Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Passing into Film: Rebecca Hall’s Adaptation of Nella Larsen

Director Rebecca Hall’s recent adaptation of Nella Larsen’s exquisite second novel, Passing (1929), is visually stunning. I had the pleasure of seeing the film on the big screen, during its limited theatrical run and before its Netflix release. It was the ideal atmosphere for absorbing this cinematic rendering of Larsen’s eerie, anxiety-ridden plot: ensconced with a sparse audience (my companion and I comprising two of the four patrons for the 5:10pm showing) in a small independent theater in Manhattan, just a few miles from where the story is set, and with Halloween everywhere looming on this late-October evening.[1]

Promotional poster for Rebecca Hall's Passing (2021). Image via IMDB.
Fig. 1. Promotional poster for Rebecca Hall's Passing (2021). Image via IMDB.

These qualities of the novel were only enhanced by Hall’s decision to film it in black and white, a daring choice that she, a first-time filmmaker, had to fight for, as Alexandra Kleeman of the New York Times reports. On the one hand, this artistic decision conjures all the nervous palpitations that Hitchcock made synonymous with black-and-white mise-en-scène, maintaining the unshakable uneasiness one experiences while reading Larsen’s novel. On the other, it hurls the either-or terms of Jim Crow racial binarism into conflict with a predominating grayscale—an all-pervading sign of the fictionality of the dichotomizations structuring American culture. Nothing could be more in the spirit of Nella Larsen’s novel. I suspect, however, that Hall’s departures from the source text will attract the attention of modernists far more than her convergences.

Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson) on the stoop in Passing
Fig. 2. Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson) on the stoop in Passing. Image courtesy of Netflix 2021.

Why might scholars of the novel be so provoked by Hall’s artistic licenses? Well, of course, there is the ineradicable conservatism in so many of us: we revere the original so much (and this is especially true of Passing) that we are instinctively skeptical of any attempt at changing it. But, as we shall see, the nature of Hall’s alterations become interpretively and politically significant in an adaptation otherwise so faithful to the novel, even to its old-fashioned, 1920s dialogue.

Hall begins the film not in Chicago, as Larsen does, but in New York City, from which it never departs. Chicago, we know, was an important city for Larsen—the city of her childhood and the place where both she and the leading ladies of Passing, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, learn race. The decision about setting was probably necessitated by a limited production budget. (It is notable here that both of the star actresses, Tessa Thompson [Irene] and Ruth Negga [Clare], are listed as producers.) To fly the crew all the way to Chicago and back to New York simply for the sake of a shopping and rooftop scene almost certainly would have been prohibitively costly for Hall. Beyond diminishing the importance of this hyper-racialized city to the story, this modification on Hall’s part has several implications. For one, it means that Hall’s film does not open with the opening of a letter, as Larsen’s novel does, since in the novel the letter is occasioned by Clare’s trip to New York after the two estranged friends bump into each other in Chicago.[2] In the process, we lose the complex play with time, the many flashes back and forth, of Larsen’s storytelling. The storytelling may also be rendered a little less sexy, and I mean that literally. Literary critic Deborah McDowell has taught generations of readers to read the unsheathing of the letter as erotic.[3] If she is right, the letter functions in the novel as a preamble to the flashback scene of Irene and Clare’s reunion on the rooftop of the Drayton Hotel, where the two women meet while both passing for white.[4] Without it, one could argue, the viewer of the film is less primed to view what Larsen terms the “encounter” in the sexually fraught way that the reader of the novel might.

Irene (Tessa Thompson) in the tearoom in Passing
Fig. 3. Irene (Tessa Thompson) in the tearoom in Passing. Image courtesy of Netflix 2021.

