Directed by: Stephen Fry
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Stephen Campbell Moore, James McAvoy, Dan Aykroyd, Peter O'Toole, Jim Broadbent
It's curious and yet apt that the day before I saw Bright Young Things, I'd spent an hour talking with a group of very bright and savvy home-schooled teenagers at a "career day" program (apparently, some of them would like to be movie critics). The topic somehow turned to literary adaptations, specifically the Harry Potter films.
I explained my take on turning books into movies, noting that I'd read the first Potter book and half of the second one after seeing the films. Since reading them didn't enhance my enjoyment of the films, I saw no need to read more. I shared my view that a movie need not offer a slavish, page-by-page replication of a book, but that it should capture the essence, spirit and theme of its source and, at its best, offer the reaction of the filmmaker to the original work.
At that moment, I had no clue that the very next evening I would encounter a film that did just that. Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh's 1930 source novel for Bright Young Things, is a work I've read at least three times in the past 25 years, so I came to the movie with high hopes. My expectations were perhaps born of too much familiarity, making me hyper-critical of what writer/director Fry would and would not include. And while Fry didn't satisfy me on every point, he came so close that I'll list his film among the best literary adaptations I've seen.
Fry took on a daunting task. Waugh's book is overflowing with characters (including some crossovers from other Waugh novels), digressions and subplots, nearly all of which Fry manages to at least touch on. This effort isn't completely successful; some characters that play important roles in the book are given only the most cursory appearances in the film.
The heroine's father (played with scene-stealing brilliance by the great Peter O'Toole) is reduced to one little set of scenes, and an entire subplot about him making a silly, low-budget movie on the life of John Wesley is jettisoned. (It looks like this element might have been filmed and later cut from the movie.) The character of a politically powerful Jesuit priest, Fr. Rothschild, is reduced to such a background role that one wonders why Fry bothered getting Richard E. Grant to play the part. Similarly, Mrs. Melrose Ape (Channing) and her singing angels (with names like Creative Endeavor, Divine Discontent and Fortitude) are little more than amusing window dressing. The girls' descent into a white-slavery ring (a holdover from Waugh's Decline and Fall) and the pathetic fate of one of their number are gone.
Fry is walking a fine line here: He includes the details of the book for those in the know, while pruning the least essential elements: those aspects most related to Waugh's extremely Catholic religious beliefs. Waugh was out not only to make sport of his own social circle -- the hedonistic "Bright Young Things" of the 1920s -- but to take jabs at religion in politics (Fr. Rothschild), tacky pop evangelism (Mrs. Ape and her girls), and popularizing religion (the John Wesley movie). These do not appear to be concerns that are central to Fry's worldview.
One of his own generation's "Bright Young Things," Fry is more at home concentrating on those characters and their ever-more-desperate need to be at the center of the party. Waugh himself was something of a deliberate outsider and, while his bitterly comic novel is not unsympathetic to the insiders' shallow existence, he wrote essentially from the outside looking in.
Fry is more of an insider, and he's made the story of these young people dancing closer and closer to the edge more human than its source novel did. Yet, he has carefully retained its wild, irreverent satire, its comic complexity, and most of its bitterness.
It's still the story of the somewhat earnest Adam Fenwick-Symes (newcomer Moore) and his difficulties in staying within high society and marrying the girl of his dreams, Nina Blount (Mortimer). He still wins a thousand pounds so he can marry her and bets with a drunken major (Broadbent) on a long-shot horse so he can't. The horse still wins and the Major still keeps disappearing before paying up, and so on.
Even Waugh's revulsion with the physical world of the "Bright Young Things" is in evidence. Nina, for example, is still horrified by her first sexual encounter ("I've never hated anything so much in my life"), which she rates somewhere below an afternoon in a dentist's chair. Adam, for his part, recites the whole speech from the novel about the empty parties and "all that succession and repetition of massed humanity ... and all those vile bodies."
But the tone is altered at key points. Waugh's characters seem to wander blindly through much of the book unaware of the emptiness of their existence. Fry's characters, on the other hand, seem fully aware that they're trapped in a kind of nightmare world they can't figure out how to escape from. Perhaps the shift in tone is nowhere more in evidence than in Fry's softer ending, which is at least partly the result of the book being contemporary while the film is a period piece. The book climaxes with a descent into the abyss of a wholly fictional war, which seems more like an evocation of WW II in the film (a war Waugh couldn't have foreseen in 1930). With historical perspective, Fry presents a much less hopeless view of the future.
What Fry has done may not entirely work, but it's still that rarest of things: a movie that is at once the filmmaker's own and a respectful adaptation of the book.
Two warnings should be given here. The film is very, very British, and if that's not your dish of tea, you'll likely hate it. But if you want to see it, see it tonight or tomorrow, because I'm willing to bet it'll be gone on Friday. And one more thing: If you see Bright Young Things, treat yourself to the book afterwards.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke