A Tale of Two Adaptations

The popular culture criticism website PopMatters.com has reposted a 2006 review of the 1965 film adaptation of Waugh’s novel The Loved One. This review by Bill Gibon focuses more on the director Tony Richardson’s version than on Waugh’s story. He begins by noting that in the mid 1960s

…Richardson wanted to continue the cinematic revolution he started with Tom Jones‘ jumbled, jangled self-referential style. For The Loved One, he would incorporate everything he learned as a cutting-edge filmmaker in the UK. As a result, he purposefully mimicked fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (along with borrowing Strangelove‘s look, he placed his comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus). He would also take pot shots at several ‘–isms’ — racism, materialism, populism, commercialism — while keeping the more macabre elements about the recently deceased front and center. Thus we have the surreal story of a bad boy British poet who falls in love with a maudlin make-up girl at a ritzy, regal funeral home.

Gibon is apparently referring to the “noirish” black & white format of Kubrick’s film as well as Peters Sellers’ multiple roles. He then summarizes the plot, which I think from memory he gets a bit wrong when he has Dennis Barlow take up his job at the Happy Hunting Ground after the death and funeral of Francis Hinsley (although such a plot change may well have been included and would fit in with the film script’s many other wholesale alterations in Waugh’s story). He then continues:

While the film’s narrative barely resembled Waugh’s wicked work, The Loved One stands on its own as an eccentric celluloid experiment from the equally innovative mid-’60s. In many ways, it resembles a series of Monty Python sketches as directed by David Lynch, a decidedly deadpan farce that uses corpses instead of conceptualization as the source of its humor. While much of the original outrage will fall flat on audiences raised on our current post-modern sense of mockery, there is still a great deal to enjoy in this early attempt at directorial dadaism.[…]

Sadly, he didn’t have the support of a Godard or a Truffaut, meaning he often took on projects that dampened his anarchic approach. With The Loved One, however, he found a near perfect vehicle. Within the incredibly unusual setting, he could ridicule the Establishment (as illustrated by the racially selective Whispering Glade’s mortuary) while tweaking the counterculture for its lack of originality (Barlow’s poetry is all borrowed from the classics) and conviction (Aimee is a flower child who rather deal in death than reality). Indeed, it could be said that this monochrome masterwork is on par with other examples of stellar ’60s cinema, losing most of its warped wit, but easily retaining all its aesthetically appealing aspects…

In the decade since this review was posted, the film version has, indeed, come to be accepted as a classic, with several reruns as such on the TCM channel.

A more recent BBC TV adaptation of Decline and Fall has been the subject of an Australian architectural article. This appears on the website ArchitectureAU.com and is written by Patrick Hunn. The article offers several indoor activities (such as TV bingeing) that might appeal to its readers as the height of Antipodean summer approaches:

If you can bear the mid-century droning of the English upper classes, you might begin your indoor television holiday with Decline and Fall, a BBC adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh novel featuring one Otto Friedrich Silenus, an unkind but entertaining Le Corbusier surrogate and a well-engineered manifestation of all that is distressing about the modernist architect archetype.

“Only factories are beautiful,” he hisses in one scene from behind a pair of thick round glasses, before arguing that humans impose an unacceptable mess on the perfection of his designs by demanding staircases for accessing the upper storeys of a building. “The tragedy for architects is that they have to have clients.”

This is a character that played a part in fostering the rather nasty generational understanding of architects as strange and aloof, and modernism as a cold, synthetic and unfriendly school of design, but it’s such a highly accomplished assassination of both architects and modernism that you find yourself willing to go along with it.

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