Is the new Miramax/BBC film of "Brideshead Revisited" better than the book? Anthony Gottlieb thinks so ...


Evelyn Waugh's seventh novel gets mixed reviews, and not merely in the usual way. Not only do some critics like it while others don't, but even those who think it is good often also think it is bad. Martin Amis called it "lasting schlock...a really good bad book." Waugh himself wrote of its "glaring defects", though he did not disown it. Anthony Burgess generously found it to be "one of those disturbing novels in which the faults do not matter." And in a witheringly perceptive review in the New Yorker in 1946, Edmund Wilson judged that, although the comic parts "are as funny as anything the author has done", the promise of the first half of "Brideshead Revisited" is disastrously betrayed later on.

Wilson predicted that this problematic novel would become Waugh's most commercially successful book, which it did. Yet it has never been made into a feature film before now. There was a serialisation by Britain's Granada Television in 1981, but that was 11 hours long. It almost amounted to a staged reading of the novel, with practically nothing left out, and so did not face many of the usual challenges of a big-screen adaptation. Thanks to an airing by America's PBS network, the series etched on at least one generation of Americans an apparently indelible impression of fey English aristocrats lolling in Oxford between the wars. "The Anglo Files", a forthcoming book about today's Britain by Sarah Lyall of the New York Times, mentions "Brideshead" three times. When she first met her English husband, Ms Lyall writes, her impression was that he was "like something out of Brideshead Revisited", and it is a fair bet that she had the TV version in mind.

We cannot say what Waugh, who died in 1966, would have made of the Granada series. But roughly what he wanted of a "Brideshead" film is known, because in 1947 he wrote a memo on the subject to MGM. His negotiations with Hollywood foundered; the memo survives. According to the new film's director, Julian Jarrold, the Waugh Estate approved all of the changes that the film's writers made to the plot of the novel. Still, critics in America have on the whole been mightily dissatisfied with the result (the film will not be released in Britain until October). 

The novel is narrated by Charles Ryder, a middle-class Oxford graduate entranced in his university days by exposure to the Flyte family, who are the troubled scions of an ancient Catholic line and owners of Brideshead, an impossibly grand country house, which Ryder revisits with acute nostalgia. Sebastian Flyte, who was Charles's contemporary at Oxford, is an effete wastrel driven to drink by his fearsomely pious mother, Lady Marchmain. Sebastian's sister, Julia is an opaque girl who catches Ryder's eye. Their father, Lord Marchmain, lives in sin in Venice, and returns to Brideshead only to die (in a scene that Waugh, in his memo, identifies as pivotal). Ryder, hitherto an atheist, at this point mystifyingly finds himself praying that Marchmain will repent and accept the last sacraments (which the old man does). Ryder himself later converts to Catholicism (as did Waugh). Like her father, Julia finds the Church tugging her back into its embrace, and abandons her plan to marry Ryder, with whom she had lately been having an adulterous affair.  

Critics of the new film have found most of its cast uninspiring when compared with their predecessors in the TV series, who were indeed a hard act to follow. (They included Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Sir Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Diana Quick and Sir John Gielgud.) Yet it is changes to the plot which seem to have caused much of the discomfort. This is odd, because, with one large exception, there is no reason to think that the author would have been unhappy with them. And it can be argued that all of the changes improve the story, including the one that Waugh would have abhorred.

In the film, Julia is made to accompany Ryder and her brother on a visit to Venice, where Ryder startles her with a kiss; in the book, she stays at home, and their affair starts much later, with inexplicable suddenness. In his review of the novel, Edmund Wilson noted that the character of Julia is "quite unreal" and that her eventual affair with Ryder lacks passion or motive. Waugh wrote of Ryder's "love for Julia, which is to be the consuming passion of his mature years". So is it really such a bad idea to flesh out the affair with a little history? The film also introduces another kiss, between Ryder and Sebastian, initiated by Ryder. Waugh spoke of Ryder's "romantic affection for Sebastian", and this fleeting and awkward moment is hardly a gratuitous explosion of homosexuality.

The film plays up the contrast between Ryder's gloomy home life and the glamour of Brideshead, which Waugh stressed in his memo, and which helps to explain Ryder's desire to infiltrate the aristocratic world--be it via Julia or Sebastian. Waugh's own vaulting snobbery emerges "shameless and rampant", as Wilson puts it, in the most implausible development in the novel, namely Ryder's unexplained adoption of the Flytes' religion:

the reader has an uncomfortable feeling that what has caused Mr Waugh's hero to plump on his knees is...the prestige, in the person of Lord Marchmain, of one of the oldest families in England.  

For Waugh, Ryder's conversion is a mysterious act of God. As he portentously put it in his MGM memo:

The novel deals with what is theologically termed, "the operation of Grace", that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.

In other words, from a merely mortal point of view these things appear to happen without rhyme or reason. Perhaps they do, but such a seemingly random deus ex machina is the antithesis of literary craft. It may leave Charles Ryder saved and God rather pleased with himself, but it also leaves the reader unsatisfied. We never see Ryder seduced by God. We only see him seduced by old architecture, old families and old retainers.  Hence Edmund Wilson's damning judgement that Waugh's "cult of the high nobility is allowed to become so rapturous and solemn that it finally gives the impression of being the only real religion in the book." Sensibly, the film omits Ryder's conversion.

By keeping Ryder an atheist to the end, the filmmakers have at least tried to rescue the novel from itself, insofar as that is possible. An unedifying devotion to aristocracy and its trappings is too ingrained in the book for it ever to be wholly unpicked. But with the narrator maintaining a safe distance from the Catholicism of the Flytes, it can perhaps avoid sinking to the depths of snobbery that afflicted Waugh himself. Might the novel not have been a better one if it had followed the Miramax/BBC plot rather than its own? Perhaps it is too much to ask devotees to smile on any alterations to the fabric of a beloved old structure. "Brideshead Revisited", after all, is all about nostalgia.

(Anthony Gottlieb is a former executive editor of The Economist. Author of "The Dream of Reason", he is working on a book about nothingness. His last piece for Intelligent Life was about the science of humour.)