Why Edith Wharton and Martin Scorsese Were the Perfect Creative Collaboration

If there is one idea binding together Edith Wharton’s tragic texts, it is how social etiquette constricts to incapacitate real feeling. Broadly speaking, her writing takes the funny social observations of Jane Austen and filters it through a tragic lens. While her work is considered a cornerstone of American fiction, it remains largely untouched by the film industry, who are perhaps spurned by the scale of such societal interrogation–love stories locked into a place and time. Martin Scorsese remains the only director to do her work justice, letting her thematic concerns coalesce with his own, and using The Age of Innocence to definitively answer whether faith can overcome fate. 

Despite a genre-spanning career, his hard-edged style and preoccupation with relationships between men became synonymous with the gangster film. As such, The Age of Innocence’s cleaner, less bloody polish feels distinct from Scorsese’s filmography. But this period piece is as gritty as the rest of his oeuvre, wielding the rift between Ellen and Newland like a bludgeon and granting dinner conversations with the gravity of onscreen murder. Both Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence utilize the voice-over to balance this overlapping cast of characters across an increasingly unstable stage, with the latter dominated by an anonymous, omnipotent outlook, reporting different character’s devastation with unnerving aloofness. In many ways this external narration, so removed and unflinchingly observant, makes for a film that feels crueler in its worldview than any of Scorsese’s crime films. The narrator charts such unsparing-ness during the annual Beaufort ball, explaining that the exactingly curated harmony of everything seen “could be shattered by a whisper.”

Scorsese takes “shattering” literally. His camera ominously rests on crystal vases in front of priceless paintings held by gilded frames. And, of course, there are the rainbow of unfurled flowers, each straining to break free of the overstuffed casing. These hallways are delicately arranged time bombs, spaces mythically packed with hubris. Like the decorative flowers propped up in the few days between life and death, there is a paradoxical heart freezing all of Scorsese’s protagonists in place. His films capture men who are obsessed with life-encompassing purpose, each of them living faithfully in pursuit of something undeniable and bulletproof, something that needs no tending to, that could propel them forward unabated. Wharton’s books toy with similar ideas, but from a different vantagepoint, surrendering her characters to a complex web of rules, watching them struggle to uphold hopefulness against waves of socially manufactured insecurity. 

Both artists explicitly gender this kind of conviction, critiquing the men who build worlds that simplify and categorize people, enacting the kind of social laws that unceremoniously banish people from unmarked inner circles. As the narrator succinctly argues in The Age of Innocence, “the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” From this perspective, Newland is the prototypical Scorsese protagonist, drawn to people who carve out worlds within worlds—equipped with a new and foolproof plan that will free him from stifling laws. While Newland is the protagonist, Ellen Olenska is the axis the film spins on, redirecting the plot and casting an almost God-like shadow over Newland’s life, indicating a way forward so uncharted that the person and the idea are dreamily blurred. 

In The Age of Innocence this is expressed through pictorial transitions, clear-eyed bursts of artistic flair. Characters fade into monochromatic shades, imposed against static flowers; surroundings and figures within them are positioned to reflect one another. Particularly striking is the shot of Ellen standing on sun-soaked harbour, facing the water with her body at a teasing angle, perhaps catching Newland (and us, the audience,) in the corner of her eye, perhaps enraptured by the serenity ahead. It replays through the film like a hypnotic prayer: Ellen wrapped in the sunset, golden and still. 

Such connection to surroundings—building out the minutiae of the world, the unassuming scenes which obstruct and define the hero’s gait—is intrinsic to Scorsese’s work as a filmmaker. Wharton uses spaces to similarly define her players, admitting in her essay The Writing of Fiction that the “impression produced by a landscape, a street, a house should always, to the novelist, be an event in the history of the soul.” When Henry Hill observes the infamous Paul Cicero’s cohort of gangsters from his bedroom window at the beginning of Goodfellas, the camera suddenly abandons Hill’s bird’s eye view to position itself on the ground within the group. We see each man arrive, with the scenery shifting around them; the car’s suspension lifting as they step onto the street, a heavy metal ring tapping on the vehicle’s door—all events “in the history of the soul.”

There have been many rumored cinematic adaptations of Wharton’s work, but none have coalesced into fruition, resigned to ambitious industry rumblings. It is telling that Scorsese—the king of capturing the dissolution of faith onscreen—is the only director to have embraced Wharton’s regret-fueled, sprawling vision.

“The Age of Innocence” is available for digital rental or purchase.

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