Henry James's short story "The Altar of the Dead" and its filmic adaptation "La Chambre Verte" by Francois Truffaut

A Comparison

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I. Introduction

II. A short history of literary adaptation

III. The Altar of the Dead” (1895)
III.1 Plot
III.2 Characters
III.3 Themes

IV. François Truffaut’s filmic version of “The Altar of the Dead”: La chambre verte (1977/78)
IV.1 Significant changes in setting and plot
IV.2 Characters
IV.3 Themes

V. Conclusion

VI. Filmography

VII. Bibliography

I. Introduction

1894, the year in which Henry James wrote his short story “The Altar of the Dead”[1], was a year of failure, loss and insecurity for the acclaimed author[2]. Dear friends and family members died, his stage play Guy Domville (1894) which should have saved him from his financial misery, flopped and led to his flight into isolation and self-deprecation. In this period, he wrote his short story “The Altar of the Dead”, which is mirroring James’s feeling of alienation from the present world, expressed through its protagonist’s retreat in the realm of the Dead. The story “received ambivalent reviews”[3] and was declined by magazine editors, which led to its publication in the shirt story collection Terminations (1895)[4].

Almost one hundred years later, the French Nouvelle Vague director François Truffaut’s life experiences paralleled those of James- his mentor André Bazin died and he ended his relationship with Catherine Deneuve[5] - when he decided to make La Chambre Verte[6] in 1977, his adaptation of James’s short story for the big screen.

This paper will take a close look on both the original story and its subsequent adaptation concerning changes in the plot, settings and the themes that differ from the original. To start off, the question of what a literary adaptation is will be dis- cussed. The conclusion at the end of the paper will answer the question if Truffaut’s adaptation is an extension of the story, meaning an original film with a literary base, or rather a literary adaptation, confined to the set - up of the original story.

II. A short history of literary adaptation

“The typical essay on adaptation can be summed up by a New Yorker cartoon that Alfred Hitchcock once described to Francois Truffaut: two goats are eating a pile of film cans and one goat says to the other, ‘Personally, I liked the book better’ ”[7].

Although adaptations[8] of novels and short stories have been around since the beginnings of cinema in the late 19th century[9], the literary adaptation still has a bad reputation as an unworthy re-telling of an original work of art. This notion dates as far back as to the period of Renaissance, when originality was the most significant requirement that had to be met by a work of art[10]. Romanticism emphasized this claim for originality with its stress on the individual artist’s original, creative con- sciousness[11]. High modernism brought about a first change in the perception of liter- ary adaptations, in which the very attraction of the filmic adaptation lay in its relation to the source, which was until then the very reason to shun it, and in the faithful translation of the original work into a film[12]. Contributive to an evolved image of the literary adaptation was also the French critic André Bazin, co - founder of the film magazine Cahiers du Cin é ma and mentor to François Truffaut[13]. In an article from 1948[14], he rebutted the assumption that a literary adaptation is the mere transferal of a work of art from one medium to another[15]. Instead, he argued that the literary source and its film form should be regarded as an entity, not as one version following the original, older one[16]. In his later essay “Pour un cinema impure”, he enhanced his former argument by claiming that a filmic adaptation should be an entirely new and independent work of art in itself[17]. Francois Truffaut later adapted Bazin’s thesis, stating that a filmic adaptation should ideally be an extension of its textual source[18].

III. The Altar of the Dead” (1895)

III.1 Plot

Henry James’s short story The Altar of the Dead, “set in the late Victorian period”,[19] focuses on its protagonist’s morbid obsession with the dead people in his life and his resulting inability and refusal to live an active life in the present.

