Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 16, 2015

On Deliberate Misreading

I thought I had been angry. Darwin saw the latest Hobbit monstrosity and came home and tried to describe it to me, and I sputtered for a while in rage to hear how Peter Jackson had wrested the text into something so divorced from its source material that it could hardly be said to be the same story. At least in this case, though, there's so much deviation from Tolkien's book that no one could claim that Peter Jackson's vision represents anything like the story Tolkien was telling. The movie and the book are almost unrelated. Jackson didn't twist Tolkien. He just borrowed a few names and images and went his merry way.

I thought I had been angry. And then the other night, while Darwin was writing, I felt like watching a movie, and I browsed around, and I picked 2008's Brideshead Revisited, revisited. I thought I had been angry. I didn't know angry.

The trailer should have been the first clue. But surely, I thought, surely trailers often amp up and distort the movie a bit for dramatic purposes, and probably it was compressing a bit to fit it the allotted however many seconds a trailer takes, and the movie couldn't mess up Waugh's story that much.

Now there are many ways to tell a story, and a novel is only one way of depicting reality. A movie adaptation can go deeper than a novel in some ways. It can pick up different nuances, or use visuals to inform mood in a way that a book can't. A movie can create a tapestry of sensual experience to support the story being told. It has to compress, obviously, so it has to pick up on the most important strands of the story. Decisions must be made, plot points must be eliminated. A movie does not have the direct appeal to the intellect that a book does. We accept this. We know the subtext of the book must become much more obvious in a movie because of the visual element.

And movies can lie. This movie lies. The shell of Waugh's story is here. The lush Downton Abbey-esque images we expect from a movie about summer idylls in a country house and upper-class English life in the 20s and 30 are here to lull the viewer into thinking that he might also be getting the essence of the novel. But this is not Evelyn Waugh's Bridehead Revisited, a brilliant novel of nostalgia and moral awakening. The scriptwriter and director have borrowed a word here, a touch there, and created a Brideshead for 2008: an unsubtle didactic melodrama about the meany mean Catholics and the poor persecuted saintly homosexuals, so cute and flamboyant and harmless. Did Waugh write characters with layers, with depth, with humanity? Who needs that when there's a narrative to promote?

The question: Was Lady Marchmain so insufficiently controlling in the book that the movie needed to amp her up to eleven? I had though Emma Thompson an actress of charm and subtlety, rather like Lady M, perhaps, but her Lady Marchmain is an icy monster from the beginning, and in case we didn't get it, the scriptwriters have allowed themselves to improve on Waugh with some cloddish Catholic-baiting so we know, we understand, that Cruel Catholics are the Bad Guys. Lady Marchmain allows of no nuance, no actual human motivation, because people who persecute homosexuals aren't human and shouldn't be portrayed as such.

The movie gets every character so wrong that there's no question here of a new interpretation of Waugh. This, rather, is a deliberate misreading by people so anxious to come down on the Right Side of one of the burning cultural issues of our day (not Waugh's day) that they need to take every pain to alter the story to fit their conception. Julia is now a devout Catholic sacrificed to Rex Mottram, Catholic, for the prestige of the family. Cordelia and Bridey become ridiculous caricatures whose sole purpose is to show how ludicrous it would be for any right-thinking person to embrace any point of Catholicism. Sebastian is... well, Sebastian is a saint, of course, because he's gay. He drinks because he's gay. He's been given this special love from God because he's gay. Sebastian does nothing without reference to gayness, because to allow him to have any other aspect of personality might start to undermine the filmmakers' earnest dichotomy of Catholics: Bad; Gay: Good.

This corrupts the rest of the film too. How could anyone destroy the "Orphans of the Storm" part of the story? How could the filmmakers pass up all the allure of Charles and Julia's tension and desire for a ten-second romp in the hay? How could the beginning of an affair be so tedious? The movie fails on its own terms. I pass over the banalization of Charles's own arc into mere ambition, and the compression of timelines which results in Charles and Julia's relationship growing concurrent to Charles and Sebastian's friendship. These things are appalling, and yet might possibly have been excused on the grounds of the compact nature of a movie, if they'd been done well. But they weren't.

But perhaps all might still have been redeemed at the end if Charles had been allowed to pray at Lord Marchmain's deathbed. If he had been allowed to love Julia just that much, to wish for a sign for her sake, for the solace of her soul. But again the story is distorted. Charles won't pray. Charles can't pray, because he is a stand-in for the filmmakers and their campaign against religious fakery. And so Lord Marchmain's death comes off as one more triumph of Catholic guilt and oppression. Strangely enough, that scene also contained the one truly moving bit for me: Cordelia and Julia praying, begging heaven for a sign of repentance, praying like Hannah with lips moving, every nerve strained to the breaking point. And then Julia's prayer is answered, and her shaky irrepressible smile of release rang so true to me. And yet it was just one tool in the filmmakers' kit box to show how Catholicism corrupts love. At the last moment of the film Charles stands, not before the red light of the tabernacle, but before a candle burning in front of the Madonna and Child, and I was genuinely unsure how far the filmmakers would go at that moment to show their contempt for the Church.

And I was angry. This movie was painful, tear-your-hair-out painful, pull-out-your-teeth painful, Oh-God-how-much-longer painful. I writhed in my seat every time Emma Thompson showed up. I felt Waugh rolling over in his grave. I was driven to profane expression on Facebook, and my mom is on Facebook. Everyone involved in this production ought to have been ashamed of such a bastardized version of a great book. This movie wasn't fun or interesting or thought-provoking. It was, as so much modern art is, all bosh.


Anonymous said...

I suggest you avoid the recent Ender's Game. For your blood pressure.

Anna said...

Brideshead is one of my favorite novels of all time. I didn't even dare touch the movie with a ten foot pole because I'm not masochistic enough.

mrsdarwin said...

Anon, Darwin saw Ender's Game (the novel was far more central to him than to me, truth be told) and he had some criticisms to make, but he wasn't outraged. I am outraged. Brideshead is, to me at least, a deeper story with a stronger moral core than Ender's Game, so it matters more to me to have it co-opted to become nothing more than a Message Movie.

Another particularly poorly done element, not mentioned in the post because I know we have a reader just starting the novel, was the melodramatic love triangle between Charles, Julia, and Sebastian: Charles chooses Julia over Sebastian so Sebastian turns to drink. This isn't even a simplification or a new interpretation. It's simply false. Even the most wishful reading of the book couldn't sustain such an invention, and it's the least interesting take on Sebastian's alcoholism imaginable

Anonymous said...

The director is an anti-Catholic bigot who makes no bones about the fact that he made this movie to insult both the original intent of the story and to the Church.

That anyone signed on to do this movie is an insult to Waugh and lovers of the book.

Not such a surprise that everyone hates this movie.

Enbrethiliel said...


And all I got upset about last week was Disney's Maleficent and Frozen! =P

I wonder if the people behind the new Brideshead Revisited movie did understand what Evelyn Waugh was trying to say and deliberately changed it because they disagreed . . . or whether they completely missed the point because they couldn't see beyond their own biases.

Jenny said...

I am sorely tempted to read this entire post. Looking for clarification and am only trying to read up to what I know....Soldiering on.