Remembering the Oscar-winning screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
There are very few pieces of art that I consider flawless. If anything, flaws are part of what makes art fascinating. Once in a long while, though, I see something or read something that I consider a perfect execution of an idea, and one of the examples I'd give would be "The Remains Of The Day," the 1993 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Adapted from the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, the film is exquisitely crafted, and that script is remarkable for the way it communicates volumes of material with a single gesture. Anthony Hopkins is one of those guys who can ham it up when you ask him to, but the challenge of this script was to keep almost everything internal, and Hopkins rose to the challenge with what I would argue is one of the finest examples of film acting I've ever seen. Yes, it helps when you have Hopkins and Thompson at the top of their game, but that script is something else. You could teach an entire class on adaptation just by taking that film and comparing it to the source material.
Oddly, that's the one time she was nominated for an Oscar without winning. She took home the award for both "A Room With A View" and "Howard's End," although she didn't show up to accept either award. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen her interviewed or really learned much of anything about her. She was simply a constant presence in the world of highbrown period films for adults, a name you would see on a poster that automatically suggested a certain kind of polished, contemplative drama.
Her primary creative partnership was with director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, and while they certainly fumbled a few of the pictures they made together, by and large, it is an impressive list of titles stretching back to "The Europeans" in 1979. I guess I always assumed because of her name that she was Indian, but she was actually German and married an Indian man. Her work is fascinating to me because it isn't really about her particular cultural upbringing, and she brings an outsider's eye to what are ultimately x-rays of the way people tried to function in societal constructs they could not abide. Because she's someone looking in at a time and a place that is not her own, she is able to be clear-eyed and at times quite cutting, without any sense that she's romanticizing a past that did not really exist.
She was born in 1927, and it is wildly impressive that she had a piece of work produced as recently as four years ago. She had a long and impressive run, and if you'd like to see something she wrote that never quite got the credit it deserved, I'd suggest "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.' It's based on the real life of James Jones, the author of "The Thin Red Line," and it is a smart and powerful piece about living with a difficult father and the tensions of trying to create art and raise a family at the same time.
Jhabvala's selfless dedication to the word and the way she always made the films the focus instead of herself is uncommon and admirable, and it is safe to say there are few filmmakers today as devoted to work for the sake of the work as she was. She may have passed away today, but her work isn't going anywhere.