Fifty - five year old Londoner George Stransom commemorates each year the death of his fiancée Mary Antrim, who died “after the wedding day had been fixed” (319). Her death, though being the most significant one in his life, is not the only one he keeps constantly keeps in mind and alive through his memory; he keeps record of every single one of his dead friends and commemorates “the Others”(320) on a daily basis. One of the reasons for his strong relation to the past consists of his feeling, that he has a more intimate and amiable relationship to his dead friends than to those who are still alive (cf. 330). The other one is his repulsion by society’s refusal to honour the dead, and so he takes it upon him to remember those who “asked so little that they got […] even less” (320). On one of Mary Antrim’s anniversaries, Stransom meets his acquaintance Paul Creston, whose wife Kate recently died, along with his new wife on a walk through the city. Appalled by the fact that Creston does not hon- our the memory of his dead wife but instead ‘replaces’ her, Stransom is even more convinced that it is his obligation to keep the past alive and save the Dead from ulti- mately dying by being forgotten or substituted, like Kate Creston. The shocking en- counter with Creston leads Stransom to the idea of establishing a physical altar for his Dead, in order to externalize the mental altar he built in his mind for them and setting a physical sign for his “religion of the Dead” (321).. He does so in a little chapel, by putting up one candle for each of his Dead apart from one, Acton Hague. Hague use to be Stransom’s best friend, but has done him a severe public harm, which is not specified in the story, that has led to their fallout and Stransom’s stead- fast refusal to keep up the memory of him. On his daily visits to the chapel, Stransom notices a woman, who regularly sits before his altar. They get to know each other, become friends, and eventually develop tender bonds of love for each other, appar- ently sharing the same sense of remembrance of the past. One day, Stransom decides to visit the woman, who stays unnamed, at home. She shows him her red room, which Stransom notices as her very own altar of her dead. Contrary to his multitude, the woman only commemorates one single person, and that is Acton Hague. Just as Stransom, the woman was also betrayed by Hague, but she overcame the feeling her resentment and keeps his memory sublimely alive. She tries to convince Stransom to put up a candle for Hague as well, but Stransom vigorously rejects her plea. As a result, the woman stops to come to his altar and abandons Stransom, whose health rapidly declines after the discovery of the woman’s ‘betrayal’. Sensing the arrival of his very own to death, he visits his altar for the last time, obsessed with the thought that one candle is still missing on his altar. He has an epiphany of his fiancée Mary, which leads him to change his mind shortly before his death and acknowledge the fact that Hague does indeed deserve a candle. In the meantime, the woman arrives at the altar to tell Stransom that she dispenses of Hague’s candle because she has real- ized that she is not coming to the altar to see her personal wishes fulfilled, but that “[she is] here for them”(357). However, it is too late, and Stransom dies at the wom- an’s shoulder.

III.2 Characters

“Another poor sensitive gentleman, fit indeed to mate with Stransom of “The Altar” - my attested predilection for poor sensitive gentlemen almost embarrasses me as I march!”[20]

Henry James wrote this sentence in the preface to his short story “The Beast in the Jungle” from 1903, concerning the poor sensitive gentleman that is the protag- onist of that story, John Marcher[21]. Nevertheless, this quote can be applied just as easily to George Stransom, the protagonist of James’s tale “The Altar of the Dead”. The quote opens up two dimensions of meaning, the first being a remark on the men- tal state of his protagonists in his stories - the poor sensitive gentlemen - the second one proving a resemblance in subjectivity between the author Henry James and his male characters, expressed by his apparent affinity, his ‘attested predilection’ in por- traying them.

