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Waugh stories

A major novelist has a mixed filmography

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 20, 2008

"All is loud, obvious and prosaic," Evelyn Waugh lamented in a 1947 article about Hollywood. The main problem with film adaptations of Waugh's novels is that they're usually hushed, obvious, and overdecorated.

Waugh (1903-1966) was the greatest English comic novelist of the last century. Several of his books have been brought to the screen, in either film or television versions. The most celebrated is the 11-hour "Brideshead Revisited" that public television viewers found so overwhelming (in both senses of the word) in 1981. The most bizarre is Tony Richardson's 1965 movie of "The Loved One." How bizarre? The cast includes John Gielgud, Tab Hunter, Milton Berle, and Liberace. Hushed it is not.

The latest Waugh to come to the screen is a new film version of "Brideshead." Clocking in at a mere two hours and 15 minutes, it opens Friday. Heading the cast are young British actors Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder, Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte, and Hayley Atwell as Sebastian's sister Julia.

Such a (relatively) brief running time raises hopes that for once Waugh's unique literary character - crisp, pungent, antic, and bleak - will transfer to the screen. That remains to be seen, though. Even something as good as the original "Brideshead" is distinctly un-Waughian. It's lush, stately, almost impossibly measured ("padded" would be a less polite word). Waugh is none of those things.

The essence of Waugh is his economy of style. He is Hemingway bearing a bumbershoot. The writing may be far more Latinate, but it's every bit as efficient. "It is the cinema which has taught a new habit of narrative," Waugh wrote in 1948. Like Hemingway, he learned from the movies the value of the camera-eye view: the description that takes in without belaboring.

What makes the books either so relentlessly funny, acidly sharp, or both is a simple equation: the more outlandish the situation or personage, the more precise and lucid the writing. Waugh's true cinematic equivalent is Howard Hawks, not Merchant-Ivory. Each is a master of pace and control: moving things right along and never getting in the way of his material.

Waugh's experience of the movies was highly mixed. At Oxford, he produced, wrote, and acted in an undergraduate film, "The Scarlet Woman," and acted in two others. He also wrote film reviews for the university literary magazine. Once established as a writer, he wrote several scripts out of financial need (none was ever produced).

MGM had Waugh on retainer during World War II, which meant that the studio held an option on "Brideshead" when it became an unexpected bestseller, in 1945. One trembles to think what might have happened had Metro made a movie out of it. Robert Taylor as Charles? Van Johnson as Sebastian? June Allyson as Julia? They do look like brother and sister, at least. Waugh, however, saw to it that nothing happened - with some not-inconsequential help from the Hays Office, the Motion Picture Association of America's censorship operation.

Eager to finalize a deal, MGM brought Waugh to Hollywood in 1947. What ensued was a comic cultural clash worthy of his novels (and, in fact, the trip led to his writing the novella "The Loved One"). In a letter to their mother, Alec Waugh described his brother's arrival in Pasadena: "The sun was shining, tropical flowers were in bloom, all the young people were dressed in shorts and slacks and open shirts, and there was Evelyn in a stiff white collar and a bowler hat, carrying a rolled umbrella."

Soon thereafter, Waugh lorded it over le tout Hollywood at the grand estate of Louis B. Mayer - the second "M" in MGM - with deadpan glee. "How wise you Americans are to eschew all ostentation," he told the gathered company, "and lead such simple, wholesome lives! This really is delightful. Who'd even want to live in the main house when he could have this charming gatehouse instead!"

Waugh quickly realized that his unwillingness to let the studio tamper with "Brideshead" - more specifically, the affair between Charles and Julia (forget about the unspoken affair between Charles and Sebastian) - made it unfilmable. "Americans are devoted to conceptions of innocence which have no relation to life," Waugh later wrote. Where he saw theology dominating "Brideshead," the Hays Office saw adultery.

That impasse didn't keep Waugh from enjoying a splendid stay. He took tea with Anna May Wong, a favorite actress from his undergraduate days. He visited both Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney ("the two artists of the place") and generally marveled that, as he later put it, "no one in Hollywood considers the possibility of growing up." It was as if he moved among a citizenry of suntanned Sebastian Flytes.

"MGM were consistently munificent," Waugh recorded in his diary, "and we left as we had come, in effortless luxury." An agreement would have brought him $140,000 (minus the not-inconsiderable expenses for his trip, of course). Even so, Waugh felt relief when the deal fell through. His unwillingness to see "Brideshead" made into a movie was provisional, though. When his friend Graham Greene was asked to do a script in 1950, Waugh encouraged him. "Please don't try to get out of 'Brideshead,' " he wrote Greene. "I'm sure you can make a fine film out of it."

Waugh's Hollywood sojourn exemplifies the basic problem with movie adaptations of his work. Without exception, Waugh's heroes are outsiders - as he was in California. Each novel's capacity for comedy or tragedy comes from its hero's being at variance - whether as a Catholic, innocent, or bounder - with the society around him.

The Waugh adaptations all plant themselves firmly on the inside, reveling in the dense social knowingness that comes of membership in an Oxford college, Pall Mall men's club, or aristocratic family. Ultimately, Waugh's books are about a search for redemption. Waugh adaptations are about decor.

That isn't to say they don't have their moments. "The Loved One" is one of the few movies ever to tap into the bewildered frenzy of Jonathan Winters - in dual roles, no less, as brothers who run cemeteries. Unfortunately, Winters's presence is more than canceled out by Robert Morse playing the film's English hero. (Maybe Van Johnson as Sebastian wouldn't have been quite such a stretch.)

Denholm Elliott's Mr. Salter, foreign editor of The Daily Beast, has just the right blend of weariness and unction putting up with the whims of Lord Copper (Donald Pleasance) in the 1987 English TV adaptation of "Scoop." James Wilby, as Tony Last, looks a bit like the young Waugh in "A Handful of Dust" (1988), a nice touch of casting for an intensely autobiographical role. Charles Sturridge, who directed 1981's "Brideshead," oversaw "Dust" with a superb eye for detail and hopeless weakness for lugubriousness. Alec Guinness, as Mr. Todd, manages to make his character as amiably monstrous as he is in the novel, no small feat. And Stephen Fry strikes just the right tone of bluff obliviousness as Tony's brother-in-law.

Of course, that rightness makes all the more disappointing "Bright Young Things," the 2003 movie version of "Vile Bodies" that Fry wrote and directed. It has its rewards, most memorable among them Sir John Mills having a first, altogether-unexpected sniff of cocaine, and anything involving Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Runcible. It's hard to say which is more Waughian: the blitheness of Woolgar's performance or the bizarreness of her name.

A film studio, Waugh wrote in that 1947 article, is a "vast, enchanted toyshop." Fenella Woolgar would be a worthy name for its proprietress.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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