Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Brideshead Redux

Last week I read an article about how they're coming out with a new film version of Brideshead Revisited. As a big fan of the novel as well as the classic miniseries, my first reaction was "no way."

Whenever I hear that a book I loved is being turned into a movie I am at first exhilarated, then worried that the movie is not going to come anywhere close to doing the book justice (I think it takes a rare genius to make a great film out of a great book), then I'm upset about the idea of my lovely book being tarnished by its association with some crap flick, and then eventually I'm like "eh, I guess I'll see what they've done with it." (A little like the stages of grief maybe -- well except for the initial exhilaration).

And when I hear a movie (or tv show) I love is getting remade I usually start out all "blasphemy!", then I'm usually like "you know it's going to suck," then "well you know maybe if they approach it from a different angle, and with today's visual effects, and a big budget, and if they're able to get away with more sex and nudity...", and then as the theatrical release approaches and the first reports of the film come in it's usually like "nope, my first guess was correct. It really does suck." So I'm going to call it right now, that this new movie is going to be nowhere near as good or memorable as the novel or the miniseries. Nevertheless, I am definitely going to watch it someday just to see how badly they screwed things up (much like I did with Madonna/Guy Ritchie's Swept Away [don't get me started]. Oh, and I still want to see that bad remake of the Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage).

The Book

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder was first published in 1945. It was written by the English author, Evelyn Waugh, who up until then was best known for his satirical novels. But, unlike his previous books, Brideshead's tone was more sentimental than comical, and it was meant to be taken seriously. Waugh himself described the novel as "nothing less than an attempt to trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world..."

I first read the novel when I was living in New Orleans after law school. I bought a cheap, tacky paperback copy at a book fair which had a photo from the miniseries on the cover. Until then I only knew about Brideshead because when I was a teenager my mom had the miniseries' soundtrack on CD and because it was referenced in A. S. Byatt's novel Still Life. When Byatt's heroine, Frederica, is studying at Cambridge she mentions that she prefers Brideshead's nostalgic schmaltz to Kingsley Amis' comic novel, Lucky Jim, a favorite among her mostly male classmates, as she didn't appreciate what she saw as its misogynistic and anti-intellectual slant. I think that part of the reason I connected so much with the book is because of where I was in my life at the time: I think I was looking for a job, unemployed and bored, and so the novel's rich escapism sucked me in.

The Plot (A barebones synopsis. I try hard not to give the whole story away, but if you want to "go in clean" skip to the next section)

The story begins in the 1920s. Charles Ryder is a young man from a middle class family who goes off to study at Oxford. There another student named Sebastian Flyte catches his attention. At first he finds Sebastian annoying (homeboy carries around a teddy bear which he calls "Aloysius"), but soon after they meet Charles is won over by Sebastian's charm and his carefree lifestyle and the two become very close friends. Sebastian comes from a old aristocratic family whose last two generations happen to be Catholic.

The first sign of future troubles occurs when Sebastian takes Charles to see his ancestral home. He is careful to avoid running into any relatives because, as he tells Charles, if Charles meets the family he'll become a family friend but Sebastian wants Charles to remain his personal friend. When Charles does meet Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain, she tries to enlist him to keep an eye on her son. Not long after this, Charles begins to realize there is a problem, as Sebastian continues to binge drink and is ever more frequently in a foul mood. Things come to a head one Christmas holiday when Sebastian escapes from the family and goes on a bender (I should be so lucky this coming weekend). This precipitates a big row and a falling out between Charles and Lady Marchmain.

After that, Charles doesn't see the Flytes for years. He marries and makes a small fortune as an architectural painter (painting families' stately homes before they're forced to sell them). Then, sometime in the 1930s, Charles runs into Sebastian's sister, Julia, on a transatlantic voyage back to England. Julia has meanwhile married a Canadian-born veteran/politician who turned out to be a boor. The two bond aboard the ship while the rest of the passengers are seasick, and when they return to England they fall in love (which is a little creepy given how close he was with her brother -- not to mention the fact that we're told how much they look alike). They makes plans to both free themselves from their unhappy marriages and to be together, but in the end Julia finds that she cannot break the tenants of her faith by divorcing her husband.


Besides the novel's rich portrait of the era, I was impressed by the authenticity of the character's psychological profiles. I thought that the way Sebastian's alcoholism was described seemed really genuine (uh, not like I'm an expert or anything), and it's interesting to see how his problem was dealt with (or not) in a time when people didn't have such a clear, medical understanding of "dipsomania."

