I went last night with a friend to see the new film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. Several months ago I posted the film’s trailer here, and expressed concern about what I saw. I am relieved to say that though the film has problems, including some serious ones, it is not as bad as I had feared.
These notes contain spoilers.
A film cannot be a book, and I do not expect the filmmaker to include every scene and emotional nuance that the author includes. The medium and the limited playing time demand that the story be streamlined, and that some elements be compressed or even omitted entirely. What I do expect from a literary adaptation is that the central arc of the story be preserved, with its relative emphases and central concerns intact. And of course I ask that, whatever changes the screenwriters decide to make, the resulting story must be believable on its own terms.
As I see it, this film has two main flaws. It does not preserve the central arc of the story, and as a result it undermines the believability of the story that it does retain. Waugh said that the main theme of the book is religious in nature: it is about the movement of grace in the lives of his characters, and especially in the life of Charles. The film does manage to convey this to some extent — with Sebastian and Julia — but it fails to even try with Charles, and this is just about enough to ruin the whole film. Charles remains ever on the outside, observing but not involved, and the final scene in the chapel at Brideshead has taken on a different meaning entirely.
I expect that the decision to alter the ending in this way resulted from a deeper thematic problem with the film. If Charles is to be drawn into the life of faith, there must be something attractive about that life, and the film fails to tell us what that might be. Catholicism is reduced to one note: guilt. The scheme is almost comical in its simplicity. Everybody feels guilty, and suffocates in their guilt. Lady Marchmain, by far the worst adapted of the characters, has become a kind of personification of guilt, a growling thundercloud that rains on everybody’s parade. Guilt does play a role in the book — we mustn’t forget that Sebastian and Julia are both guilty of something — but it is not the sad simplification that it is here.
This gloomy faith gives Charles little enough reason to take an interest; it lets him turn his back and walk away when Waugh has him kneeling in reverance. But for the same reason it undermines whatever motive Julia might have for kneeling, yet she kneels, which hurts the film’s internal credibility.
Such are the film’s main problems, as I see them, and they are serious, but there are some good things in the screenplay as well. I thought that both Sebastian and Julia were very well rendered and acted, and Cordelia came through beautifully. There is something empty and insubstantial about Charles, and I thought the film captured that well. The friendship of Charles and Sebastian is complex, and some readers find in it a faint implication of homosexual attraction (though I remain skeptical myself). The filmmakers have amplified those faint implications so as to remove all doubt in the matter. On the other hand, the breakdown of their friendship on account of Charles’ growing attraction for Julia I thought well done. The deathbed scene, overlooking for the moment the way they botched Charles’ role in it, was otherwise powerfully affecting and retained its standing as the story’s central pivot.
More superficially, I must say that the film is beautiful to look at: I was taken with the beauty of Brideshead, Oxford, and Venice, and my friend took a special interest in Julia (As he put it, “They have the psychology of temptation down pat.”).
I think that on balance I would recommend the film to readers of the book, but with reservations. For someone who has not read the book, the film is no substitute.