Scorsese’s version of this book is, in my opinion, one of his very best films and on the short list of films I would recommend to anyone wanting to understand good direction. This despite Michelle Pfeiffer’s supposedly miscast as the female lead.
Perhaps my love for the film version is what made me initially kind of underwhelmed by this novel. It took me a while to really appreciate the claustrophobia created by Wharton’s portrayal of social mores of the era. Perhaps my identification of the actors with these roles is what made me take so long to view these characters as independent of the film.
In any case, this is a devastating story of unrequited love within the hypocritical and overly proper world of late 19th century New York. Whereas Henry James’ portrayals of these types of people always fails to make me concerned at all with their fates, Wharton captures these characters as real people, people I care about, despite their privilege and luxury.
Having read a few of James’ novels in between seeing this film and reading this book, I am awed by the contrast between Wharton’s and James’ work. At least for me, her work is far deeper, far more moving, far more relatable. I can’t tell you specifically what it is that makes me greatly prefer Wharton, but whatever it is, it’s fully on display here. (Perhaps its Wharton’s generation in general.)