As for the Catholicism theme, Waugh himself converted to Catholicism in 1930. He saw Brideshead as dealing with "the operation of Grace" which he describes as the "unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself." But, as Frederica points out in Still Life, it's easy to come away from the book with the impression that the Flytes were ultimately unhappy because of their faith. Julia (although she married a divorced man who wasn't Catholic and she had an affair with Charles) decides to remain in her unhappy marriage rather than getting a divorce in contravention of the Church's teachings. Likewise I would say that the root cause of Sebastian's alcoholism and depression was his inability to live up to the tenants of his faith. It doesn't take a great imagination to reach to the conclusion that Sebastian is gay (even if Charles wasn't): heck, when we catch up with him in the '30s Sebastian is living in North Africa where he hangs around a monastery and cares for a crippled French soldier. Maybe the conflict between his family's religion and his sexuality is what drove him to the bottle. Julia and Sebastian's stories are all the more interesting because -- unlike their other two siblings, Bridie and Cordelia -- they're not religious individuals, yet I guess deep down their Catholic upbringing has left a lasting impression. I suppose this is what Waugh would call the operation of Grace.

The Miniseries

In 1981, an 11 episode television miniseries was produced for Grenada. Unlike the BBC miniseries of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe which Amanda and I both had fond childhood memories of, but which on a more recent viewing floored us with its cheap production values, this was a lavish production with beautiful cinematography. The miniseries was filmed on location at Oxford, Castle Howard in York (which is generally believed to have inspired Waugh's fictional Brideshead), and on board the QE2.

Jeremy Irons stars as Charles Ryder; I think that sometimes he can be a snoozefest (like in that lousy version of Lolita), but he wasn't bad here. And Sir Laurence Olivier gives an amazing performance as a dying Lord Marchmain. He has a great speech about how a couple of generations ago Brideshead was called the "New House" "in the nursery and in the field when unlettered men had long memories."

That's the thing: the miniseries has a total running time of 11 hours, so they were able to give the story the treatment it deserved. I remember that this adaptation included just about every scene and every line of dialogue I remembered from the book.

The new movie

From what I've read, the director of the new film version (Andrew Davies, who also filmed the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth) has decided to make this a radically different Brideshead. He elected to abandon the nostalgic tone in favor of drama, and to truncate the treatment of Charles and Sebastian's time at Oxford, focusing instead on Charles and Julia's love affair which he sees as the central story. And Aloysius the bear gets axed from the new script!

As for the actors, Charles Ryder is played by Matthew Goode who was in that Chasing Liberty movie, where Mandy Moore is the President's daughter, which was sort of like Roman Holiday (err, don't ask how I know all this). Julia is played by Hayley Atwell who is also in that Cassandra's Dream movie Woody Allen filmed in Spain with Ewan McGregor and (ugh) Colin Farrell. The most exciting news is that Emma Thompson is playing Lady Marchmain. And Lord Marchmain is played by Michael Gambon who, since Richard Harris died, has been filling the shoes of everybody's favorite gay headwizard. Speaking of big shoes to fill, we will just have to see how this new adaptation stacks up to its predecessors.

Photo of Castle Howard taken by wikipedia user David59 is used subject to a GNU free documentation license. Photo of Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick taken from Brideshead Revisited miniseries (c) Grenada Television.


nola32 said...

ohhh, i love me some matthew goode. super fine!! wouldn't mind a gratuitous bath scene with him!

Meeg said...

I do think I heard something about racy sex scenes between Charles and Julia (not that the miniseries was wholey wanting in that regard).

Tom McLoughlin said...

Thanks for this information item. I was researching more on theories of Sebastion character implosion (alcohol history in my family, well clear of it myself at 43, teatotal in fact).

Have to disagree about otherwise plausible theory of sexuality/ religious neurosis.

Key fact: Episode 4 reveals clearly the father Lord Marchmain also used to 'get drunk like that' until he 'he ran away ... He's not like that now': Lady Marchmain. Lord Marchman is demonstrably straight. Sebastian arguably not. Charles character straight but late bloomer.

Nah. It's much deeper than even that,and I know this intuitively to my core: It's about oppressive hierarchical parental control over anything that matters and perceptions of reality itself, stifling an authentic first person existence, this strange experience of feeling one's very soul being annexed as a vicarious exponent of another in this case the "steely, terrifyingly manipulative" matriarch.

(That's quite a driven will power. And very cold. More on where that chill derives below - loss of her brothers in WW1?)

These are the words of actor Anthony Andrews discussing Ep.4 in DVD extras, 25 years after it was made, and an enthusiastic telling it is. Andrews really cared about the character he played which itself is very moving so many years later. Very revealing of quality.

More detail here:

d said...

"since Richard Grant died"


"in the end Julia finds that she cannot break the tenants of her faith by divorcing her husband."

Tenets. Or squatters in the chapel?

Meeg said...

OMG, I meant Richard Harris (big difference there I know)! I went ahead and changed that in the post.