John Marcher lets the chance to live a meaningful life pass him by, waiting for an event that is to set his life in motion[22], almost neurotically so. In Stransom’s case it is his fear of the future that makes him lead a life dedicated to the past. His revulsion of modern society, best expressed in the “shock” (321) he experiences when meeting Paul Creston’s new wife, along with his nostalgia[23], are both symp- toms of his anxiety of an unknown future. His life is “ruled by a pale ghost”(319) - that of Mary Antrim - and one could even say that he is married to death, as he wakes up every year to Mary’s death anniversary as to his “marriage-morn”(319). Stransom is described as a man “not of numerous passions” (319), and his most strik- ing feature is that he “had never […] forgotten” (319). Although he has not been af- fected by more losses than others, he “counts them more”(319), thus attributing them more significance than other people and being more sensitive towards death. This immersion into the past is a clear sign for his excess of memory, a condition that cor- responds to the 19th century concept of nostalgia[24]. Stransom’s is unable and unwill- ing to live in the present and wants the past back, he even wishes for more of his friends to die so he can entertain a more intimate and enjoyable with them than while they are still alive (cf. 330). Stransom’s whole subjectivity is constituted through his withdrawal into nostalgic fantasies; he seems to be stuck at the moment of the trau- matic death of his fiancée, which was the catalyst for the immersion into his obses- sion with death, which cuts him off from the live around him. Stransom’s sense of being is entirely shaped by his extreme memory, which stems from from his feeling that something significant is lacking in the society he currently lives in, namely the absence of piety for the death in society[25]. The more the world around forgets the Dead, the more he feels to he has to keep them alive. James does not give a clear-cut answer in his story as to how his obsession is psychologically motivated. A possible explanation for this fact might be his conviction, that a person’s private life - wheth- er in fiction or in reality - should be kept private and not made public, which was to James only possible in Europe[26]. Thus the instilment of his idea of privacy in the character of the Londoner George Stransom could be considered the reason, why the reader does not learn about Stransom’s psychological predisposition behind his ob- session.

James’s view of privacy is not the only one that is embodied in Stransom’s character. Henry James’s formed his protagonists as reflectors of his persona, mirror- ing the author’s opinions and views of the world[27]. Thus, the parallels between George Stransom and his creator are striking: Stransom is 55, just as Henry James as he wrote “The Altar”[28]. James too was devastated at numerous deaths in his life and especially shocked by the detached public reaction to his female friend Constance Woolson’s suicide, which has prompted him to write a story about a man who exces- sively cares about the dead[29]. In his notebooks, he expressed his desperation about “the want of place […] for them [i.e. the dead] in the life of the survivors”[30]. In the preface to “The Altar”, he further argues that any intelligent human being has to be affected at some point in their lives by the dead[31]. James’s felt lack of piety and to- wards the dead constitutes itself in “subtle protest”[32] through the understanding por- trayal of Stransom’s obsession with the dead, one that is giving sense to his life and elevating his piety[33]. Stransom embodies James’s belief that if the world does not care to remember, it is the individual’s moral responsibility to do even more so, to the point of obsession. James wrote in his critical work “The Art of Fiction” that a writer has to be someone “on whom nothing is lost[.]”[34] Stransom is also someone on whom no dead person is lost, but one could argue that his refusal to let go could be a sign of Stransom’s own fear of his own mortality, to be forgotten after his death; therefore, an expression of his inherent narcissism. Again, the narcissistic tendency is illustrated in the passage with Creston’s new wife, where his being appalled at the new wife and Creston’s impious behaviour can be read as his fear of being forgotten after his death, like Kate Creston.


[1] Fadiman, Clifton (Henry James). “The Altar of the Dead“. 1895. New York: The Modern Library, 1948. 319. All parenthetical references follow this edition.

[2] Cf. Kenneth Graham. Henry James. A Literary Life. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1995.116.

[3] Despotopoulou, Anna, Kimberley C. Reed. Henry James and the Supernatural. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 2.

[4] Cf. Graham 116.

[5] Cf. Baecque, Antoine de and Toubiana, Serge. Francois Truffaut: Biographie. Köln: vgs Verlagsgesellschaft, 1999. 545f.

[6] La Chambre Verte (The Vanishing Fiancée/The Green Room). Dir. François Truffaut. Perf. François Truffaut, Nathalie Baye. 1977/78. MGM 2007. DVD.

