Knowing It When You See It

Henry James/Cinema

By Patrick O'Donnell

Subjects: Moral Psychology, Film Studies, American Literature
Series: SUNY series, Literature . . . in Theory
Paperback : 9781438482767, 158 pages, July 2021
Hardcover : 9781438482774, 158 pages, January 2021

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: "The Business of Looking"

1. Of Birds and Birdcages: "In the Cage" and The Birds

2. Childhood Living: What Maisie Knew and Kill Bill

3. Frame-Up: James, Caché, and the Borders of the Visible

4. Mementos: "The Beast in the Jungle" and Memento

5. Experience Machines: The Ambassadors and Rear Window

Epilogue A Brief Reflection on Melancholia


Lively analysis of how Henry James's fiction anticipates later filmmakers' concerns with what we can see and what we can know.


Perched as he was at the beginning of literary modernism and the evolution of film as a medium, Henry James addressed a cluster of epistemological and aesthetic issues related to the visualization of reality. In Knowing It When You See It, Patrick O'Donnell compares several late novels and stories by Henry James with a series of films directed by Michael Haneké, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, and Lars Von Trier. O'Donnell argues that these issues find parallels in films made at the other end of an arc extending from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the initial years of the twenty-first. In mapping affinities between literature and film, he is not concerned with adaptation or discursivity, but rather with how the "visual" is represented in two mediums—with how seeing becomes knowledge, how framing what is seen becomes a critical part of the story that is conveyed, and how the perspective of the camera or the narrator shapes reality. Both James and these later auteurs "think" visually in ways that inter-illuminate their fictions and films, and newly bring into relief the trajectory of modernity in relation to visuality.

Patrick O'Donnell is Professor Emeritus of English at Michigan State University. He is the author and editor of many books, including A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell and (coedited with David W. Madden and Justus Nieland) The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Fiction.