Wrong turn revisiting Brideshead

I am a bit of a Brideshead Revisited junkie.  Evelyn Waugh’s novel is among the best of the 20th century, and the 1981 BBC miniseries, staring a very young Jeremy Irons, along with Anthony Andrews, Sir Lawrence Olivier, and the delightfully passive-aggressive Sir John Gielgud, is arguably the greatest TV miniseries of all time.  Both the novel and the miniseries are elegant, wry, and subtle.

You can imagine, then, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that ensued when I watched the 2008 film “adaptation” of Brideshead, which had all the art and nuance of Melrose Place. Make that outtakes from Melrose Place.  The characters were flat and banal, and the plot drooped.  The cinematography was elegant enough—a good period piece—and the acting passable, but Waugh’s masterpiece had been left behind.

Now this is not the lament of a literary purist—I am a junkie, not a purist—for whom even the slightest alteration smacks of treason. A two-hour film will necessarily involve cutting and simplification that a 13-hour miniseries will not.  But what happened to Brideshead was not a little cutting, not just adapting to a new form.  It was like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark, like a John Grisham novel without the lawyer, like the Gospel of Matthew without Jesus.  The most important character in the story was missing because the most important character in Waugh’s novel—even though He doesn’t have any lines—is God.

The English Catholic aristocrats the Marchmains, stars of both the novel and the film(s), are troubled, dysfunctional, degenerate.  They are, at times, overbearing and scheming, adulterers and drunks, but they are also mesmerizing and, in their way, holy.  The drama of the novel (and the miniseries) comes because, like the ocean liner in the Atlantic which plays such a prominent role in the story, the Marchmains are tossed in so many contradictory directions.  They feel the tug of aristocracy and power, of social standing and sex, of beauty, alcohol, art—and God.  God does not appear on a mountain in the novel, but he is always there, though we, and the agnostic narrator Charles Ryder, are not always able to see him.  Waugh borrowed the novel’s most important image—which he applies to God’s love—from Chesterton:  an unseen hook and a line so infinite it is capable of allowing us to wander to the ends of the world and then bringing us back with “a twitch upon the thread.”

In the movie adaptation, trying so painfully hard to be up to date, there is no twitch because there is no thread, and the story is, consequently, boring.  Sebastian, the youngest son of the Marchmain family—charismatic bon vivant, magnetic in youth, alcoholic not long after, and perhaps, in his own way, a saint—becomes, in the movie, simply a weak and cowering child, terrified of his mother and totally ruined when his homosexual crush dumps him for his sister.  Gone is the explosive energy, the inner tension that makes Sebastian so captivating.

In the novel, Sebastian’s religion is, for the agnostic narrator Charles, part of his mystery.  When Charles dismisses Christianity as all bosh, a collection of antiquated fables, Sebastian retorts that he finds the tales actually rather lovely.  For him being Catholic makes all the difference in a way that Charles (and the makers of the 2008 film) are incapable of understanding.  God, for Sebastian and the other Marchmains, exerts a positive force, a pull.  Catholicism can exert the force it does in the book and in the miniseries precisely because the characters in Brideshead find it beautiful—compellingly beautiful.  The 2008 filmmakers cannot conceive of God as an object of desire, so for them religion functions only as a wet blanket, a downer taken to suppress desire.

The problem is that none of the characters’ actions in the book or movie make sense without a sense of positive desire for God.  The 2008 filmmakers are forced to reduce the motives of all the characters to the most simplistic forms of desires:  Sebastian wants to sleep with Charles; Charles wants to sleep with Sebastian’s sister Julia (he also wants her house); Lady Marchmain simply wants control over everyone.  In the movie Lord Marchmain’s Italian mistress Cara unconvincingly explains her “Italian” view of Catholicism:  “We do what the heart tells us, and then we go to confession.”  Waugh recognizes that the “heart” is capable of many different kinds of desires, not just those which require a trip to the confessional—some of which even bring one closer to God.

