Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Recasting 1984: "A Passage to India"

I've probably mentioned this in previous posts, but part of the fun I'm having in deciding which films to recast Meryl has been in seeing a few things for the first time. David Lean's 1984 epic adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel, A Passage to India, is one such case. The film appealed to me because I couldn't think of anything Meryl's done on screen that takes place in Asia. And of course that it was a highly acclaimed film by a prominent director. After taking in a viewing of it early on in this quarantine, I decided it would be a good fit for my list. 

The story takes place in the 1920s during the time of Great Britain's rule over India (known as the British Raj). Adela Quested (portrayed by Judy Davis in an Academy Award-nominated performance) is on her way to India with her soon-to-be mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (portrayed by Peggy Ashcroft in her Academy Award-winning performance). The two pine for closer interaction with the Indian population, which, during the burgeoning Indian independence movement at the time, was becoming more separated from the colonialist community. 

The two women (Meryl of course would play Adela) befriend a local doctor, Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee), who offers to guide them on an excursion to a local cave site.


Long story short, Adela is seen running from a cave all bothered and bloody and she, after a some sort of "calming" injection from a treating physician, claims Aziz attempted to rape her (which we know he didn't because we see him watching her run out of the cave).  

The role of Adela may not seem particularly brilliant on the surface, but there's a conflict in her character that I expect Meryl may have found appealing. Judy Davis apparently won the part when she met with Lean and said that what happened in the cave was that "she can't cope with her own sexuality, she just freaks out." There's a romantic chemistry between Adela and their Indian guide, Aziz--something that would've been completely out of the question for a woman in her position in that day and age--plus the the fact that she isn't particularly fond of her betrothed, Mr. Heaslop.

A clash of cultures develops when Dr. Aziz goes on trial for the attempted rape of Adela. Prejudices run rampant, with the rich little white girl pitted against what the colonialists consider, despite Aziz's standing as respected physician, a savage member of a primitive society in need of domination. Adela eventually breaks down on the stand during Aziz's trial, withdrawing her claims when she realizes she was mistaken. 

It's the kind of story with a level of "difficulty" that Meryl tends to favor. It challenges preconceptions of non-Western culture and dared to even hint at the possibility of an interracial relationship. I realize this wasn't unheard of in 1984, but for the characters in this film and especially understanding the time period in which the novel was written, it was rather controversial stuff. I think Meryl would've done a brilliant job with some of the more ambigous aspects of Adela's character: her lack of clear memory of the incident, her struggle with what was likely an unspoken and perhaps subconscious attraction to Aziz, her disinterest in an almost arranged marriage. 

The cinematography reminds me of the large-scale foreign feel we see in 1985's Out of Africa. Although this film is not quire the scale of Africa, it sort of fills the slot of a similar-feeling destination, compared to the Western fare up to this point in the my recasting. 

The film was highly praised critically, and earned eleven Academy Award nominations. In addition to the aforementioned supporting win for Ashcroft, Maurice Jarre won fir his compelling score.  


  1. Interesting choice Jeff. I haven’t actually watched this movie but I did read the book a long time ago and agree the character would present Meryl with new opportunities, especially in your (brilliant) revised filmography!

    I am of the mind that 1984 may be Meryl’s least memorable year of the 1980s, movie-wise, so I’m glad for a change.

    Although “She-Devil” and “Heartburn” didn’t do particularly well at the box office (or with critics) I still feel they are better known today than “Falling In Love”, which seems largely forgotten. I remember an interview with Meryl from years ago where she admitted to watching “FIL” with some of her kids and even she’d forgotten if they got together in the end!

    I very much enjoy speculating on what you’ll come up with next, I’ve only correctly guessed two so far! Wish we didn’t have to wait a week though LOL 😊

    1. I agree that '84 will probably be the least least to me!

  2. Wow, yes! That was a surprise. I was guessing you'd pick 'Places in the Heart', but 'A Passage to India' is perfect for many reasons.

    To see how Meryl would have played Adela Quested, look no further than what she did with another under-written role in another courtroom drama: 'Kramer vs. Kramer'.

    Adela Quested's great change-of-heart in the face of the Raj's hypocrisy is far more multi-dimensional in E. M. Forster's novel than the screen adaptation by David Lean, who created an enormous challenge for Judy Davis: expecting her to portray that courage with very, very few lines.

