What Maisie Knew (2012): From Book to Film

With all due respect to Henry James, I’d rather be watching this contemporary adaptation of his work than slashing through the thickets of his novel. A thicket of a book, the last time I used this description was with Proust. And, if I’m to decipher long and incomprehensible sentences I’d rather be reading Proust than James. Nevertheless, James’s novel is a dense and deep psychological analysis of a dysfunctional marriage and its fallout on the child, a relevant issue today. Nobody wins in cases like that.

When published in 1897, it was probably one of the earliest fictional depictions of divorce and child-custody. Precocious Maisie knows much more than her parents could ever imagine. Like a volleyball, she is being tossed back and forth between her Mama and Papa, whichever side she lands on loses, for they both want their life to be free from child-rearing, free from ties and obligations. The notion of being ‘free’ recurs in the last chapters of the book, a key to how Maisie ends up choosing who to follow — her governess Mrs. Wix, someone who is not obsessed with being ‘free’, but who is committed to Maisie’s welfare.

What Maisie Knew


Again, may I reiterate here as in previous posts about books to movies, the two are totally different art forms. Here, one is a 300 page literary work, internal, dense and deep. The other is a 93-minute production of visual storytelling, enhanced by dialogues and musical score. To achieve this end, screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright have to pick and choose the most relevant storyline and characters, and opt out of lengthy, internal exploration of psychological entanglements, something the literary form can describe readily. The screenwriters have done a good job in their choices, keeping the story simple and relevant for viewers a hundred years after the book was published. Despite the subject matter, the movie is enjoyable and highly watchable.

Set in modern day NYC, it smoothly tells a poignant story from the child’s point of view. Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is eyewitness and victim of her parents’ constant quarrels and later divorce, a young child caught in the thorns and thistles of adult relationships. It is unfortunate that the most sensitive and observant child is often the most vulnerable. The naturalistic capture by the camera of Maisie’s quiet observations is most heart-wrenching. Maisie learns that the adult world is a busy place, her presence, an inconvenience. Thanks to the screenwriters’ gentler treatment, the movie spares us from some cruel, hateful fights in the book. We see Maisie ultimately get a taste of what it’s like to be cared for and to have some simple, childhood joy. The ending shot is beautiful.

Unlike Maisie in the novel, there is no moral dilemma for her in the movie. No doubt, the moral element is crucial in James’s novel. Divorce and adultery must have poked deep into the heart of James’s readers in his days. But our contemporary society has, alas, evolved into a ‘morally neutral’ state of numb resistance. The screenwriters may well know too that entertainment value comes before the didactic. We see no moral choices here with Maisie in the movie. After all, a young child will readily cling to whoever that loves her in deeds rather than mere words. Kudos to the filmmakers, they know the heart of a child.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel capture the story from Maisie’s viewpoint, natural and realistic, camera lens often at a lower angle. Certain shots are particularly affective, from inside a taxi, the transport of choice in Manhattan, at different times the vehicle that takes away Mama, Papa, and caring Margo. We would see from inside the taxi out to Maisie standing on the roadside, abandoned and distraught.

The wonderful cast is what makes the movie so absorbing, and at times, even heartwarming, despite its subject matter. The then seven year-old Onata Aprile is a natural. Julian Moore’s solid performance as her mother Susanna is convincing. She is a touring rock-and-roll singer who has passed her prime. Jealous and temperamental, Susanna’s love for Maisie is possessive, and often displayed in empty words. British actor Steve Coogan, known to North American viewers by his recent starring role in Philomena, plays the career-minded art dealer father Beale. Like his ex-wife, he is too busy with his own life to care for a child. They both say they love Maisie, showering bursts of affection whenever they see their child.

What saves Maisie is the awkwardly positioned step-parents, her father’s new wife and Maisie’s former babysitter Margo (Joanna Vanderham, the parallel of Ms. Overmore in the book) and her mother’s new love interest, the tall and young bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård, a Sir Claude parallel). As predicted, they soon are abandoned themselves and the two quickly form a tie that includes Maisie in their life. Diverging from James’s story, the two are genuinely loving and caring, a soothing balm to Maisie and the viewers.

