The Age of Innocence

4th Six Weeks IRP


The director of film version of The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese, portrays New York society as its predecessor's author, Edith Wharton, intends it to be perceived. However, Wharton has hundreds of pages to convey to readers what Scorsese has to condense into a two hour production. This means that the director has to be creative with the ways in which he shares the subtle details to his audience. He fills all of the homes with ostentatious decor, using the rich colors and fabrics to convey to viewers the importance of material possessions in the traditional society. Throughout, he also uses weather as an important medium of tone, characterizing the monotony of the characters' lives through the constant gloom. Above all else, he highlights the petty social rules that every member of society, with the exception of Countess Olenska, adheres to. It is in this category that the book is far superior. If one had not read the book before seeing the movie, one would miss out on the subtle nuances within relationships like that or Newland Archer and May Welland.


Newland Archer, the main character, is portrayed as a man trying to break free from society's traditions that finds himself unable to do so. The book allows for a great deal of insight into his thoughts, while the movie does not. This takes away from the audience's understanding of his relationships with his wife May and his cousin-in-law the Countess.

May Welland is the doting fiance and then wife in both the book and the movie, but she seems much more subordinate in the movie. Many of her lines in the movies are direct quotes from the book, but the actress's delivery makes May appear feeble even when she is denying her husband his one true desire, a move that required bravery and self respect.

Countess Ellen Olenska is cast marvelously in the film. She stands out from the other women, as Wharton describes in the book, because of her disregard of the typical societal customs and outlandish dress. She has an air of nonchalance that makes her opinions and resulting actions believable.

The supporting characters are for the most part the same in the two literary pieces. The descriptions of Larry Lefferts and Sillerton Jackson at the opera ball serve as introductions to New York society in the book and the movie. In addition, the Welland, van der Luyden, and of course, Beaufort families all carry the same reputations. The once exception is Mrs. Mingott who is portrayed in a much more comedic way in the movie than the book. Wharton describes her as being a confident, elderly, overweight woman, while Scorsese uses her as a source of comedy, making her into a caricature.

Plot and Theme

Since the film adaption follows the book very closely, the plot is essentially identical. A few minor scenes were omitted for the sake of time, but none of them had a great impact on viewers' understanding of the conflicts between the characters. Still, some of the seemingly unimportant scenes from the book are included, such as when Newland buys special yellow roses for the Countess but does not send his card. Alone, this does not affect the plot, but coupled with other scenes, it helps to develop the status of the relationship between Newland and the Countess.

Since they have similar story lines, the book and the movie have the same over-arching themes. First, they relay the shallowness of the high society in New York during the 1800s. They point out that for the tight-knit families, emotions are secondary to status which is based solely upon history and wealth. Second, they show the danger that adultery, even when the relationship is purely mental. Newland and the Countess kiss only twice, but they share many passionate conversations. This is enough to cause the society to reject the Countess to support and protect Newland's wife, May. Third, they convey that love is not something physical; it is something that comes with a deep understanding and admiration for another person's view of life. Newland and the Countess connect on an extraordinary level that allows them to communicate in the smallest ways, like the Countess's refusal to turn around and face Newland although she was aware of his presence.

Critical Acclaim

Wharton's The Age of Innocence was, and continues to be, more successful than its film counterpart. Obviously, since it is on the list of literary works of merit, the book is considered a classic that can stand the test of time. It is incredibly well written, utilizing detail-filled imagery that allows readers to experience a new way of living. Its themes are well-developed continue to be relevant. One might assume that since the film followed the book closely and had a well known cast it would be equally as successful, but did not turn out to be the case. While the film was praised by critics, it was not successful with the general populous. The box office was not even able to cover the budget's expenditures.

Personally, between the book and the movie, I prefer the book. Both pieces took me back to a time of manners and traditions, but the book allowed me to see into the thoughts of the main character, Newland. This insight made every interaction much more meaningful, and I feel as though I was able to connect with the characters more. In all honesty, neither of the literary works was my favorite. I felt as though both were drawn out for a long time, never to have a true climax, only a point of realization. I prefer stories that have more action and conflict. I do appreciate Wharton and Scorsese's abilities to capture the defining qualities of the 1800s in their respective mediums. I would recommend both to anyone fond of the time frame in which they are set.