Updating What Maisie Knew involves more than simply swapping black London cabs with yellow New York ones

Henry James and the myth of freedom.

For the new film What Maisie Knew, the directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have made the smart decision to update the setting of Henry James’s 1897 novel about divorced Londoners squabbling over custody of their young daughter to contemporary New York. The film is thus free to focus on character and motivation rather than hoop skirts and period furniture, freeing James in turn from his gilded Merchant Ivory prison.
Not one line from the novel makes it into the screenplay – at least, none I recognised. Despite this, the film succeeds in bringing to the screen James’s complex psychological study of an intelligent young girl who is abused and abandoned by her parents. This is thanks in part to the superb performances – notably by the seven-year-old actress Onata Aprile – and in part to a refreshing lack of mawkishness. It’s also the result of the filmmakers’ commendable decision to follow the novel and depict everything from Maisie’s perspective. Ironically, this results in the film presenting her freedom in terms contrary to the spirit of James’s novel but depressingly familiar to our social and political moment.
Updating What Maisie Knew involves more than simply swapping black London cabs with yellow New York ones. An important question in the novel is whether Maisie possesses a “moral sense”, a term used by her governess to mean little more than condemning sex outside of marriage. Since hardly anyone in today’s New York thinks this way, the question is excised from the film – as is her governess. The moral sense James’s Maisie does possess is a matter not of judgement but perspective: her extraordinary ability to identify with others. This is never more evident – and never more needed – than in the harrowing scene in which her father tells her he is leaving for America: “[It] rolled over her that this was their parting, their parting for ever, and that he had brought her there for so many caresses only because it was important such an occasion should look better for him than any other.” Maisie realises not only that her father doesn’t want to tell her that he will never see her again but that he wants her to reject him – to save his idea of himself as decent.
The scene reappears in the film but here her father (played by Steve Coogan) is leaving America for England. There is another crucial difference: in the film, his offer to take Maisie with him appears to be real, at least until she asks him whether she will be able to spend every other week at her mother’s house, forgetting there is an ocean in between. What the scene makes clear is that the immorality of the father asking his daughter to decide lies not in whether he is being sincere but in the act of giving Maisie a choice at all. She should not be allowed to choose because she doesn’t know what is involved in choosing, as her naive comment about visiting her mother makes clear, and hence she should not be made to bear the responsibility for the choice. Yet the film-makers – unlike James’s Maisie – seem not to know this.
The film ends with Maisie faced with another choice, only this time it is her mother (the extraordinary Julianne Moore) doing the asking. The upbeat ending assures the viewer that she has made the right choice, the choice we hoped she’d make all along. However, to approve of her choice is to condone the idea that she should be making such choices in the first place: a very modern, very American but not very defensible notion.
It’s instructive to compare the film with the work of the Belgian directing team the Dardenne brothers, whose films continually depict people making difficult or appalling choices. (In the 2005 film L’Enfant, a young father sells his newborn child.) Their films introduce choice into places where it doesn’t belong, places where behaviour should be determined by duty and by love. The sign of how far it is from working-class Belgium to upper-class New York is that, despite all the terrible choices made by the parents in What Maisie Knew, the film retains a belief in the importance of the freedom to choose, even when that choice concerns something as seemingly ineluctable as who your parents are.
James had no such belief in freedom of choice. The world depicted in his fiction is relentlessly social and densely psychological, a world in which no choice is truly free: every act is in part prompted by forces outside of the subject’s control; every act constrains someone else’s freedom.
Despite the interconnectedness of our world, we seem to have forgotten this lesson. The market’s relentless trumpeting of the importance of freedom of choice in every arena, no matter how trivial – from schools to doctors to light bulbs – obscures the increasing erosion of economic and social mobility. No exclamation recurs more frequently in James’s novels than: “I’m free, I’m free!” But nothing is less true. And in an era subject to any number of fatuous warnings about the threats to “our freedoms” from both home and abroad, James’s scepticism – what we might call his moral sense – is far from anachronistic.
Stuart Burrows is an associate professor of English at Brown University in Rhode Island 
Julianne Moore and Onata Aprile in What Maisie Knew. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.