The TLS has posted an essay by Alexander Larman (“Waugh on screen”) on its weblog. In it, he notes his concerns about the upcoming BBC adaptation of Decline and Fall and offers advice about how to avoid problems by looking at previous adaptations, principally those by William Boyd. First, Larman thinks that the cloice of Jack Whitehall for the part of Paul Pennyfeather may have been a risky one:
…one fears that Whitehall may merely serve up a period reprise of his similarly useless pedagogue Alfie Wickers from his own show Bad Education (which he wrote with Freddy Syborn).
Alfie may have been useless as a teacher, but so was Pennyfeather, and both suffered from an extreme case of naivete which would play very well in the Pennyfeather part. And the inner-city priest in the Rev series written by James Wood (who will also adapt Decline and Fall) is not too far off the Pennyfeather mark.
The problem with adapting Waugh is that his humour is predominantly verbal rather than visual, and this can lead to a film either spelling out the jokes too literally or missing them altogether. Boyd argues that “it’s an abiding problem in adaptations because of the vast difference between the two art forms (novel and film). The latter is photography and thereby lie all the difficulties. It’s very hard, if you’re looking through a camera lens, to be subjective. Film – and this is not meant to be derogatory – is a very simple way of telling a story. A novel is infinitely complex, by comparison. When you come to adapt something as subtle and nuanced as a Waugh novel you are up against it. The only solution is to play to the new medium’s few strengths. When I adapted Sword of Honour, Ritchie-Hook’s insane assault on the German blockhouse is brilliant – it’s suddenly a war movie”.
Boyd says that the BBC crew haven’t approached him, but he also expresses some hope to be involved in future adaptations:
…Boyd cites Decline and Fall as one of the two books by Waugh (the other is The Ordeal Of Gilbert Pinfold) that he would have liked to adapt. And if he were to offer Wood, Whitehall & co some advice? “Don’t think of the novel, paradoxically. Think of the type of film you want to make – and then play to the medium’s strengths”. We shall see what the end result is, but one hopes for a black comic feast worthy of its creator – and, if it’s successful, long overdue versions of Pinfold, Black Mischief and the rest.