Bright Young Things
Produced by Doubting Hall Limited
Written and directed by Stephen Fry from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies
Distributed by Icon Film Distribution and Think Film, Inc.
Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things is a vibrant, hectic, but finally disappointing adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s second novel, Vile Bodies (1930). Although Fry has assembled an extremely talented and willing cast and has directed with energy and obvious admiration for Waugh, he fails on two counts: theme and style.
Fry seems to misunderstand, perhaps willfully, Waugh’s satiric purpose. This is signaled by the title change. He has chosen to rename the narrative with Waugh’s mocking sobriquet for the privileged, well-educated, and fatally frivolous young people who populate his elegantly dizzy novel. The new title suggests a gossipy story of foolish, misspent youth. Waugh certainly had this in mind, but he was also after something considerably deeper, darker, and, paradoxically, more hopeful. He took his title from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which chastises those “whose end is destruction,” whose “god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” and then directs us to “look to the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”
Waugh began the novel as a wobbly atheist and ended it at the church door of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. In between, he suffered the soul-bruising betrayal of his first wife, who had been unfaithful within months of their wedding. Accordingly, just beneath its dazzlingly brittle surface, his narrative is suffused with inconsolable pain and metaphysical longing. This is reflected, however dimly, in what passes for a philosophical conversation between the feckless protagonist, Adam Fenwick-Symes, and his fiancé, Nina Blount.
“Nina, do you ever feel that things simply can’t go on much longer?”
“What d’you mean by things—us or everything?”
“No—I wish I did.”
“I dare say you’re right. . . . I’d give anything in the world for something different. . . . ”
“Different from me or different from everything?”
“Different from everything . . . only I’ve got nothing . . . what’s the good of talking?”
As the everythings and anythings pile up in this inarticulate cri de coeur, we come very close to Waugh’s own distress.
Vile Bodies is an entertainment, but it is one that means to expose the absurdity, futility, and shame of living in a godless world. Fry blithely ignores this. Take, for instance, his alteration of Adam’s first appearance. In the novel, Adam is coming back from France where, presumptuously enough, he’s been writing a memoir of his 24-year-old life. Examining his luggage at customs, an overly zealous inspector confiscates his manuscript and his copy of Dante’s Purgatorio, deeming both pornographic. “I knows dirt when I sees it or shouldn’t be where I am today,” he darkly informs the nonplussed Adam. Thus stripped of both his personal and cultural history, Adam enters England a cipher wholly unprepared to meet the challenges of the ruthlessly secular culture that awaits him. In adapting this scene, Fry tellingly leaves out the Dante. He conveys part of the joke but overlooks its fuller implications. He also skimps on Father Rothschild, the enigmatic Jesuit who serves as the novel’s ironic Cassandra. It is Rothschild who tries to inform the older generation that the younger are infected with “a radical instability” and suffer from “an almost fatal hunger for permanence.” Jewish by name, Catholic by faith, and capitalist by family, Rothschild is fluent in all the languages of the West, ancient and modern. As such, he is ideally equipped to diagnose the ills of modernity. Of course, no one heeds him.
For someone who clearly loves Waugh, Fry curiously misreads him. His handling of Imogen Quest, Waugh’s pivotal fiction within a fiction, is another striking instance. Imogen is Adam’s creation. Having by ill chance been made a gossip columnist for the Daily Excess, he finds he cannot fill his daily column with nearly enough scandal, so—as most such journalists do—he resorts to invention. His most successful creature is Imogen, “the most lovely and popular of the younger married set.” His readers cannot get enough of her comings and goings. Many even claim to be within her closest circle of friends. Then Adam reports that she is giving a party and foolishly includes an actual address. Frenzied gate-crashers rush there by the dozens, outraged to discover an untenanted building. Why does all London find Imogen so compelling? The answer is obvious. In a society so divided between willful, snotty youth and their blinkered, tradition-smothered parents, Imogen appears to be superbly normal. “Her character was a lovely harmony of contending virtues—she was witty and tender hearted; passionate and serene, sensual and temperate, impulsive and discreet.” In other words, although fictional, she has more three-dimensional, human substance than the freakish moderns who inhabit Waugh’s cartoon world. Fry evidently does not feel the nostalgic tug Imogen exerts on Waugh’s lost souls. He has chosen to convert her into a lesbian whose escapades—especially the orgies she throws for the most daring gals in the fast set—titillate Adam’s readers. Having passed through a same-sex phase at Oxford before marrying and fathering six children, Waugh enjoyed gently teasing homosexuals, but this is not his Imogen’s role. He means her to be a far more interesting joke. In an abnormal society, Imogen’s normalcy is exotically tantalizing. By ignoring Waugh’s metaphysical and moral concerns, Fry has betrayed his intentions.