The eroticism Hall sacrifices in this revision, however, she mostly recoups elsewhere in the film, which treats the audience to more than a few lustful gazes between the main actresses and even a somewhat ham-handed shot of Irene fixated on Clare’s awkwardly gyrating back. But back to the reunion on the rooftop of the Drayton, which occurs, as I’ve mentioned, in New York City rather than Chicago. Larsen’s Irene fears detection in this white-dominated establishment in Chicago; Hall’s Irene would have equal reason for concern, since New York City businesses were prone to similar discriminatory practices, practices that probably would have resulted in Irene’s ejection had she been found out. So Hall’s license with location doesn’t pose a historical problem. Further, Hall, Thompson, and Negga all are to be commended for the rooftop scene. It hardly matters that Clare’s dress is white rather than the “fluttering dress of green chiffon” or that Hall has specified the man with whom Clare is at table as her husband rather than, like Larsen, leaving open the possibility that Clare is having an affair.[5] The intensity of Negga’s gaze across the restaurant stirringly matches the intensity of the anxiety of Thompson’s character—a shared intensity that Hall ramps up to such a pitch that it positively brackets them off from the rest of the restaurant, which is blurred while the two characters sit before us in sharp outline, alone in a sea of strangers. This scene by itself is enough to justify adapting Larsen’s novel, a testament to its resplendent visuality.

At the same time, though, it testifies to the limits of visuality in her novel, for, in the novel, it is only at the Drayton that we learn that Irene isn’t white. It takes Larsen a whole chapter to reveal Irene’s race, which is divulged in a sentence whose very syntax, tantalizing and punchy, suggests that Larsen had been deliberately withholding that crucial detail: “Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?” (Passing, 150). This is not merely a gimmick on Larsen’s part but, rather, a means of troubling her culture’s prevailing confidence about race’s legibility—an undertaking reprised by later writers, most notably Toni Morrison, in her widely read 1983 short story “Recitatif.” Shopping, fretting over her children, and hailing a cab to a ritzy rooftop, where she is received without incident—Irene seems, before the narrator exposes her, indistinguishable from a middle-class white woman, and the reader, Larsen understood, would be predisposed to assume that she is just that. This unsettling of racial certitudes is at the heart of the novel, an intention echoed later in Irene’s conversation with the smug novelist Hugh Wentworth, to whom she explains that it is sometimes impossible to tell one race from the other simply by looking (206). That claim can stand in a work of literature, but, in a film featuring actresses known to be of African descent, looking tells us all we need to know, and far sooner than Larsen intended us to know it. I wonder whether Hall might have been able to reproduce Larsen’s gamely ambiguity to good effect by beginning the film with faceless voices, either by starting with the characters speaking on a pitch-black screen or shooting the characters interacting with their faces off-screen or turned away from the camera.

While Hall’s confinement of the action to New York doesn’t spoil the film’s historical accuracy, it does force her to make significant changes to the first third of Larsen’s plot. Here is the rub: in the novel, it is in Chicago where Irene meets Clare’s superlatively racist husband, John Bellew, and the sensational ending of the story requires their having met. Since the film does not leave New York City, the two must be introduced there. Hall decides to stage their meeting in a hotel suite belonging to Clare and Bellew (played by Alexander Skarsgård), to which Clare and Irene repair immediately after tea on the rooftop. In the novel, Clare isn’t staying at the establishment of their rooftop encounter (she is staying at someplace called The Morgan), and it isn’t until days later, after much pestering from Clare, that Irene is tricked into meeting Bellew.

Clare (Ruth Negga) and John (Alexander Skarsgård) in the hotel suite in Passing
Fig. 4. Clare (Ruth Negga) and John (Alexander Skarsgård) in the hotel suite in Passing. Image courtesy of Netflix 2021.

Because of Hall’s alterations to the novel’s setting and its timing, she is more or less forced to omit from the film Irene and Clare’s childhood friend, Gertrude, who also is biracial. Although Gertrude, like Clare, is married to a white man, she isn’t passing for white; her husband, Fred, knows her racial origins, and so does his family and everyone else in their community. Despite Gertrude’s concerns over the trouble her racial background might cause her and Fred (such as her worries over the skin color of their children), Fred is wholly unbothered by any of this, and it’s clear that he loves his wife, dismissing her fretting as “silly” (168). The inclusion of Gertrude’s story is Larsen’s way of showing the variability of biracial life and interracial love, providing a middle way between the extremes of Irene and Clare. Gertrude and Fred defy prejudices against interracial romance, prejudices alive even in our time. (Recall President Barack Obama’s controversial asseveration in his memoirs that “[t]he emotions between the races could never be pure.”[6]) The exclusion of Gertrude from the film, while seemingly negligible given that she is a minor character, constitutes a major loss, for it conduces to a simplistic vision of biracial and interracial possibilities in the 1920s, a vision almost as simplistic as the racial binarism against which both Larsen and Hall position themselves.[7]

