On paper, screenwriter and playwright Kenneth Lonergan appears an unlikely candidate to adapt Howards End. The 55-year-old was born and raised in the Bronx, and his scripts for You Can Count on Me, Gangs of New York and the Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea speak to a scrappiness and hunger that seems a long way from Edwardian England.
Actually, says Lonergan, it’s a “very natural fit”. The playwright, whose first play This Is Our Youth skewered the social anxieties of Generation X slackers, turns his attention to the Schlegel sisters Margaret and Helen (played in the drama by Hayley Atwell and Philippa Coulthard) with an expert eye. The four-part adaptation comes over 20 years after the famous Merchant-Ivory production that felt, at the time, definitive. In fact, the new version, which is fresh, funny and clear-eyed, makes the film look over-theatrical and dated.
If Lonergan had a criticism of the book, it had to do with the realism of the central relationships. “At first glance the characters are all direct representatives of their respective classes. The two central relationships don’t seem completely credible, emotionally. And you get the impression, incorrectly, that EM Forster has never met a poor person.” And yet, he continues, “surrounding all that is this amazing tapestry of life in Edwardian England, all these issues that for intellectuals were very vital and immediate. And the more I had to rely on the material, the less help I thought it needed.”
The Schlegel sisters, meanwhile, struck him as some of the best characters in fiction. It is rare, says Lonergan, to have characters with such developed interior lives: “these two intellectual, well-meaning women who are aware just as much of their own limitations and blind spots as they are of everything else, and who are trying to overcome them. You don’t run into that very often.”
The Schlegels run counter to modern times; earnest, striving women who value sincerity above all things bar, perhaps, good manners. Lonergan laughs. “If they came upon the comment pages online they’d shoot themselves.”
Howards End begins on Sunday 12th November at 9pm on BBC1