–In another article about the proposed new Brideshead TV series, Alexander Larman wonders whether there might not be more deserving works of Waugh for adaptation. This is published in the latest issue of The Critic. After noting that it will be hard to improve upon the 1981 adaptation and hoping that they can find an alternative for Castle Howard as the setting (it having already been used twice), Larman goes on to recall Waugh’s reluctance to allow film makers to modify his stories and his bitter disappointment with the 1960s Hollywood production of The Loved One;
Subsequent adaptations of Waugh’s work, the behemoth of Brideshead aside, have been variable. His first and arguably funniest novel Decline and Fall was poorly adapted as 1968’s Decline and Fall…of a Birdwatcher, and Brideshead director Charles Sturridge’s 1988 film of Waugh’s masterpiece A Handful of Dust was far too polite and prosaic to capture the almost surreal horror that ensues in its tale of upper-class adultery and its consequences. Thankfully, the books have been served better in the past decades. William Boyd’s adaptation of his Sword of Honour trilogy captured much of its hilarity and savagery, Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things introduced a fine range of bright young actors to the cinema (including James McAvoy, David Tennant and Fenella Woolgar) and a far superior TV version of Decline and Fall was made in 2017, thanks to Rev creator James Wood’s excellent adaptation. The comedian Jack Whitehall made a suitably bewildered Paul Pennyfeather, the modern-day Candide sent down from university after an accidental moment of gross indecency and compelled to take a job teaching at the worst school in Wales.
Larman then hands his narrative over to William Boyd from a previous interview. Boyd was involved in two earlier Waugh adaptations (an underrated Scoop as well as Sword of Honour):
…As Boyd said, ‘The trouble with Waugh is that he’s too well known and everybody has an opinion (snob, fascist, comic genius, Catholic stalwart etc). So, the criticism is ephemeral and people can make up their own minds once the brouhaha of a release has died down. He’s no harder to adapt than any novelist of serious talent. You just have to judge the adaptations as films – and not as versions of the novels. If you enjoyed the films then the adaptation has succeeded.”
Boyd, who has expressed a desire to adapt Waugh’s weird and perennially underrated autobiographical “crack-up” novella The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, also believes that Brideshead could be adapted in a more exciting way than either the 1981 or 2008 versions managed to. “I think it would be far more interesting to look at the undercurrents of the novel rather than its ‘English Heritage’ virtues; Brideshead deserves to be outed.”
Certainly, the choice of Guadagino as writer and director of the new TV version means that these undercurrents will almost certainly be exploited and explored. Time will tell whether this particular revisitation will succeed admirably or fail dismally, but its makers can be assured of one thing. Waugh would probably have loathed it, on principle.
–The Daily Telegraph also weighs in with an article anticipating problems for the new Brideshead adaptation. The DT’s reporter Ben Lawrence fears that the:
…reason why it is likely to fail is that, like Andrew Davies’s cinematic dogs’ dinner from 2005, it won’t do justice to one of the novel’s most charged themes: Catholicism.
The Catholic faith informs almost every corner of Waugh’s novel and without it, it loses much of its meaning. Most importantly, there is its redemptive power: the adulterous Lord Marchmain is reconciled with the church on his deathbed; for his daughter Julia, scarred by a marriage that is regarded as invalid by the church and sinful in her affair with Charles, she sees it as something she must return to, to make her sin “nameless and dead like the baby they took away” (she is also stricken by the grief of a stillbirth).
Don’t get me wrong: I suspect the Catholicism will still be in there, but as a subject of mockery, or something more sinister. We may well get Catholicism as something cranky (the youngest sibling, Cordelia, turned into a zealot rather than someone who is unapologetically, uncompromisingly guided by her faith) or cosmetic (her elder brother Sebastian’s woeful end in service to a monastery after a life ruined by alcohol) or corruptive, a beastly burden which turns its adherents mad. But as a source of salvation and profound consolation – as the Mortimer adaptation did indeed manage? I doubt this very much…
—In the Sydney Morning Herald there is the report of an interview with David Hare about his recent BBC TV series Roadkill. This tells the story of the rise and rise of a Conservative Prime Minister played by Hugh Laurie. The SMH’s reporter, Ginny Dougary, opens with an indirect Waugh allusion I had missed:
In the first episode, the girlfriend […] tells Laurence [Laurie’s role] that she has been offered an important job in Texas at “one of the greatest libraries in the world”.
This prompted a little jolt of recognition, having only recently read that Hare had donated his life’s work in 1993 to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. How intriguing to see a reference to the creator’s life seeping into one of his characters.
It takes Hare a moment to connect and then he beams: “Oh, my goodness, me! Yes! Of course! I wanted her to be offered a job in one of the best libraries in the world, so I chose one which had my papers in it.” He loves this place with its amazing collection of words — “you can handle Graham Greene’s love letters. The first editions of Evelyn Waugh’s novels. Samuel Beckett’s plays are there, and Arthur Miller’s — it has the greatest James Joyce collection in the world. It’s an incredibly moving institution; I really admire their care and love for the history of literature. “
As always, Coe buries cross-references to earlier works by himself (the Foley clan have been recurring characters) and others, not impeding the progress or pleasure of readers who miss them, but adding another level for those in the know. Among Wilder’s movies was The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; he jokes to Calista about the Holmes story “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”, with which Coe also has other fun. There are allusions to Wilder’s films The Apartment and Ace in the Hole, and, as both Sunset Boulevard and Fedora feature forgotten cinematic superstars, the novel is affectingly underscored by the apprehension of Wilder and Diamond that a new type of Hollywood represented by “that shark film” (Steven Spielberg’s Jaws) may mean the end for them in the way that the talkies finished the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard.
One hopes that Coe was able to work in a reference to Wilder’s proposal to film Waugh’s novel The Loved One in the 1950’s. When that project was rejected, Wilder proceeded to make what is probably his best film Sunset Boulevard which contains some references to The Loved One which we have discussed in earlier posts.
–The New Criterion has posted an article by Timothy Jacobson about the short-lived London-based attempt to remake the New Yorker. This was Night and Day which was edited by Graham Greene and for which Waugh wrote a regular book review column. Here’s an excerpt from the opening section:
Night and Day—and all of those kindred journalistic lights that flickered and went out all too quickly down the years (one thinks of New England Monthly, The Southern Magazine, and Chicago Times)—offered something valuable: a fixed picture of a cultural moment, which compelled the founders enough to try to document it. All were business ventures, with not only readers to attract and retain, but advertisers and anxious investors to satisfy as well.