    Adela's is an internal journey, much like Joanna Kramer's, requiring a monologue or two, not all the one-dimensional 'gazing and waiting' Lean built around Judy Davis in his adaptation.

    Considering how Meryl Streep 're-tooled' her role in the earlier film, with two Oscars under her belt by 1983 even David Lean would have acquiesced to her rewrites in his first film for a decade (she would have had more clout than he as his prior film was a flop).

    The scene after the courtroom in Fielding's home would likely have been where a brilliant monologue could have been added, built around the news that Mrs Moore has died at sea on her way home to England (this reflects the same moments in the source material).

    Davis took it up to David Lean on the 'Passage to India' shoot (his bullying of many female cast and crew is well-documented... Peggy Ashcroft described it as "bulldozing") so if Meryl gets Adela Quested, then Judy Davis gets the role she was born for: Violet Weston in 'August: Osage County'.

    This is the most interesting re-imagined year to me so far. Meryl Streep would have been so good in 'A Passage to India' that she'd have scared Lean right off the material and had it made with another director altogether!

    1. Such great correlation between Meryl in Kramer v Kramer! I have not read the novel of A Passage to India, but that makes a lot of sense regarding Adela's lack of lines. It was actually a little bit perplexing to me how demure she had to be in certain parts after the ordeal in the cave. But that would've made it even more interesting to see what Meryl could do in that challenging scenario of not just being able to articulate your feelings.

      And I certainly considered Places in the Heart! But this one just seemed a better fit. And it's a deal re Davis for A:OC. I'm sure she would've done wonders, as would I expect have Jessica Lange.

  3. This one really got me thinking, all week. It's apt on another front: by 1985 Meryl Streep had featured in two major British productions. Your recasting project has her in 'Julia' which was really a US production despite some key UK and European scenes, so an appearance in Thorn EMI's 'A Passage to India' would have been timely for a rounded-out early career.

    Further on the way Streep might have re-tooled Adela Quested's role, there are more clues in 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' and the way Sarah Woodruff sets her cap at 'forbidden fruit', for this is what E. M. Forster had Adela do with Dr Aziz in 'A Passage to India'.

    Again, there's a lot more in the novel, in the scene when Adela and Aziz climb alone to the higher caves. She comes to terms with the reality that she and her intended husband do not love one another. In the same moment she realises how attractive Aziz is, and how "peevish" (Forster's word) she can be.

    It could have been constructed as a casual confession to Aziz, like Sarah Woodruff revealing her "incomprehension" (Pinter's word) to Charles Smithson in the cemetery, where she's drawn him on the strength of a furtive note (just like Adela's manner of setting up a more intimate series of contacts with Aziz). Later, after Adela has retracted her statement in court, Lean could have extended her emotional release with a broader confession to Fielding. At that point she has witnessed Aziz being lauded and carried high through the streets, and she's told everyone that she doesn't love Ronnie.

    Two simple scenes would have said so much more.

    In both cases, it's the female gaze at work. David Lean certainly wouldn't have known what that term meant, with his vast cinematic landscapes and complex male characters.

    I've already looked ahead to 1985's releases and am waiting with excitement for what you pick in that year!

    1. Thank you for your insights Michael. It's been years since I read the book and you've brought back more detail to my memory. Definitely a very interesting recasting and one Meryl may have been able to use her clout to add even more dimension to.

      I think I'm most excited for the recasting in 1985, then 1987 and 1988. The latter two years were arguably some of the richest for brilliant female roles in the last 50 years.

  4. I'm really looking forward to the next five years worth of recasting as well! I'm starting to get a little nervous, hoping not to disappoint! :)

    1. You won't! We all have our ideas of what a dream filmography would look like but your choices are intriguing! Can't wait :)

    2. You cannot disappoint, Jeff. You've got a great handle on this, and it's exciting to revisit these eras and end up totally wrong in my guesses. I feel like I should seal then in an envelope beforehand!

    3. Spoiler!!

      I'm guessing a musical drama based on the life of a great Country Singer for 1985 and a period drama involving manipulative aristocrats for 1988!

      May be totally wrong! Jeff's recasting so far has included so much I've never even considered..