'Howards End': How a 1910 Novel Became a Progressive Miniseries

Writer Kenneth Lonergan ('Manchester by the Sea,' 'Gangs of New York') reveals the story behind the Starz series' sharp observations on colonization, class and race.
Laurie Sparham/Starz; Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for STARZ

When the first film adaptation of Howards End was released in 1992, some critics turned up their noses. Though E.M. Forster's 1910 novel advocates for the intermingling of classes and exposes the social and cultural blind spots of the wealthy and poor alike, there was a glut of period pieces at the time — several produced by Howards End's producers, Merchant-Ivory Productions — that had inspired a minor cultural backlash. Critics of the wave dismissed the films as "heritage cinema" of an imagined aristocratic English history that glossed over the gritty realities of the working classes.

The reaction has been quite different to the book's latest adaptation, a four-part miniseries on Starz. Directed by Hettie Macdonald (FortitudeDr. Who) and written by Kenneth Lonergan (the writer-director of Manchester by the Sea), this Howards End has been praised for its pared-down interpretation of the novel, the inclusivity of its casting and the time it takes — nearly four hours in total — developing the characters' relationships. In 2018, Howards End is being received for the turn-of-the-century social critique that it is — with the help of Lonergan, who elucidates and emphasizes the novel's sociological material.

The series tells the story of three families from disparate social classes whose lives intersect. The upper-class Schlegels, headed up by 28-year-old Margaret (Hayley Atwell), spend their days discussing art and philosophy but can no longer afford the lease on their family home. The nouveau-riche Wilcoxes, with a patriarch in Henry (Matthew McFadyn), gained their wealth by way of industry, while the poor clerk and friend of the Shlegels', Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), lives hand-to-mouth.

Before the second episode, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Lonergan about the adaptation's commentary on colonialism, how he got a handle on the British class system and why he doesn't like when writers modernize older works.

Can you explain how you came on board this project and what your familiarity was with E.M. Forster at the time?

Colin Callender [the British producer] asked me if I wanted to write it. I didn’t know the book very well and I hadn't seen the movie, but I knew [Merchant-Ivory's] A Room With a View very, very well; it's one of my favorites. The film is just a perfect balance in that it's very romantic, beautifully made, funny, interesting, substantial and surprising. They also do the period beautifully, and not just for beauty’s sake; they don’t do anything to deliberately modernize it or bring it up to date or make it more accessible, and as a result, it’s all of those things. I tried to read Howards End many times but failed earlier in life, and then I read it pretty closely when I was trying to decide whether or not to do the job.

As an American, how did you go about understanding and parsing out the class system that is so central to the novel?

The novel gives you most of what you need to do that. One conscious enhancement I tried to effect was that the Leonard Bast character seems, in the novel, almost as if he were the only working man in London, which of course is not the case. There's a definite feeling of him being a bit of a specimen in the novel, and Forster himself acknowledged this many years later — he felt that the Basts were his least successful creation in the novel. And so in the script and somewhat in the production, I tried very much to make him seem part of a bigger community and not so much a social experiment.

The other thing is that, throughout the novel, the Schlegels are very conscious of who’s above and below them of all people, really, and English people in particular, so it was just [about] bringing out those moments in the novel and making sure they made it into the screenplay.

Your adaptation has been praised for acknowledging some realities of life that aren't often shown in period pieces: the Schlegels having a black servant, for instance, or people pointing out labor abuse in the rubber industry, in which Mr. Wilcox works. What was behind your thinking in providing some of these gritty details?

Just to bring out elements that are in the novel but are often passed over in these more bucolic period dramas. Those can be really fun and beautiful, but this story’s really about a very quickly changing world that's becoming more and more industrialized. The whole Wilcox family is a class that hadn't existed 50 years earlier: They're wealthy, robust, energetic industrialists who got money all over the world and are part of the Great British Empire system of exploitation of the colonies. But they’re also providing the energy and the push to make the world possible for the Schlegels to investigate, enjoy and cultivate the arts in. So it's not as simple as "they're just horrible industrialists." And Forster doesn't make them that way — it's Forster who makes [Henry Wilcox] the head of the West African India Rubber Company, not me.

