July 03, 2008

Brideshead Vandalized

Jonathan Last on the "new and improved" version of Brideshead Revisited set to open in theatres later this summer:

Yes, the new Brideshead features a villain--Lady Marchmain. Instead of a pious, if clumsy, near-saint, Lady Marchmain is now ambitious and manipulative. "I hope you didn't let Julia mislead you," she sternly warns Charles. "Her future is not a question of choice." The future she seems to be alluding to is a marriage of power and wealth to a man of consequence. A moment later, we see Lady Marchmain at a large gala where she announces, "It gives me great pleasure to announce the engagement of my eldest daughter, Lady Julia Flyte, to Mister Rex Mottram." Waugh's Lady Marchmain never has plans for Julia's future--the Marchmains' situation is above either financial or social improvement. And when Julia becomes engaged to the decidedly non-Catholic Rex, Lady Marchmain is given the very opposite of pleasure.

The bizarre reimagining of Lady Marchmain seems to be a result of the excision of Catholicism from the new Brideshead. The screenplay reportedly stays away from matters of the church and the trailer makes but one allusion to it, showing a rosary falling from someone's hand. And, if there is none of that fussy Catholic stuff in the new Brideshead story, then the pious Lady Marchmain might reasonably be seen as a heel. As her younger daughter Cordelia observes in the novel, "When people wanted to hate God, they hated Mummy." Take away God, and Lady Marchmain may be little more than a controlling shrew.

The rest of the movie's marketing is of a piece with the trailer. The squib on the theatrical poster declares, "Privilege. Ambition. Desire. At Brideshead everything comes at a price." Another slogan claims that "Love is not ours to control." The entire affair comes across more like a prequel to Cruel Intentions than an adaptation of Waugh's masterpiece.

Ugh. Safe to say I'm not going near the beastly thing.

Posted by Robert at July 3, 2008 12:34 PM | TrackBack

I actually never saw the original, nor read the book. I've actually never read anything by either Evelyn Waugh nor Graham Greene nor any of the great 20th century Catholic novelists.

I'm guessing the excising of any Catholicity in the series is not out of malice against Catholicism per se, but out of recognition that the average viewer simply wouldn't get the references. If as the article notes, Waugh despaired of MGM understanding "the theological implications" back in 1947 when Catholic influence over Hollywood was at something near its a peak (consider the films: The Song of Bernadette in 1943, Going My Way in 1944, The Bells of St. Mary's in 1945), then there's no chance that today's producers or screenwriters would understand it at all. It may not be anti-Catholicism or a disdain for religion at work, but a simple matter of cultural illiteracy. Writers like John Mortimer (who created Rumpole of the Bailey, I discover) who can understand the nuances of a complicated work and successfully adapt it are few and far between, even in times where the culture is not in a trough rather than a peak. Consider the old adage about the English language that every man understands his father, but no man today understands the English of Geoffrey Chaucer -- over time, things change, and something is lost.

Waugh was born in 1903. John Mortimer was born in 1923 -- young enough to be Waugh's son, if you will, but still only one generation away, and therefore able to understand him and the times Waugh lived in. Jeremy Brock of Brideshead 2008 was born in 1959, which means he is of the generation in which Waugh would be his great- grandfather, or at best his grandfather. He would have been raised in a post World War II Britain, in which almost nothing of the old social classes or aristocracy exists. (Granted, the other writer on the project, Andrew Davies, was born in 1936 -- old enough to understand Waugh, maybe, but not old enough to have been an adult in the same world in which Waugh was an adult). In other words, without a great deal of historical and cultural literacy, which is to say, without a very unusual education, these writers are quite likely to get it all wrong.

If someone from the current academy were to, say, write a stage production baed on Tennyson's Idylls of the King, I'm guessing that they might miss a lot about the ideals of chivalry and self-sacrifice -- not out of malice, but out of simple illiteracy. They'd read it all as a cautionary tale about Money! Power! Sex! Suppression of the Other! and miss the Grail entirely.

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