The spoils of Waugh

You already know what I thought of the new film Brideshead Revisited, with its many distortions of the novel on which it is based. But I had the privilege of writing for an audience that I can assume is supportive, or at least respectful, of Waugh's original intent. (That's you.) So I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what more mainstream critics had to say about the film in general, and its relationship to the book in particular. Read on if you're curious -- but Waugh fans beware: it's not for the faint of heart.

I should note here that I don't allow myself to read other people's reviews until I turn in my own -- I don't want to second-guess myself, or be tempted to borrow another critic's insights. (But I really do want to read what other people think, so holding off also motivates me to keep working.) In this case, the one critic I would have been tempted to steal from was A.O. Scott, who wrote in the New York Times:

In Waugh's book...religious commitments and social relations were part of a thickly detailed, complicated and ancient lived reality. The long experience of English Catholics as a religious minority, the subtle gradations of class in the British university system, the crazy quilt of sexual norms and taboos governing the lives of young adults: all of this is what makes Brideshead Revisited live and breathe as a novel. None of it registers with any force in this lazy, complacent film, which takes the novel's name in vain.

Scott is one of the few who perceived what seemed very obvious to me: director Julian Jarrold and his screenwriters either misunderstood what Waugh was doing or thought it required improving. (Sarah Lyall's feature article on the film, also published in the NYT, suggests the former; screenwriter Jeremy Brock explains, apparently without irony, that the "twitch upon the thread" Waugh refers to -- that is, God's drawing sinners toward him, in an image from G. K. Chesterton -- is a reference to "that tug between individual freedom and fundamentalist religion.") You don't need to share Waugh's perspective on religion, or anything else, to recognize that his perspective is central to the novel, and that borrowing the setting and (to a lesser extent) the characters but rejecting the story's themes cannot make for a successful "adaptation." But Scott was one of very few critics who pointed that out.

Of course, he may also be one of the only film critics who isn't just pretending to be familiar with the novel. Richard Roeper certainly doesn't seem to know much about it, and Variety's Dennis Harvey bluffs, "[T]his version's changes, in the end, serve to communicate the novel's complexities within a viable, theatrical-friendly format without ever appearing to rush or coarsen its general arc." In the New York Post, Kyle Smith praises the novel but, in the same sentence, calls this adaptation "honorable and respectful."

A few are interested only in comparing the film to the television serial -- I might have expected that from USA Today, maybe even Newsweek (which refers to the miniseries as "the original") -- but the worst offender is, believe it or not, NPR's Bob Mondello, who opens by listing recent TV series adapted to film, then adds: "Now comes Brideshead Revisited, facing the opposite challenge: reducing an 11-hour original to two hours. And the filmmakers did the sensible thing: They went back to the book."

In fact, the movie twists Brideshead from a complicated exploration of the workings of grace into a cautionary tale about the dangers of religion, and a surprising number of reviewers take for granted that this viewpoint and the plot changes it requires are original to the novel. Perhaps the most deceived is The New York Observer's Andrew Sarris, who writes,

Curiously, Waugh (1903-1966) had converted to Catholicism in 1930, 14 years before he wrote Brideshead Revisited... I say curiously because Waugh's literary alter ego, Charles Ryder, is a self-proclaimed atheist who loses Julia because he fails to appreciate how strong and lasting her Catholic upbringing has been in shaping her character.

Somewhere in there he gets confused between what's in the book and what's in the movie. It's too bad he didn't at least admit his confusion. Sarris is the most expansively inaccurate, but he's not alone -- Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly thinks the novel is more firmly antireligion than the film: "Even Charles' atheism, so pivotal to the plot, now seems less a rigid stance on his part than a benign philosophical shrug." Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel admits to not having read the book, but goes on to refer to the Flyte family's "fundamentalist Catholicism" and, later, to assert that "the Catholicism practiced is a medieval Da Vinci Code variety," making me wonder what he has read (and whether his inbox is now full of emails from actual "fundamentalist Catholics" looking to set him straight). And when The Onion A.V. Club's Sam Adams asserts, "It's rare to find a work that explores issues of faith without veering into religious fundamentalism or militant atheism, which is reason enough to revisit Brideshead one more time," I'm afraid he isn't talking about the book, although for my money he should be.

Several have taken this opportunity to make generalizations that seem to be sourced in something other than the novel or the film. Liz Langely asserts in the Orlando Weekly: "We're stealthily reminded, though, that it's not necessarily God, but those who brandish God as a means of control that you have to watch out for." I don't think you can trace that lesson in the novel, but I guess it's reasonable enough in relation to the movie. I was more surprised by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat's review on their website "Spirituality and Practice" -- you might expect them to be especially sensitive to the treatment of religious themes, but by the time you reach the last paragraph, the film feels like a pretense for expressing an opinion about a particular practice of spirituality:

Waugh, who converted to Catholicism in 1930, stated that the major theme of the novel was "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters." ...But even more predominant in this version of the novel is the toxic fallout from Lady Marchmain's rigorous Catholicism of sin, sacrifice, guilt, and otherworldliness. It poisons the spirits of Sebastian and Julia so that they are incapable of self-esteem or the slightest shred of contentment. Anyone who cherishes literary drama will relish this exquisite screen version of Brideshead Revisited.

There are also a few reviewers who do know the novel but are openly dismissive, even disdainful, of Waugh's intentions. This is certainly their prerogative. But Salon's Louis Bayard is so eager to explain the faults he finds in Waugh that he doesn't even notice that the film agrees with him. And Emma Taylor, writing in the Village Voice and L.A. Weekly, embraces Jarrold's apparent distaste for Waugh with such enthusiasm that she misidentifies many of the film's distortions as original to the novel, and concludes bizarrely:

[T]hough Brideshead Revisited the movie is far from deep, you have to admire the way it refrains from seizing the day for a post-modern lecture on the perils of fundamentalism, and confines itself to the disturbing vision of Evelyn Waugh.

Meanwhile, points for novelty go to Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer, for this assertion:

There are many forms of temptation in Waugh's saga that overlays the romantic triangle of Julia, Sebastian and Charles with the religious trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

If you say so.

I found most of these reviews via Rotten Tomatoes, a website that collects the opinions of major critics and minor bloggers alike -- all hail the democracy of the internet. Patient wading through various ill-informed opinions finally led me to Thomas Peyser's excellent review in the Richmond Style Weekly:

I cannot think of another screen adaptation that treats its source with similar indifference, almost contempt. Of course, if turning away from Waugh yielded dramatic dividends, all would be forgiven. But screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies have merely served up a family melodrama, insipidly conceived and clumsily executed. The actors, clothes and cars, however, look terrific.

I was also very pleased that he noted the screenplay's sudden turns into boilerplate melodrama (I mean, at one point, Sebastian actually says, "It's not you, it's me"):

Again and again, in what may be the strangest thing about this misfire, Waugh's sparkling dialogue, often hilarious, has been replaced by what seem outtakes of a script bound for Lifetime.

And my favorite review of all might be the one by Frank Swietek, on his site "One Guy's Opinion":

This is a very handsome period picture... But it's an almost perversely wrongheaded adaptation of the book.

Amen, brother.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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