Film: Conversion Experience

Evelyn Waugh liked nothing better than to trumpet his contempt for all things modern. In The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, he placed this counter-credo in the mouth of the novel’s title character, his fictional alter ego:

His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom. There was a phrase in the ‘thirties: “It is later than you think,” which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.

By the time Waugh finally got around to writing those words in 1957, they had become true. But in 1930, when he wrote Vile Bodies, the book that made him famous, his attitude toward modernism was surprisingly equivocal. A withering satire of the frenzied chaos of contemporary urban life, Waugh’s second novel made use of the most up-to-date literary techniques at his disposal in order to portray that life as vividly as possible. Some are easy enough to trace to their sources (Waugh freely admitted his debt to Ernest Hemingway, for instance), but the biggest surprise awaiting the first-time reader of Vile Bodies is the fact that it reads like a movie.

Like so many other novelists of his generation, Waugh was keenly interested in how films “make things happen” on the screen by showing “actions and incidents” instead of allowing characters to explain their motivations at length. In Vile Bodies he translated this essentially visual approach into words on paper, depicting London in the Twenties in a tumbling rush of fragmentary scenes and spare, elliptical dialogue that suggests far more than it states. Nothing could have been so self-consciously modern. Yet the uproariously funny Vile Bodies turns out to be the darkest of “comic” novels, one whose inhabitants are all hurtling gaily toward their doom. It’s anything but surprising to learn that Waugh’s first wife left him while he was writing Vile Bodies or that he converted to Catholicism eight months after it was published. Every page is scented with the anguish of a disillusioned young man searching for meaning in a world gone grossly wrong.

Merely because Vile Bodies makes use of cinematic devices doesn’t make it a movie manque of course. I was horrified when I heard that Stephen Fry had made a movie out of it and took for granted that the results would be bad in one way or another. Not so. In Bright Young Things, Fry pulls off the near-impossible trick of converting a good novel into a good movie. What’s more, he does it the hard way: Bright Young Things is for the most part scrupulously faithful to the style and substance of the book on which it is based. Such adaptations usually end up seeming unnecessary, but Bright Young Things, like John Huston’s similarly faithful film of The Maltese Falcon, is more than just a deluxe set of illustrations. Like a well-written critical essay, it enriches our understanding of Vile Bodies while simultaneously giving aesthetic pleasure in its own right.

The closeness with which Fry (who wrote his own screenplay) has hewed to the path laid down by Waugh three-quarters of a century ago is little short of astonishing. Nearly all of the film’s significant details come straight out of the pages of Vile Bodies, including long stretches of dialogue adapted with minimal alteration. In one scene, Fry even contrives to incorporate a good-sized chunk of Waugh’s third-person narration, putting it into the mouth of a character to ingenious and convincing effect. Yet one never feels that he is slavishly following Waugh’s blueprint. Instead, he shows us the hectic world of Vile Bodies, finding the right visual equivalent for each outré detail without lingering on any of them long enough to slow the film’s headlong momentum. As I watched the TV version of Brideshead Revisited, I was constantly comparing what I was seeing on the screen to what I’d imagined for so long in my head, and as a result never quite managed to get caught up in the story. Bright Young Things, by contrast, moves so fast that you don’t have time to do much more than register an overall impression of accuracy: you look now and think later, which is as it should be.

One of the many reasons why Bright Young Things works so well is the shrewdness with which it has been cast. Stephen Campbell Moore and Emily Mortimer couldn’t be more believable as Adam and Nina, the hapless young couple who plunge into the dizzying whirl of life in Metroland and are quickly pulled apart by the centrifugal force of its rackety amorality. The smaller parts register every bit as strongly, at times unexpectedly so: Peter O’Toole and Jim Broadbent were born to play Colonel Blount and the drunken major, but who on earth would have thought to tap Dan Aykroyd as Lord Monomark?

Mind you, Bright Young Things is not wholly faithful to its source. The intense melancholy of Vile Bodies, which is all the more potent for being conveyed almost entirely through implication, is occasionally italicized by Fry, thereby superimposing a jarring note of pathos at which Waugh would surely have turned up his nose. In addition, Fry has rewritten the ending, replacing Waugh’s macabre vision of a world war that in 1930 was still nine years off with a pedestrian glimpse of the World War II of real life. Not that the new ending is necessarily false to Waugh—I’d bet money that Fry lifted it from Unconditional Surrender, the last volume of Sword of Honour, Waugh’s wartime trilogy—but it sounds a sentimental note that clashes with the cool, crisp tone of Vile Bodies.

Needless to say, Waugh’s own ending can no longer be filmed, World War II having since moved from the realm of speculation to that of fact, and it briefly occurred to me that Fry might have done better to borrow the conclusion of another of his novels. We learn in the last pages of Brides head Revisited that Charles Ryder has converted to Catholicism, a revelation that retrospectively colors all that has come before it. In the same way, it might have been interesting had Adam, who is self-evidently based on Waugh himself, made a similar decision at the end of Bright Young Things.

On the other hand, such a denouement would have been just as false to the spirit of Vile Bodies, whose theme is the despair to which modern life inevitably reduces those who live by its antinomian code. When he wrote it, Waugh had not yet found his way out of the twisty maze of modernity. That’s why Vile Bodies, like Bright Young Things, lurches to an ultimately unsatisfying close: It is a chamber of horrors without an exit sign.

  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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