In the novel there are frequent references to the Schlegels discussing politics and culture and the class system. I put some dialogue to some of those discussions that are referred to. It’s funny, because it comes out very smoothly from the conversation that Forster did write out in dialogue form, and I don’t even always remember where my dialogue starts and his stops. I mostly use his dialogue. There's a description of a map of Africa apportioned into different resources — copper and diamonds and minerals — that's in the script, and it’s taken right out of the novel. I think [Forster] says, "It's marked up the way a whale's blubber would be marked up for various parts."

And finally, Margaret has this great line where she says, "More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it." She's a very progressive and very imperialist person who's well aware that her whole life is supported by capitalism and imperialism, as is mine, as is yours. It's not wrong to criticize these systems and to try to improve them, but it's somewhat hypocritical and sanctimonious to pretend that you're not benefitting from the system that you’re trying to improve — and she’s very much aware of that. It's not as simple as saying, "It's wrong and he's bad." But again, the credit’s mostly to Forster. I'll take some credit for writing as wholly as I could into the screenplay instead of simplifying it and getting rid of it.

I was also struck that Jackie, in this adaptation, was a woman of color, which added an interesting dimension to her character.

It’s not the case in the book, and it wasn’t my idea. It was actually really a very interesting idea of the production's, to have people of color in the story. I probably would have not bothered with it or had them all be white, as they are in the book. The truth is London was full of people from all over the place in those years and it's very historically accurate, and I think it’s really a wonderful additional layer put into the story.

Did you have to take out anything in the text that was outdated?

No. I didn’t try to do anything, and I don’t really approve of that myself. There’s certain very creative modernizations of historical pieces, like, for instance, what Lin-Manuel Miranda does with Hamilton, which is very radical and, I think, wonderful. But for a more straightforward piece like this, I think that the period is often overlooked, and people don’t trust that the period itself is going to be fascinating. To me, that's an attraction: The parallels between any two cultures, the human parallels, are just going to be there, and the differences between the two cultures are part of what makes it so fun to notice what's similar. These are intelligent, emotional, struggling human beings living in a very different set of circumstances than the ones that we live in now, and I love trying to explore and develop those circumstances, and the different way of speaking and walking and sitting and dressing.

For some, it’s a liberation; for others, it’s a constraint. Obviously, for the women characters, with their corsets and their limited opportunities, it's a constraint. And I feel it's a lie to pretend it's any different: Why not show female characters living within the constraints of those culture instead of pretending they didn't exist? They didn't, they weren’t allowed to. That’s a really strong story to me: What do you do when you're not allowed to? And what about the bravery of the first ones who attempted to beat that, to be involved and be included? I just think it’s less effective to modernize than it is to really explore the humanity of people living in a different time period.

What did adapting for television allow you to do versus adapting for a film or the stage?

You have more time to tell the story. If you’re adapting a novel, especially a dense, rich, novel, it’s a real luxury to not have to worry mostly about cutting it down. Even so, I think the story would have played out well over six or eight episodes as well; there’s still a lot of condensing you have to do to make it fit into four. Novels have so much in them. So I love working in the longer form — it gives you a lot more opportunity to explore more of the riches that exist in the book.

What do you hope viewers of this version of Howards End leave the series wondering or thinking?

I never know how to answer that. Everybody brings their own response to any film or TV show they watch. I'd love for people to feel that they connected with a different world, and that they connected with human beings that are like themselves that are living in that world. I think a lot of issues that the film and the TV show explore are obviously very relevant to today without modernizing them at all: People are still struggling with their place in society, they're still struggling with how much to try to change the society, what they can do to change it, as Margaret says, how to "connect" to each other across the chasm created by the difference in their experience — those are all things I would like people to know. I would like people to know that there were human beings who lived and breathed in a different world from ours, and to have those two things not cancel each other out.

You’ve been quoted a fair amount in recent weeks about your position on the #MeToo movement — in particular, about Casey Affleck, who had his own accusations years ago. What would you like to clarify about your position on #MeToo and Affleck, and is there any nuance you would like to provide?

I don’t know, I think I was pretty clear about it. I don't have a lot else to say about that at the moment.

You have a new play coming out in October. What are you working on now?

I have a play on now, which just opened up a couple weeks ago, called Lobby Hero, and I was involved in production somewhat — it's a revival also. I’d like to direct another movie, I'd like to do another television show as soon as I can and I'd like to do another play. I'm trying to do all three at once, which is proving a little challenging.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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