Because there’s nothing much beautiful in the wet blanket Catholicism portrayed by the film, the important turns in the plot that result from the characters’ adherence to the faith become entirely irrational.  Why would Sebastian and Julia slavishly obey their domineering mother, a caricature of a religious bigot, if they can find nothing compelling in her religion?  Why would Julia call off her affair with Charles if she did not feel an even stronger need for God in her life?  Why would Lord Marchmain cross himself on his deathbed if, in fact, all the gesture ever meant to him was “no”?

If there is a good which comes out of watching 2008’s Brideshead Revisited after having read Waugh’s novel or experienced the miniseries, it is that it shows how banal life without God eventually becomes.  With no upward pull, no twitch upon the thread, life looks rather flat.  We might still have motivations—power, property, sex—but they are motives without texture.  There is no more beauty in such a life than there is in the solid colors on square canvasses that sometimes pass for modern art.  For art, like a person, needs to feel a tug toward the heavens in order truly to be alive.


12 Responses to Wrong turn revisiting Brideshead

  1. Carolina Maine says:

    I thought I was the only weirdo who liked this movie! Great post-I had to check it out when I saw it listed under literature.

  2. Henry A says:

    I just started reading the book (although the style of writing annoys me a bit at the moment) and so I was intrigued by your post. I have not seen the original mini-series but plan to do so after I finish the book.

    Regarding your jab at modern art – yes, sometimes an abstract painting (a solid color on a square canvas) is devoid of beauty (or Beauty) but in some cases, when you are actually in front of the painting you definitely intuit the vibration of Mystery! But, and this is important, you must be in front of the original painting! For example, some of the abstract paintings of Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko (the “black paintings’) or William Congdon (late abstact paintings) clearly convey the breath of a Presence.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Yes, you make a valid point, Henry–not all modern art is equally spiritual (or spiritless). I’ll think a bit more about what you say and perhaps write a longer post on the subject a bit later…

  3. P Fairbanks SJ says:

    Tony! Welcome to the writers’ staff. I look forward to hearing from you here, since now I don’t live in your house any more.

  4. Minneapolis Mark says:

    Fabulous post on beauty and the Hound of Heaven! You fellows have revived my hopes for the Jesuits.

  5. Theologian Mom says:

    Glad you made it into the blogosphere. You make me want to get the 13-hr miniseries of Brideshead! What you’re describing sounds somewhat like the difference between the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice and the recent Hollywood version or even the PBS Jane Eyre version… film seems to be generally inadequate at portraying virtue (including Christian virtue). So what you find is a lot of literary virtue ethics becoming situational (this also happened when Lord of the Rings became movies).

  6. Theologian Mom says:

    I meant to add, that of course, that’s not precisely what you were addressing, but I think it’s related nonetheless.

  7. Diego Alonso-Lasheras S.J. says:

    I completely agree with you. I am also a fan of the book and the TV series. I was not able to go through less than half of the 2008 movie, which misses the heart of Waugh’s book.

  8. Dr. Ed Rauchut says:

    Am I wrong to like the Geoffrey Burgon soundtrack of the TV series as much as I do?

    Should I know better? Is it sentimental claptrap?

    All the best,

    Ed Rauchut

  9. […] The Decalogue (1989).  If you haven’t seen The Decalogue, add it to the list—along with the Brideshead Revisited miniseries—of really long films you really must […]

  10. Volker Fink says:

    Dear Anthony, I bought the DVD on the mini-series of
    “Brideshead revisited” last month, almost 30 years
    after my 15-months-stay in London, when I watched it on TV. Compared to the mini-series and the novel,the film of 2008 is meaningless and flat; it lacks soul and spirit and – as you made clear – the “makers”
    didn`t understand the novel(or didn`t want to…).
    God doesn`t exist anymore for a lot of people…

  11. Peter says:

    I bought and watched the movie last night and, although it had some problems for me, I enjoyed it, found it interesting. I thought that I’d only watch a little of it and was caught up in it enough to watch it all the way through. And I thought it was well done and that the actor who played Sebastian was very good.
    I also like the TV series and have read the book several times and will read it again now.

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