards, “Did he? Didn’t he?” In the book and in the play Miss Quested was not a believable character on the whole, as far as her sexuality was concerned. I thought that I had to find a way that fills her out a little more, to let you see that she is beginning to awaken sexually… because India can do this, you know. There are two lots of people that go to India: Some get off the plane and want to get the next plane out; others want to stay for six months—and she obviously is one who wanted to stay for six months, and I wanted to catch a bit of that.

Was the temple real or a construction?
A couple of the long shots of the temple through trees are real; the rest is constructed in little bits and pieces cut together. It was all shot in different places, and I didn’t know until I cut it if it would work—I went out on a limb. It does work, doesn’t it?

Indeed it does.
Good. I meant it to be sort of sexually frightening-you know, her feelings, the roaring, and, my God, the monkeys going after her.

Does this scene marry with a line—not in the book—at the trial in which she states that she did not love Ronny her fiance?
“Seeing Chandrapore so far away, I realized I didn’t love him.” That’s me. I was trying to make her go, as it were, almost into the past so that she’s removed from the town, Ronny, just that. You know, it happens to people when they go down to the Mediterranean on holiday—Swedes, Finns, English people—come down to Spain and behave as they wouldn’t normally. It’s that sort of thing. And so the idea is that it’s a sort of walk into old places, old mountains with that old ancient animal climbing up them.

The mountain is fantastic.
It’s good, isn’t it? It works. Because we went all over the place looking for that, and I found it. Nobody knew about it, because it’s such a huge country. And it’s about an hour out of Bangalore.

There’s a remarkable lack of music in the film. All the drama is in the voices and images. I also noticed that you were cutting on particular words. For instance, someone would say, “Tomorrow we are in Ranjipur,” and we cut to Ranjipur. Is this a purposeful technique you were using—opposed to dissolves?
I rather like the technique. I haven’t got many dissolves. In fact I’ve only got one fade-in, fade-out, which goes from the crocodile to the garden pasty. And there was a good season for that, because I suddenly realized that to cut from the crocodile eating a body to “tea for two”… well, wiseacres would find that very funny. So I faded out and faded in, to separate them.

In the trial scene you intercut between the earlier Judy Davis cave scene and the trial to illustrate her state of mind.
Yes. When you have the court scene she says, “I lit a match,” and I cut back to her in the cave looking out, and Aziz appears at the entrance of the cave; then I cut back to her in court looking at the cave. And you hear the voice, and it follows you. I was awfully pleased with that, and I thought it worked. It’s quite interesting the way you can cut and jump around in time in movies—I don’t think it’s been done too often—and there’s enormous scope for it, as long as it’s crystal clear so that you don’t lose your audience and have them thinking, “What the hell is that?”

Again in Forster, at the garden party (or the “bridge party,” as he calls it) all the Indian men were dressed in European fashion, and it was very uncomfortable. But in the film it looks so nice that it doesn’t look bad or uncomfortable—and the dialogue about “Why aren’t we treating our guests…”
Well, I thought it was bad enough to have the English characters all seated up on a raised part and the Indians standing below, just being totally ignored, looking up. I think Forster went a little bit overboard. I must tell you that one or two people objected that in the trial, which I practically rewrote and made a big scene of it, I put Mrs. Moore’s death in the middle because I wanted Mrs. Moore to hang over the trial. I think it works. One of the biggest scenes in the book is that at the trial all the English take their seats and move up on the platform until they’re told by Das, the trial judge, to move down. I believe it would look really stupid if you’re going to have a trial at which Aziz and eventually the girl are up against the English—they’ve got to be worthy opponents. And people moving their chairs up and down would be wrong. I’m glad I made that change, though many people said that Forster had them move up and down… I know he did that but I refrained from doing it very purposefully in the same way I didn’t “guy” the Indians with spats and awkward collars—I think it’s a bit corny.

How did you attempt to duplicate the mystical sound, the “ou-boum” Forster describes as a property of the caves? It was almost mocking – the eternal mocking the temporal.
You know, it’s very interesting, but booms were attacked like mad at the time by D. H. Lawrence, for instance… But Forster said, and I think it’s rather good, that the boom was a trick which he would have attempted nowhere else but in India. And it was, of course, a very worrying thing for me because if “BOOM” doesn’t work, the whole cave incident doesn’t work, and you’ve got everything falling in on you.

Was Forster right about the British in India?
Forster, oh dear, oh dear. I think he hated the English out there. And he was queer, and you can imagine how they must have disapproved of that – this damned Englishman working for a Maharajah. The dislike was mutual, but I’ve toned down a lot of that. It’s all very well to criticize the English but just take a look at New Delhi, look at the railway system, look at the postal system – which works. We’ve left them all sorts of bad things, I suppose, but they also got some very good things.

