The Portrait of a Lady, Sequel, Remake(?)

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

First, thanks to Bellezza’s open invite to a read-along, posting the photo of John Banville’s newest book Mrs. Osmond, a sequel to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I’d seen the 1996 movie adaptation directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), but had never read James’s novel. What better time to read both books than now.

The Portrait of a Lady

I got hold of The Portrait of a Lady (Modern Library, just love the cover) read part of it then turned to a sound recording (unfortunately couldn’t find the Juliet Stevenson narrated version). Prompted by JoAnn, I interspersed reading with listening and gleaned much pleasure doing that. Here’s my very short, 5-Star Goodreads review:

“Actually I was listening to the Blackstone Audio version of the book as well as reading  parts of the book to ascertain facts in the story or just savour the passages again. James’s portrait of Isabel Archer is one of the saddest fictional heroines I’ve come across. A reminiscence of Anna Karenina emerged as I read the latter part, but Isabel is a character much more likeable for me. Should she be destined to a ruined life due to a naive misjudgement, ok, maybe even foolishness, by marrying Gilbert Osmond? Osmond is evil personified, and I just can’t shake off the face of John Malkovich (from the movie) whenever I read about his cold, domineering hand over Isabel. Isabel definitely needs redemption and saving grace. So I do hope John Banville’s Mrs. Osmond will grant her that.”

The Portrait of a Lady by Jane Campion

Since the image of John Malkovich kept creeping up my mind as I read the book, I quickly turned to the movie adaptation right after I finished the book. I remember I was most disturbed by Osmond’s callous treatment of Isabel when I first watched it years ago; he appeared as a chilling, silent villain, bullying his innocent victim mercilessly. His stepping on Isabel’s floor-length dress to stop her from walking away was still vivid in my mind.

Nicole Kidman

Now as I saw the movie again, I find the feature more style than content. The tilted camera shots? A bit contrived. Malkovich is still evil, and Kidman still the innocent victim, but there isn’t much complexity in the characterization. The editing and much abridged dialogues leave a vacuum. Considering the rich descriptive prowess of Henry James, much is left to be desired in the film. Yes, I’m one who advocates for the appreciation of books and films as two different art forms, and should not be doing a literal comparison when judging the adaptation. Well, I’m not. I’m weighing the film on its own merits. Yes, set design is rich and some artistic shots, but overall pales despite the sumptuous colours. And, what happened to Nicole Kidman’s hair? As much as I’d appreciated Campion’s works, especially her Oscar winning (Best Original Screenplay) film The Piano, I do feel maybe it’s a good time to do a remake of The Portrait of a Lady.

Mrs. Osmond by John Banville

After the movie I turned right away to Banville’s book. Here’s my review on Goodreads:

Mrs. Osmond

“I jumped to this book right after reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. As I understand this new work of Banville’s to be a ‘sequel’ to James’s book, I had high expectations of the Booker winning author carrying Isabel Archer’s (Mrs. Osmond’s) story forward, taking her through twists and turns and eventually letting her find redemption and a new life. However this was not to be exactly as I’d envisioned.

Mrs. Osmond is divided into two Parts. Maybe for the benefit of those who haven’t read or reread The Portrait of a Lady in preparation for his book, Banville retells James’s story in Part I. While he’s very detailed in his descriptive style, and to his credit, creeping inside the minds of his characters, he repeats himself frequently in reminding his readers how Isabel Archer got deceived by Madame Merle and fell into the marriage trap of Gilbert Osmond’s. So basically the story remains static throughout Part I.

(Spoiler Alert in the following)

Part II leads us to Isabel’s own scheme of turning the tables on Osmond and Merle, and let them have a taste of their own medicine by just transferring the ownership of her residence the palazzo in Rome over to Madame M. and let the culprits be trapped with each other. That’s all there is to her plan, and it’s an expensive vengeance. As for her own dear life and its purpose for the remains of her days, the path is as obscure as before, albeit Banville has dropped a hint of the suffrage movement being a meaningful direction.

While Mrs. Osmond may not be as gratifying as I’d expected, this is an interesting concept, taking literary classics and imagining a sequel. Now that could lead to a brave new genre of fiction writing.”

