How letters nearly put paid to David Lean's A Passage To India

How E.M. Forster’s estate nearly put paid to David Lean’s version of A Passage To India

  • Classic film earned 11 Oscar nominations upon its release in 1982, winning two
  • Newly found letters found those who control the rights to the book were worried
  • Director David Lean stuck to his proposed ending after a charm offensive

It is a film classic that garnered 11 Oscar nominations, but David Lean’s adaptation of A Passage To India faced strong opposition from the executors of author E. M. Forster’s literary estate.

Newly unearthed letters reveal that after reading the script, senior academics at Cambridge University’s King’s College, which controls the rights to Forster’s works, had a ‘major worry’ about Lean’s finale, believing he was trying to over-simplify the complex tale of sexual and racial tensions set against the backdrop of the British Raj.

The original novel, published in 1924, explores the fallout from a false allegation of sexual assault by Adela Quested, a newly arrived British woman in India, against the mild-mannered Dr Aziz. 

David Lean’s adaptation of A Passage To India faced strong opposition from the executors of author E. M. Forster

She later withdraws the charge and declares him to be innocent, just in time to stop growing racial tensions from descending into violence.

The book is ambiguous and does not spell out what happened to Miss Quested during the alleged incident, but Lean added his own scenes to hint at her sexual frustrations and switched the ending of the film from India to England.

He also changed the dynamic of the relationship between Aziz and his friend Cyril Fielding, who is believed to have been based on Forster himself.

Due to the ripples caused by the assault accusations, the two men part company in the novel’s closing scenes on the understanding they will never meet again. 

In his 1984 film, however, Lean ended with Fielding, played by James Fox, and Aziz, portrayed by Victor Banerjee, rekindling their friendship.

In November 1982, while the film was in pre-production, Michael Cowdy, the bursar of King’s College, wrote to Lord Brabourne, one of the producers, to raise concerns about the script.

‘We do have one major worry about it and that concerns the ending,’ he wrote. ‘It seems to us that, if it is to be faithful to the novel, the film must end in India.’

Lean, whose earlier films included Lawrence Of Arabia, stuck to his proposed ending after launching a charm offensive against the fellows of King’s College over dinner. 

Lean reportedly told them: ‘We are talking about one of the greatest novels in English literature, which will live for ever. As for my film, in five or ten years, it will have been forgotten and you can make another film if you want to.’

In fact, A Passage To India was a box-office hit and won two Oscars and three Golden Globe awards.

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