Do you feel that Forster’s portrayal of the British woman in India was a fair one?
I think that was more or less fair. In fact, I’ve made it rather worse, if anything. I’ve taken some of the worst stuff and put it on to the women, on to Mrs. Turton, the Collector’s wife, rather than the men, because I don’t think the men were all a lot of fools. It’s awfully easy to sit back and say they were a lot of clowns. They weren’t. But you can still meet these women in India today. Mrs. Turton would be retired and find herself having had twelve servants suddenly lucky that she has one. She doesn’t know what hit her. It’s rather sad, really. Because they lived a tremendous life out there—created their own towns.

But the British of today have integrated themselves more fully into Indian life.
Well, I’m quite a good example. I married one. I was married to her for several years.

You can’t get closer than that, I guess.
Guess not.

Now about the play A Passage to India, by Santha Rama Rau…
I’ll tell you a funny thing about that. I saw the play about 25 years ago, and it was a terrible thing because Norman Wooland—he was in Larry Olivier’s Hamlet—played Fielding. He was awfully good, and I could not get his face out of my head. Whenever I thought of Fielding, I saw Norman Wooland up there superimposed over everything. The same thing happened with Zia Mohyeddin, who was very good as Aziz. (I gave him a small part as the guide to Peter O’Toole in Lawrence.) He was too old for Aziz now, and I believe it broke his heart because he wanted to be in it. And I just couldn’t get his face out of my head. Now, I’m glad to say, they’ve been supplanted, but they’re hovering there…

Why do you keep working with Sir Alec Guinness?
Well, Alec started his film career with me on Great Expectations, then he did Oliver Twist, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. It was rather a good working partnership. I like Alec. And I think he has the most difficult role in this film. It required a tremendously good character actor to bring it off, I think.

Why is it the most difficult role in the film?
You see, Godbole is everything. He’s sort of first cousin to Mrs. Moore, he’s got a sort of extrasensory perception—at least I gave him that; he’s part mumbo-jumbo, part highly intelligent, cynical, part funny. It’s a real bag of tricks to contain in one character.

How do you prepare your films? Do you storyboard, do you do step-outs?
I nearly always write the shooting script and imagine seeing it as a finished film on screen. I think that this might be good in a long shot, that in a close-up, that in a panning shot. And I try to write down the pictures that I see on an imaginary screen. I’m a picture chap, I like pictures, and when I go to the movies I go to see pictures. I think dialogue is nearly always secondary in a movie. It’s awfully hard when you look back over the really great movies that you see in your life to remember a line of dialogue. You will not forget pictures.

What films do you like?
People ask me this, and so I’m wheeling out old answers. I remember when I first went to the movies, they hit me right in the eyeball. I’ll never forget seeing Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It had a wonderful sweep to it. And I saw it again only a few years ago, here in Los Angeles at FILMEX. A new print and a 40-piece orchestra. Absolutely stunning, I thought. And I also like stars. It became a sort of thing to laugh at Valentino, Errol Flynn. God’s sake, they were both terrific. Go and see Dawn Patrol, go and see Robin Hood—Fairbanks and Flynn. Wonderful! Wonderful people to watch! I suppose it was those early movie-makers mostly I remember as a boy… getting out of the suburbs of London and into a really magic house… looking at that beam of light coming through the smoke. There were things on the screen that you thought you’d never ever see in real life, and I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of them. I’ll never forget seeing King Vidor’s The Big Parade with John Gilbert and Renee Adore saying “Goodbye” with the trucks going up to the “Front,” and her left alone and everything moving against her. I’ve used it several times. I love that business with a single figure against moving people… And then much later the shock of seeing Citizen Kane and the way Orson turned everything upside down. Wonderful, that dance he had with the girls in the newspaper office. Terrific! Hard to do that sort of thing.

Have you seen Gandhi?
I have and I haven’t. In India I saw a pirated tape which was a good half-hour short, and it was an appalling quality. So I can’t really say that I’ve seen Gandhi.

Why is there this sudden interest in India? Spielberg had a short sequence in Close Encounters, plus Indiana Jones, Gandhi, two TV mini-series, The Far Pavilions and Jewel in the Crown. And now Judith de Paul has just completed Mountbatten in India.
People asked me that in India. They sort of approached me with a knowing smile. (Lean in imitation of Indian speech). “I suppose you are cashing eeen on the present trend,” or something like that. I think it’s coincidence. I know we weren’t trying to cash in on anything… Kubrick did 2001, and since then we’ve had a rash of space operas. Somebody will do a hit film about New Zealanders and everybody will rush off to New Zealand! That’s movies.

The legendary film director of Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia and Great Expectations talks from the set in India.

David Lean went into an edit suite to show how he shot and edited a single sequence, this time from the film A Passage to India.

The making of David Lean’s A Passage to India. Photographed by Frank Connor © Columbia Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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