On the matter of style, Fry has run up against the same paradox as other film adapters in trying to bring Waugh to the screen. Without exception, their movies have been much less cinematic than Waugh’s texts. Throughout his career, Waugh turned to film for inspiration. In 1929, he declared the medium to be “the one vital art of the century,” teaching novelists “a new habit of narrative.” This, however, would probably be “the only contribution the cinema [was] destined to make to the arts.” He held little hope that commercial films would ever produce anything genuinely significant. Still, the medium’s formal qualities continued to intrigue him throughout his career.
In his correspondence, we find him urging would-be writers to “risk the headache” and go to the movies. “The inestimable value of the Cinema to novelists,” he explained, is that it teaches how to “bring home thoughts by actions and incidents” rather than making “everything said.” As late as 1956, he advised a struggling biographer to approach his subject cinematically. “Instead of seeing [the subject’s life] as an historical document, imagine yourself watching a film—each incident as precise and authentic as in [your] present version, but with continuity in the technical cinematographical sense . . . and then write as though describing the experience.”
Waugh’s early novels give ample evidence that he took his own advice. His first published fiction was a short story, “The Balance” (1926), arranged on the page as if it were a silent film, complete with narrative directions and dialogue captions. The scenes of his early novels develop in a rapid, contrapuntal montage, giving them the vertiginous headlong momentum that became his signature. At the same time, his narratives are surprisingly spare of visual description. We rarely learn anything about the appearance of his principal figures. In Vile Bodies, we are told that Adam “looked just like young men like him do look,” and nothing more. While he occasionally described architecture and landscaping in elegantly visual prose, he left his characters remarkably abstract, suggesting that their lives were much less important than the civilization that housed them. For Waugh, film was not a visual but a structural inspiration.
The films Waugh was thinking of when he was composing his narratives were black-and-white and silent. It was precisely the unreality of these films that he found so congenial. With few exceptions, he wrote about people and events he knew firsthand, but he transfigured his experiences into a stylized two-dimensional world in which seemingly intelligent, alert, well-educated people behave with cartoon-like abandon. Almost any absurdity is not merely possible but quite probable. A drunken major offers to place a bet for Adam on a 35-to-1 racehorse. Although he has never met the man before, Adam forks over £1,000 as if it were no more than a couple of dollars, instead of the $220,000 or more it would be worth in today’s currency. Later, we are amused but not unduly surprised by the antics of the lady evangelist Mrs. Melrose Ape, Waugh’s parody of Aimee Semple McPherson. With her handpicked choir of nubile angels, she delights London’s fashionable set with a rendition of her famous hymn, “There Ain’t No Flies on the Lamb of God.” We readily accept such lunacies in Waugh’s absurd stick-figure world. On the page, these scenes may be startling, but they are also somehow satisfyingly inevitable. We understand that we are dealing with a caricature of our world. Its grotesque distortions are meant to shock us into seeing the daily excesses we would otherwise overlook in our “ordinary” experience. In Fry’s film, with its period-perfect sets and highly accomplished actors, however, such goings-on seem jarringly unreal. You cannot keep from asking yourself why these sensible-looking people are behaving so inanely. The apparent reality of the setting and action distracts from Waugh’s satiric point.
Waugh found film to be a perfect metaphor of his times. The medium’s suspension of the usual limits of space and time, its ability to cut instantaneously from one scene to another, its uncanny way of magnifying the most stray of incidental details—all of this gave him the satiric shorthand he needed to portray an eccentric world hurtling pointlessly into a hopeless future. It would require a far more stylized film production than Fry’s to do justice to this vision, and one that exhibited some sympathy for Waugh’s religious convictions as well.
For all this, Fry’s film is nevertheless worth seeing. Although his players have been directed to act in much too realistic a manner, they now and again contrive to register the antic charm of Waugh’s figures. Stephen Campbell Moore gives Adam a wonderfully slack-jawed fecklessness. As Nina, Emily Mortimer is beautiful and suitably mindless. Jim Broadbent brings the proper alcoholic self-assurance to the Drunken Major. Peter O’Toole has been given only a scant three or four minutes on-screen, but his growling Colonel Blount, Nina’s ever-forgetful papa, will make you permanently shy of senile aristocrats.
Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Runcible, the ditsiest of the ditsy Bright Young Things, comes closest to Waugh’s conception. With her long, beak-nosed English face, she stares out at the world from two round and fanatical blue eyes ever ready to be dazzled by the next foolishness on her madly delectable menu. Hungover though she may be after an all-night frolic, Miss Woolgar knows just how to come down to breakfast in a grass skirt at No. 10 Downing Street, where she has been decidedly uninvited by an outraged prime minister and his fuming wife. And no one could take a sports car’s wheel with such magisterial aplomb in a race to oblivion. Miss Woolgar makes a glorious loon with whom Waugh would be well pleased.