Overall, a fine, contemporary adaptation of the novel. To James purists, a loose reinvention; for viewers seeking meaningful entertainment, this should be on the list of films to watch.

~ ~ ~ Ripples



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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

22 thoughts on “What Maisie Knew (2012): From Book to Film”

    1. Michelle,

      Don’t let me discourage you from reading James. I’d be curious to know what you think of both the book and the movie. 😉


  1. I double checked my own posts and yep, just like you I was not much of a fan of James’ writing style here – plus he was a racist – but thought the film was an inspired adaptation. Great post.


  2. I do like James though I know he can be a bit, er, long-winded. Sounds like a good film. I will keep it in mind for a future viewing! Nice review 🙂


    1. Stefanie,

      O I don’t mean just wordy or long-winded, there are many sentences that I had to reread and still not be able to comprehend. Maybe just me. 😉 Having said that, I’d thoroughly enjoyed The Europeans. I was listening to the audio. It was a delightful listen. The Ambassadors and several other James’s works are still on my TBR list.


  3. I love reading about Henry James, but suffer reading his work, I was so surprised after reading David Lodge’s excellent book Author, Author, it made me so want to read Henry James and it was like being trapped in a bog trying to cross a field, hard work!

    However I do have What Maisie Knew on the shelf and I am determined to read it and then reward myself with the film. Oof!


    1. Claire,

      I think that’s a perfect plan. I’m not discouraging anyone from reading James, how can I? Let me know what you think of them. Generally speaking, I’ve enjoyed all the movie adaptations of James’s works, but have not read the source materials for all of them. They are on my TBR list. 😉


  4. Oh, I loved What Maisie Knew! It’s comparatively short (for HJ), and he really did capture the child’s perspective very well (who’d a thunk?). Thanks to your wonderful review, I will have to see this movie before going back to the book!


    1. ds,

      If you’d loved the book, then you’re in for a very different experience with this film. Nonetheless, one that you would enjoy, I hope. 😉


      1. Just wanted to let you know I watched this film with Mum last night and we both really enjoyed it. The actors were all so well selected and the child particularly brilliant with a quiet but centred acting style. Thanks for pointing it out to me I’d have missed it otherwise. Going to hand it on to my Nan at the weekend.


  5. I’ve been trying to find the article, and can’t just now. But I recently read a very provocative piece about what social media is doing to our attention spans, and our ability to read literature. One of the authors mentioned was Henry James. I believe Doestoevsky also was mentioned. The point was that we’re losing the ability to navigate long sentences and complex syntax.

    I really want to find that article now, and give James a try, just to test the hypothesis! It does make a certain sense to me, particularly since I’ve been aware for some time that references from Shakespeare, etc., no longer communicate in the way they used to. We’re losing a common cultural vocabulary.


    1. Linda,

      By all means, read James. Or any classics, we need to preserve the lit heritage. But I’m sure, even within the big umbrella of classics, there are more ‘accessible’ ones. of course, it’s a matter of personal taste, like, e.g. reading through the 130-line sentence in Proust can be an intriguing and even enjoyable experience. I didn’t feel as much frustration as going through some of the sentences here. Nonetheless, I appreciate the detailed psychological volley among the characters both internal and explicit in What Maisie Knew. After all, it runs in the family, doesn’t it, being just one year apart from his prominent older bro William.


  6. Oh my goodness, the expression on that child’s face! What an incredibly knowing look. Fascinating review, Arti, and I feel I must read the book first, though I agree with every sensible word you say about books and films being very different media and therefore having different strategies and intentions. it sounds like a movie I’d like to see, though.


    1. litlove,

      I think you’d enjoy both book and film. That child is the key to the effectiveness of the storytelling. The film is out on DVD’s and Blu-rays now. I borrowed it from the library.


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