Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
An Oscar-winning screenwriter who often worked in collaboration with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala first developed her writing craft as an author of acclaimed novels like Esmond in India (1957) and The Householder (1960) that often dealt with the culture clash between India and England. In fact, the latter novel attracted Merchant-Ivory to seek Jhabvala out and hire her to adapt her novel into the 1963 film of the same name, thus commencing one of the most critically acclaimed writer-director-producer trios of all time. From there, Jhabvala wrote Merchant-Ivory films like "Shakespeare Wallah" (1965), Autobiography of a Princess" (1975) and "Heat and Dust" (1983), but commercial success on most of their early films was elusive. It was not until they adapted the works of Henry James and E.M. Forster starting in the mid-1980s that the trio began having great critical and commercial success. Their two greatest triumphs were the lighthearted comedy of manners "A Room with a View" (1986) and the widely praised "Howards End" (1992), both of which won Jhabvala Academy Awards. She continued adapting material for Merchant-Ivory with "The Remains of the Day" (1993), "The Golden Bowl" (2000) and "Le Divorce" (2003), thus cementing her status as one of Hollywood's most gifted and celebrated scribes.
Born on May 7, 1927 in Cologne, Germany, Jhabvala was raised by her father, Marcus Prawer, an attorney who emigrated from Poland, and her mother, Eleonora. In 1939, the family fled Nazi Germany for England, where they were unable to fully escape the war when they experienced the Blitz of 1940-41. In 1948, she became a British citizen, but lost her father when he committed suicide that same year. She went on to graduate from Queen Mary and Westfield College at the University of London in 1951, while that same year she married architect Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala and moved to his native India. While there, she began publishing a series of acclaimed novels, many of which dealt with the culture clash between Indians and the British, starting with To Whom She Will (1955). Jhabvala went on to publish other high-quality novels like Esmond in India (1957) and The Householder (1960). It was the latter novel that caught the attention of the director-producer duo of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, who traveled to New Delhi to seek her permission to film the book into a movie.
Adapting her own book, Jhabvala made her first foray into screenwriting with "The Householder" (1963), a well-received relationship drama that marked the first of many collaborations between the writer and the producer-director duo. The three reunited for "Shakespeare Wallah" (1965), about a travelling family of English circus performers living in India, and "The Guru" (1969), which starred Michael York as a British rock star who travels to India to learn how to play sitar. From there, she wrote the Bollywood-themed "Bombay Talkie" (1970) and "Autobiography of a Princess" (1975), starring James Mason. After adapting the Jean Rhys novel Quartet into the 1981 film which starred Maggie Smith and Alan Bates, Jhabvala turned to her own material for "Heat and Dust" (1983), a romantic drama starring Julie Christie that was based on her award-winning 1975 novel. But by the mid-1980s, however, partly in response to the poor box office performance of the original Merchant-Ivory productions, Jhabvala moved with the duo to a series of intelligent, respectful adaptations of period novels, especially those of E.M. Forster and Henry James. "The Europeans" (1979) had been an early attempt in this direction, but the trio's first successful venture into the drawing room was "The Bostonians" (1984), which starred Jessica Tandy, Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave. Jhabvala followed up with the more lighthearted adaptation of Forster's "A Room with a View" (1986), which proved popular with critics and public alike, and delivered Jhabvala her first Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
After adapting two Evan Connell novels into a touching, time-spanning cinema portrait of "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" (1990), she won a second Oscar for another Forster adaptation, "Howards End" (1992). Jhabvala's talent for creating strong-minded, but sometimes eccentric women also found expression in her one non-Merchant-Ivory endeavor, John Schlesinger's quirky "Madame Sousatzka" (1988), starring Shirley MacLaine. She continued to write period dramas for Merchant-Ivory, including "The Remains of the Day" (1993) with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, "Jefferson in Paris" (1995) starring Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson, and the coolly received adaptation of "The Golden Bowl" (2000). Next for Jhabvala and her collaborators was a sophisticated, unpretentious adaptation of Diane Johnson's best-selling novel "Le Divorce" (2003), a sophisticated tale of two American sisters in Paris: one a pregnant, expatriated poetess (Naomi Watts) suddenly abandoned by her philandering French husband and the other a fresh, naive young woman (Kate Hudson) caught up in a seemingly cosmopolitan affair with a married French diplomat (Thierry Lhermitte). The film proved to be the final collaboration between Jhabvala and Merchant-Ivory, since Ismail Merchant died in 2005. Following a period of remission, Jhabvala returned to screenwriting one last time with "The City of Your Final Destination" (2010), which was directed by Ivory. It turned out to be her last screenplay, as Jhabvala passed away from a pulmonary condition on April 3, 2013. She was 85.
By Shawn Dwyer