Hall’s omission of Gertrude and Fred is not, however, the most conspicuous example of the film’s simplification of Larsen’s portrayal of domestic arrangements. Many familiar with Larsen’s Passing will blink at the fact that Hall has Irene and her husband, Brian (André Holland), sharing a bedroom, contrary to the novel’s segregating them into separate bedrooms. While the film does, in other ways, portray the Redfields’ marriage as strained, this revision has the effect of exaggerating Clare’s role in their marital discord, suggesting that they had been fine before this homewrecker entered the picture. To suggest this is to disregard one of the novel’s primary implications—that it is Irene’s embrace of black respectability and her absorption of American racial ideology generally, and not some defect in Clare, that is the engine of the story’s conflict.[8] In this regard, the film comports with many critical interpretations of the novel that turn it into a jealousy plot—reductive interpretations that almost invariably end up nominating Irene as the cause of Clare’s death rather than maintaining the ambiguity of the ending preserved by Larsen.

Irene (Tessa Thompson) and her husband Brian (André Holland)
Fig. 5. Irene (Tessa Thompson) and her husband Brian (André Holland) in Passing. Image courtesy of Netflix 2021.

But this tactic, the rehabilitation of the Redfields’ love life, seems part of a larger strategy on Hall’s part to soften Irene, to defang and domesticate a character whom Larsen takes pains to depict as dominating and domineering. For my part, I simply can neither forget nor forgive the moment in the film when, during one of the couple’s disagreements over the rearing of the children, Hall has Irene erupt into what I can only describe as white-woman tears—a hysterical display meant to disarm her chivalrous husband and sidestep the necessity of winning the argument by logical disputation. 

Do these revisions redeem Irene, make her a more endearing character with whom viewers are likelier to sympathize? If they do, that fact would say more about us than it would about Irene. We should be able to accept that Irene, too, is a victim—namely, of the culture’s pernicious racial dispensation—without needing to see her as a stereotypically feminine creature so frail as to be incapable of coping with a heated conversation with her husband. After all, for Irene—a woman, like Larsen, able to hold her own with prominent white novelists—Brian is child’s play. Hall at least leaves Larsen’s Irene with the gumption and wit to spar with Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp). Yet, at an important juncture, she deprives Irene of her inclination even to read for herself: Hall delegates to Brian the reading of Clare’s letter to Irene, in which Clare expresses a cryptic “wild desire,” and he performs the task tauntingly in the bed that Hall’s revision has him sharing with his wife. One might observe that having Brian read the letter serves to triangulate the erotic tension among them more evenly, but, even so, it most certainly dilutes the charge between the two women by wedging a man squarely in the middle. When Brian reads these words to his wife, he transfers at least some of the flirtatious sentiments conveyed in it to himself, effectively coopting the role of cooing addresser. At the same time, as the first recipient of words meant for another, he partly coopts the role of addressee. In case Irene’s altered marital relations didn’t suffice to recast her in stereotypically feminine terms, Hall adds a self-indulgently avant-garde scene in which Irene assumes the role of female neurotic, lying prostrate in bed, dazed from pills and staring, for an unspecified duration, at a widening crack in the ceiling.

Irene isn’t the only character softened in Hall’s adaptation; Clare’s loathsome husband is, too. This, to my mind, is the single most perplexing liberty that Hall has taken. At first, despite the changed circumstances of their initial meeting, Hall’s Bellew appears as abhorrent as he does in the novel. He irrupts into the hotel suite exclaiming, “Nig!” (his pet name for Clare, a playful reference to her skin’s tendency to darken), and Hall even has him unabashedly utter the n-word, a risky—given our sensitive times—yet smart decision on Hall’s part. The second time we see him is mostly faithful to the novel: when he and Irene run into each other on the street while Irene is walking arm in arm with her darker-skinned friend, Felise Freeland, he is undeceived as to Irene’s “true” racial identity. But Bellew’s final moment on screen is where things take a decisive turn. After he bursts into the Freeland home imperiously making wild demands and something causes Clare to fall from the window to her death (the causation almost as ambiguous in the film as in the novel), he does not yell, as he does in the book, “Nig! My God! Nig!” (239).