A Movie Remake, anyone?

If there’s one, who’d you like to see playing the role of Isabel Archer? Gilbert Osmond? Madame Merle? Director?




Related Post:

Can a movie adaptation ever be as good as the book?


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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.

19 thoughts on “The Portrait of a Lady, Sequel, Remake(?)”

  1. I’ve never read Portrait of a Lady, though I’m aware of its significance as a novel. Your review would convince me to read it, if it weren’t for the “sad” part, which puts me off in this phase of my life. I really appreciate your including your thoughts about the movie and the Banville book as well, all in one post!


  2. I read Portrait of a lady a decade or so ago – and enjoyed it a lot – and saw the movie, but it was all so long ago that I couldn’t possibly comment in detail. I don’t much like continuations, but when someone like John Banville does one, I’m tempted!


    1. With so many new talents in the film world today, I’m sure a remake can be a good one. I’d expected John Banville’s sequel to match James’s pace in moving our heroine forward but it seems he’d rather play it safe. I’d read The Sea and watched the movie adaptation with Ciarán Hinds with Banville writing the screenplay himself. That was in quite a static pace too, but more fitting there than our lively Isabel, who has a whole life (of adventure) in front of her. From my recent readings, I now want to read Middlemarch. Maybe a read-along if anyone is interested.


        1. What do u think if I say take the whole 2018 to finish it? Would you join me then? I don’t like pressure to finish reading either. I’ve taken four years to finish Proust’s The Guermantes Way. 🙂


  3. I have finished The Portrait of a Lady, having never read it or listened to it or seen the film before. I found myself perplexed as to why Isabel married him, besides Serena’s machinations; she had so many other options! She is a tragic, and also for me, quite likeable heroine. Perhaps she could simply not see who Gilbert really was until it was too late.

    I am halfway through Osmand, which I’m so glad I picked up right after Portrait. It is wonderful to read Banville’s interpretation, and I will be back when I finish it.

    Thank you for reading with me, Arti. xo


    1. I think Isobel married Osmond for his artistic taste and unconventional style, not following the social norms of seeking prestige and recognition (of course, he has his reasons for laying low). In a sense, Isabel is a rebel herself, trying to shake off social shackles and be free. But what she learns, too late, is that taste and style may be superficial and even falsified, the essence of a man is within. Ralph with his more mature insight can see through this; too bad he can’t be more influential on her. His love for her is deep and moving.

      Thanks for the chance for me to read together with you, Bellezza. I’d thoroughly enjoyed this one, not needing to plow through like Proust (but that’s another worthwhile experience). 🙂


      1. Yes, it seems that she, too, wanted to be unconventional. Perhaps she also liked the challenge he presented by not fawning all over her as Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood did. And of course, there is youth and all its naivete. I hope to finish Osmond today, and read what you have to say about that.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. There was a radio adaptation, I think Henry James can come across superbly on the radio. I find him quite dense to read so I get more out of it if someone can process it first for me! Such a subtle writer.


    1. Denise,

      Yes, you might want to look for Juliet Stevenson narrated audiobook. I found it more interesting doing a combination of read and listen. Also, I’ve thought of this just in the last few days… Would you be interested to join me in reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch? I’ve never read it, but lately as I read some other books they all referred to this classic work. Time is very flexible, I’m thinking of taking the whole 2018 to finish it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve read Middlemarch already I’m afraid, and only taking on short books these days due to volume of work. Although I do have Proust on my list… but only volume 1!


  5. I read Portrait of a Lady a few years ago and loved it. Was super excited about the Banville book but now I think I will skip it. I had forgotten there was a movie. I have not seen it and now I think I will keep not seeing it 🙂


  6. It must take a confident writer to create a sequel to a classic novel. I’ve read disappointing sequels to Rebecca and Pride an Prejudice. However, The Wide Sargasso Sea is a brilliant prequel to Jane Eyre. Fascinating subject!


    1. I’m sure the multiple award winning John Banville must be a confident writer. I’m just expressing my opinion regarding this particular book only. Yes, this is an interesting genre to explore: sequels to classics. 🙂


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