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July 24, 2008

Brideshead revised

Brideshead_remake The new film version of Evelyn Waugh's classic novel Brideshead Revisited is about to open. Last year, in what strikes me as an aptly titled article, screenwriter Jeremy Brock explained what he'd "done to Brideshead."

Contrary to some reports, God is not the villain of our adaptation. The villain is man-made theology; the emotional and moral contortions forced on to individuals by their adherence to a particular set of codes and practices. Inevitably, as in Waugh's novel, the film debates the merits and demerits of such belief systems in people's lives.

Considering that the quote about God being the villain came directly from the film's original screenwriter, Andrew Davies, Brock has no reason to be shocked that people got that impression of the upcoming film. But disclaimers aside, fans of Brideshead -- especially its theme of the "operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters," in Waugh's own words -- still have reason for concern. The term "man-made theology" by itself is enough to ring the alarm bells. In practical terms, especially when it comes to the modern film industry, there's usually not an awful lot of distance between "The church is the villain" and "God is the villain." At least not for those of us who believe that God was the organizer of organized religion.

I'm not setting myself up as an authority on Evelyn Waugh or his work, by any means. Brideshead Revisited is one of those books that I love without ever quite feeling that I've really grasped it. At the moment I'm watching the perennially popular BBC miniseries, in order to gain a better basis for comparison when seeing the new film. While the miniseries' stellar reputation is fully deserved, in some ways I feel while watching it that I understand the story less than ever.

It's not altogether easy to comprehend why nearly everyone hates Lady Marchmain with the intensity of a thousand suns; sure, the woman is controlling, but good heavens, overreact much? Nor is it easy to see why the reader (or viewer) should sympathize with Charles's and Cordelia's efforts to help procure liquor for the alcoholic Sebastian. (I don't know, maybe enabling was seen as a good thing in those days.) And aristocratic British charm notwithstanding, it's not always easy to sympathize with Sebastian himself. In short, even when you know where Waugh's own sympathies lie in regard to the larger themes of faith and grace, he often appears to be stacking the deck against his own viewpoint. Of course, that's probably part of what makes the story so complex and fascinating, but it's also what makes it difficult.

So as I said, I make no claims to being able to provide any sort of definitive interpretation of Brideshead. But one would hope that anyone trying to adapt it into a film would at least have some sort of rudimentary grasp of the material and its deepest themes. Alas, by Brock's own account, he seems to have got it exactly backwards:

On the one hand, you have Charles, the outsider, desperately cramming on the laws and customs of these privileged peacocks, in the vain hope of acceptance. On the other, you have Sebastian and Julia, experts in the intricacies of their own caste systems, choking on their own religious guilt.

It gets so bad that you want to scream at them to run and never look back. In fact, one of the most famous passages in the book describes the invisible thread that pulls them back whenever they attempt an escape.

It would be hard to guess from this that Waugh intended the thread to be a good thing, wouldn't it? (I got a rueful chuckle out of this spoof/review of the film that presents an imaginary interview with Waugh in heaven: "'[The point is] guilt, sir. That’s what we’re told from the start.' 'But my novel is about grace. Who wrote this nonsense?'")

I've rambled on far too long already, and should save further comments until after I've actually seen the new film. But I'll post a link to the trailer (alert: there are a couple of brief graphic images, which is why I'm not embedding it on the site), and I would be interested to hear what some of you -- Waugh fans or otherwise -- think of this sneak peek and/or of Brock's article.

(Image © Miramax)

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Comments

Zoe

As an good former English major, I went to see the film on Saturday. Honestly, my memory of the novel was blurry at best, but I did remember the main takeaway was something about legalism versus grace.

I think the film got the first part down, but not the second. It seemed to me that it pushed and pulled between antinomianism (lawlessness) and legalism, but found no resting place for grace. Sebastian in his free-for-all found no true respite, nor Lady Marchmain in her uncompromising religiosity. The closest thing to grace was the death of the family's father, who had lived an extravagant, faithless life, but who received absolution on his deathbed.

But, to me, even that seemed to follow the familiar script. He, too, picked sides and found legalism the most reassuring answer on his deathbed. If it was redemption, it was not inspiring in the least.

I think the film Chocolat did a far better job than Brideshead at exalting true grace in a world plagued with bad theology.

LeeQuod

Zoe wrote: "As an good former English major,"

Indeed. :-)

I'm glad I'm not the only one who clicks "Post" and then blushes. But I probably blush more often than most.

Zoe

Touché.

Gosh, what's even more blush-worthy is that it took me a full day to do so.

LeeQuod, way to keep me on my feet!

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