NEW YORK — WHO would have guessed that E.M. Forster would become a hot property in the movie world?
A traditionally schooled British author who published his first novel in 1905, he was better known by English majors than by movie buffs until David Lean made one of his most famous books, "A Passage to India," into a popular film about eight years ago.
Then the gifted team of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant turned to Forster in a big way, first with "A Room With a View" in 1985, then "Maurice" in 1987, and this year the marvelous "Howard's End," which opened recently to popular and critical acclaim.
With those three films to their credit, you may have thought Mr. Ivory and Mr. Merchant had a monopoly on Forster's works. But he wrote enough novels for other filmmakers to get into the act, and now director Charles Sturridge - best known for the respected "Brideshead Revisited" TV miniseries - has adapted the very first of these, "Where Angels Fear To Tread," to the screen.
The film was inspired (like "A Room With a View," published two years later) by a trip Forster made to Italy while still in his 20s. Also like "A Room With a View," it focuses on the spectacle made by dull, respectable Britishers trying desperately to remain dull, while surrounded by the temptations of the sunny, romantic south.
The tale begins when an English widow named Lilia, vacationing in Italy, sends word to her family that she's gotten engaged to an Italian man much younger, and much poorer, than she is.
Lilia's nephew rushes off to stop this foolish affair, only to find he's too late. Lilia and Gino are already married. And they're already headed for trouble, as Lilia's independence runs into Gino's continental ideas about a wife's proper submission to her husband.
But surprises are in store for all, including Lilia's niece Harriet, a busybody who can't sit still unless everyone is as tense and miserable as she always seems to be.
The treatment of Forster's novel by Mr. Sturridge and his collaborators has many similarities with Ivory's excellent Forster movies. There's the same leisurely pace, the same picturesque appearance, and even the same cast to some extent: Helena Bonham Carter is also in "A Room With a View" and "Howard's End," while Rupert Graves appears in "A Room With a View" and "Maurice." On hand too is the wonderful Judy Davis, who received an Oscar nomination for her work in "A Passage to India."
What separates "Where Angels Fear To Tread" from earlier Forster movies is a slightly lower level of overall quality. The screenplay doesn't make smooth transitions between scenes of different emotional intensity; and the climax is forced and unconvincing. This is a good-looking film, and at times a very amusing one. But in the end it seems more literary than cinematic - an adaptation that's truer to the book than to the special rhythms of first-rate moviemaking.