Bright Young Things

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, September 13, 2004

 

On paper, the English wit Stephen Fry's directorial debut "Bright Young Things" -- his adaptation of Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh's grating satire of cafe society -- sounded like one of the less promising films of the year.

While authors repetitively deplore the movie industry's philistinism, the reality is that decision-makers in the film business are suckers for prestigious literature, even though the best source novels for movies are clearly page-turning best-sellers that are longer on plot and character than aesthetic ambition, such as Gone with the Wind and The Godfather. In contrast, books renowned for their superb sentences usually flounder on screen because nobody knows how to film a prose style. Director John Huston, for instance, made numerous literary monuments such as Moby Dick and The Red Badge of Courage into forgettable movies, but his most enduring classics are based on the genre novels The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The African Queen.

During his own lifetime, Waugh's reputation hardly exceeded that of Jay McInerney's today, but eventually the zeal of conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Tom Wolfe, and Tom Stoppard succeeded in "expanding the canon" to include Waugh. Over the last two years, for example, Waugh has been mentioned in The Atlantic Monthly as often as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald combined. (And how many good movies have been based on their books?)

Even more ominous than Waugh's deservedly high artistic standing, Vile Bodies gives me a pain every time I reread it. It's the prototypical second novel. A young novelist mines his entire quarter century or so of life for his successful first book (in Waugh's case, the delightful Decline and Fall). Then, when it's time to write another, he finds he doesn't have any new experiences to draw upon other than all those snazzy but soul-sapping parties he's attended since he first surfaced in the media.

Waugh's version is particularly sick-making, as the daft debutante Agatha Runcible would say in the argot that became a fad when Vile Bodies hit the 1930 bestseller list. Waugh's bride, the "She-Evelyn," cuckolded him while he was off writing the first draft. Then an agnostic, without the consolations of the Catholicism to which he would convert the following year, Waugh's rage embittered his revisions.

Vile Bodies is also Waugh's most experimental novel, an attempt to further the modernist trend toward showing rather than telling that he detected in the otherwise incommensurable works of the two-fisted Hemingway and the fey Ronald Firbank. With long swaths of dialogue separated by brief, uninflected narration, Vile Bodies reads like a screenplay, and nobody reads screenplays if they don't have to.

Nonetheless, the brilliance of Waugh's ear for spoken idioms has made Vile Bodies a steady seller for three quarters of a century. Those conversations help make watching "Bright Young Things" far more satisfying than reading Vile Bodies. Although Fry's ensemble comedy (which opens August 20th in New York) is rather slight, no film rendition of a major novelist's work has been this much more fun than the original book since Bogie and Bacall steamed up Hemingway's embarrassing To Have and Have Not.

For example, Peter O'Toole delivers a howlingly funny cameo performance as a passive-aggressive eccentric, one as striking as John Gielgud's similar role as Jeremy Iron's slyly mad father in the famous miniseries of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. I went home sure that Fry had penned some new jokes because the character is so much funnier than I recalled. Upon checking the novel, however, I found that Mr. O'Toole, being a much better reader of dialogue than I am, had only drawn out hilarity that I'd never noticed.

Fry, though, is wisely unafraid to make substantial changes, even replacing Waugh's bleak conclusion with a complicated happy ending reminiscent of the contrivance the older and less distraught Waugh used in his 1938 masterpiece, Scoop.

Fry apprenticed for this job by starring as P.G. Wodehouse's peerless butler in the early 1990s British TV series "Jeeves and Wooster," which may be the most gratifying adaptation of great prose I've ever seen. Screenwriter Clive Exton fearlessly rewrote Wodehouse's plots and the directors used vibrant music and editing to stand in for Wodehouse's unparalleled narration.

Similarly, Fry's film looks and sounds superb for a first time director. Moreover, in contrast to the eleven-hour "Brideshead" miniseries, Fry zips through the 320 pages of Vile Bodies in 106 often-dazzling minutes.

 

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