The writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who has died aged 85, achieved her greatest fame late in life, and for work she had once dismissed as a hobby – listing “writing film scripts” as a recreation in Who’s Who. Her original screenplays and adaptations of literary classics for the film producer Ismail Merchant and the director James Ivory were met with box-office and critical success. The trio met in 1961, and almost immediately became collaborators, as well as close and lifelong friends.
Soon after Merchant and Ivory themselves met (in New York), Merchant proposed that they make a film of Jhabvala’s early novel The Householder (1960). The pair then went to Delhi and asked her to sell them the book and write a screenplay of it in eight days flat. Over the next five decades, she wrote 23 screenplays. The collaborations included adaptations of EM Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992), for both of which Jhabvala won Academy Awards; and Henry James’s The Bostonians (1984) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1993). Jhabvala’s two Oscars put her in the incongruous company of Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor – journalists reported how odd the gilt statuettes looked in her plain New York flat.
She did not care. Her own fiction was what mattered to her, whether or not it did to anyone else. This was how it had been since she began writing novels in India in the 1950s, feeling: “I was at the bottom of a deep abyss. No one read them. But I enjoyed it.” The films were fun, but: “I live so much more in and for the books,” she wrote to a friend.
Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter in A Room with a View, 1985. Photograph: Moviestore Collection
She was a brilliant storyteller. Her work darkened towards the end of her life: she wrote of deception and self-deception and of time’s revenges, the twists and turns of an implacable fate that her worst charlatans could manipulate to their advantage. Her vision was bleak; her tone austere. But her supply of complex characters and subtle, vivid scenes was inexhaustible and she caught the ambiguities of human behaviour and the pleasures of the senses in precise, perfect words.