Brideshead Reinvented

Deal W. Hudson
July 24, 2008

Brideshead Revisited, the classic Catholic novel by Evelyn Waugh, was made into a highly successful television miniseries in 1981. The 11-part series – written by John Mortimer, produced by Granada Television, and starring Jeremy Irons – was praised for its fidelity to Waugh’s novel, particularly for its respectful treatment of the Catholic faith.

Every major character, and the narrative itself is defined by a relationship to the Faith that was embraced by the author at age 26 – and Waugh was never shy about pitting his preference for an ancient piety over the modernity he despised.

Another adaptation of Brideshead will be released on Friday. Based on the comments of its director, Julian Jarrold, and screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, the new version presents Catholicism not as the solution to the novel’s central dilemma – an adulterous love affair – but as a problem to be overcome.

Brock describes the central theme, saying:

In that tug between individual freedom and fundamentalist religion, there’s a story that’s opposite for our time. In the modern age that’s something, we’re all dealing with (emphasis added).

Jarrold goes on to call Waugh “undemocratic” in his treatment of the character Hooper, who takes every opportunity to express his contempt for the aristocracy and its customs. Hooper, according to Jarrold, is “the future of England, and the hope of the 1945 generation, and we’ve put a positive spin on him.”

The phrase “he must be turning in his grave” describes perfectly the thought I had when I read that comment. Sadly Waugh lived long enough – he died in 1966 – to guess how a future generation might desecrate his most famous work.

Waugh was scornful of Hollywood. He negotiated with the studios in 1947 and 1957 to have Brideshead and another novel, Scoop, made into films. Too bad Jarrold and Brock ignored his 1947 memo to the studio about Brideshead: “The novel deals with what is theologically termed, ‘the operation of Grace’, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.”

The director and writers of the new film version were evidently determined to put the human love triangle at the heart of their picture, and leave divine love alone. But, evidently, some of Waugh’s story of grace comes through after all.

Critics who attended pre-screenings of the new Brideshead have been generally favorable; of the reviews collected at RottenTomatoes.com, 67 percent are positive as of this writing. Reading through the reviews, I am led to wonder if the film is better than one would expect from Jarrold’s and Brock’s silly comments in the New York Times.

For example, Andrew Sarris, writing in the New York Observernotes:

Michael Gambon’s death scene as a repentant Lord Marchmain encapsulates one of the most profound manifestations of the eternal struggle between faith and doubt it has ever been my privilege to witness.

Those who can recall the power of the same scene with Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1981 version will wonder how it could be surpassed.

Still, given the attitude of Jarrold and Brock, I was not surprised to read the critic for the Hollywood Reporter, who praises Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Lady Marchmain, say, “She instills the heart and soul that the rest of this production seems to have lost somewhere along the way to the big screen.”

Then there is Ella Taylor, writing for the Village Voice, who appears to share the view of screenwriter Brock about Catholicism as a “fundamentalist religion.” Taylor expresses horror at Lady Marchmain, a “rigidly controlling figure” who destroys her son, Sebastian.

Taylor blames the Catholic faith for the deficiencies of Lady Marchmain:

But the truly malevolent power of Brideshead Revisited is his identification with what she stood for – a literal reading of the Vatican texts, the preservation of ancient tradition, and keeping her snooty class free of contamination by interlopers like Charles.

The most intriguing comment I have read thus far comes from Rex Roberts in Film Journal International. Noting Jarrold’s focus on the love triangle between the main characters, Roberts argues, “The screenwriters might as well have converted the reluctantly religious Flytes from Catholicism to Scientology. With Waugh, attitudes and themes are non-negotiable; you take him as his curmudgeonly, contrarian, conservative self, or you leave him alone.” Exactly.

New Yorker critic Shauna Lyon put it bluntly:

The screenwriters, Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, took many liberties with the book, altering not only plot points but also the main thrust of Charles’s spiritual journey: instead of turning from an agnostic into a Catholic, he starts out an atheist and, seemingly, remains one. This change lends nothing to the film, a torpid version of a classic that is ultimately and unjustly devoid of passion.

To strip Charles Ryder of his faith is to extract the very conviction that drives the story of Brideshead Revisited through all its chapters. No wonder Lyon calls it “devoid of passion”; the director and writers behind the film have stripped it of inwardness. There is nothing greater than the social acceptance or rejection that Charles must weigh over his love for the married Julia.

In spite of these bleak prospects, I will be in the theater on Friday for Brideshead Revisited, if only to report whether Waugh’s masterpiece has been desecrated or resuscitated.

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