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.