At first, a viewer may be disposed to dismiss this as a harmless revision. But when we consider the final change Hall makes, we are given reason to suspect that she might have kept these invidious lines out of his mouth in a larger effort to redeem him. In Larsen’s novel, by the time the police arrive on the scene after Clare’s lethal fall, Bellew has fled—if not a sign of his guilt, then at least an indication of his inadequate concern for the wife he has just lost. In Hall’s adaptation, by contrast, he behaves exactly as a loving husband ought: he is pictured seated in the snow sobbing inconsolably among the shocked black attendees of the Freelands’ ill-fated soirée.

I can find no way of accounting for this modification, small but huge, save as a deliberate attempt to rehabilitate Bellew. And why might it have appeared advantageous to Hall to do so? To appease a white audience—one comprising a significant number of people who are now demonstrating great touchiness over any effort to expose the historical cruelties of their progenitors. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hall were soon called on to answer for this poltroonish pandering.

To be sure, there are other dimensions of this adaptation that deserve discussion—for example, the downplaying of Clare’s abusive childhood, which renders her passing a little more mercenary than it is in the novel—but I’ve already gone on too long. As is by now clear, I have my misgivings about Hall’s recent film, but, above all, I’m very glad that she made it. If nothing else, it is a sign of Larsen’s growing stature, a growth evident to any scholar who has been watching the ballooning scholarly interest in her work in the last decade. Having her novel adapted for the big screen constitutes a new stage in this evolution, for it makes her only the second novelist of the Harlem Renaissance to have her work adapted for film in a major way (Zora Neale Hurston was first, with Darnell Martin’s 2005 adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Irene (Tessa Thompson) consoles Clare (Ruth Negga) in the street in Passing
Fig. 6. Irene (Tessa Thompson) consoles Clare (Ruth Negga) in the street in Passing. Image courtesy of Netflix 2021.

This is a signal victory not only for Larsen and the Harlem Renaissance, but also for the pioneering black women in the academy who worked so assiduously to bring her out of obscurity—Mary Helen Washington, whose 1980 profile of Larsen first put her on the radar of late-twentieth-century readers; Deborah McDowell, who made her work accessible through issuing modern editions of it; and the many other scholars, of all genders, who have fixed Larsen permanently in the American canon.[9] While Larsen’s expansion beyond the walls of the academy and into the mainstream will entrain its own challenges—for example, we teachers of her work must reckon with the fact that we’re less likely to be students’ entrée into Passing—we should celebrate this development as a milestone. I hope to see Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand, adapted—though I hope that whichever filmmaker brave enough to undertake that project will have the good sense not to put that colorful story in black and white.


Notes

[1] My thanks to Charlie Tyson for attending the showing with me and for the robust discussion of the film afterward.

[2] Larsen’s use of letters, as we shall see later in the essay, has received significant attention from scholars. In fact, Pardis Dabashi associates Larsen so closely with the epistolary that she crafts a dead letter to the novelist, inspired by Larsen’s love of George Cukor’s 1936 film Camille.

[3] Deborah McDowell, Introduction, Quicksand and Passing, ed. Deborah McDowell (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984), ix–xxxi. McDowell goes so far in eroticizing the letter as to call it “a metaphoric vagina” (xxvi).

[4] The Drayton is Larsen’s fictionalized version of the Drake Hotel, where, incidentally, the Modernist Studies Association’s conference was scheduled to be held earlier this month, before it was postponed on account of the pandemic.

[5] Nella Larsen, Passing, in Quicksand and Passing, ed. McDowell, 148.

[6] Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2004), 124.

[7] In an interview with Vanity Fair, Hall defends her use of grayscale, albeit in somewhat garbled fashion, on the grounds that it resists simplistic binarism: “I kept saying to everyone repeatedly, if any of us are illustrating one thing, I want to think about a way that we can illustrate the opposite at the same time. The obvious one is black and white, and it’s not actually black and white, it’s gray, so it is more complicated.”

[8] My essay on Larsen, especially the final few pages, treats this issue at length. See Rafael Walker, “Nella Larsen Re aconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in Quicksand and Passing,” MELUS 41, no. 1 (2016): 165–92. Please note as well that, while Modernism/modernity's house style currently capitalizes Black, we have followed the author's preference for black here.

[9] Mary Helen Washington, “Nella Larsen: Mystery Woman of the Harlem Renaissance,” Ms. Magazine 9, no. 6 (December 1980): 50.