[7] Naremore, James. “Remaking Psycho.” Framing Hitchcock. Selected Essays from the Hitchcock Annual. Ed. Sidney Gottlieb. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002. 387.

[8] “Adaptation: a film that relies for some of its material on previous written work.” From: MacCabe, Colin, Kathleen Murray, and Rick Warner. True to the spirit. Film Adaptation and Question of Fidelity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 3.

[9] Cf. Estermann, Alfred. Die Verfilmung literarischer Werke. Bonn: H. Bouvier u. Co. Verlag, 1965. 1.

[10] Cf. MacCabe4.

[11] Cf. MacCabe 4.

[12] Cf. MacCabe 5.

[13] Cf. MacCabe 5f.

[14] Bazin, André. “Adaptation, or the cinema as digest.” Bazin at Work: Major Essays & Reviews from the Forties & Fifties. Ed. Bert Cardullo. New York, Routledge, 1997. 41 - 52.

[15] Cf. Gast, Wolfgang. Literaturverfilmung. Bamberg: C.C: Buchners Verlag, 1999. 12.

[16] Cf. Bazin 50.

[17] Cf. Bazin, André. “Für ein ‘unreines’ Kino - Plädoyer für die Adaption.” Literaturverfilmung. Ed. Wolfgang Gast. Bamberg: C.C. Buchners, 1999. 38f. Translation by Sema Kara.

[18] Cf. MacCabe 6.

[19] Klein, Michael. Truffaut’s Sanctuary: “The Green Room.” Film Quarterly 34.1 (1980). 18. 3

[20] Wegelin, Christof, Henry Wonham. A Norton Critical Edition. Tales of Henry James. The text of tales, the author on his craft, criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton&Company, 2003.417.

[21] Fadiman, Clifton (Henry James). “The Beast in the Jungle“. 1903. New York: The Modern Library, 1948. Following references to this edition will be marked by (BITJ).

[22] Cf. Fogel, Mark. A Companion to Henry James Studies. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993. 191.

[23] Stransom’s nostalgia will be more thoroughly adressed in“II.3 Themes and motifs“.

[24] Cf. Roth Michael S. “The Time of Nostalgia : Medicine, History and Normality in 19th-Century France.” Time&Society 1.2 (1992): 272.

[25] Cf. Jordan, Matthew F. “Mourning, Nostalgia and Melancholia: Unlocking the secrets of Truffaut’s The Green Room.” Henry James goes to the movies. Ed. Susan M. Griffin. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002. 80.

[26] Cf. Haralson, Eric, Kendall Johnson. Critical Companion to Henry James. A literary reference to his life and work. New York: Facts on File, Inc. 2009. 398.

[27] Cf. Fogel 179.

[28] Cf. Ward, Geoff. “’The Strength of applied irony: James’s ‘The Altar of the Dead.’” Henry James: The Shorter Fiction: Reassessments. Ed. N.H.Reeve. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1997.63.

[29] Cf. Jordan 78f.

[30] James,Henry. The complete notebooks of Henry James. Ed. Leon Edel, Lyall H. Powers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. 98.

[31] Cf. Fadiman 359.

[32] Hartsock, Mildred E.. “Dizzying Summit: James's ‘The Altar of the Dead’.” Studies in Short Fiction

11.4 (1974): 374.

[33] Cf. Jordan 81.

[34] James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” 1888. A Norton Critical Edition. Tales of Henry James. The text of tales, the author on his craft, criticism. Ed. Wegelin, Christof, Henry Wonham .2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton&Company, 2003. 383.

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Henry James's short story "The Altar of the Dead" and its filmic adaptation "La Chambre Verte" by Francois Truffaut
A Comparison
University of Würzburg  (Neuphilologisches Institut)
The Edwardian Era - An Age of Transition
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Sema Kara (Author), 2012, Henry James's short story "The Altar of the Dead" and its filmic adaptation "La Chambre Verte" by Francois Truffaut, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/267434


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