March 11th, 2007
Bright Young Things had a lot of potential: it’s directed by Stephen Fry (of whose acting and poetry-pedantry I’m a fan), it has David Tennant in it, and it’s based on a book by Evelyn Waugh, the British satirist/Catholic convert/novelist.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really work. I haven’t read the novel (which was published as Vile Bodies, though Waugh’s original title was in fact Bright Young Things), so I can’t make my own comparisons between the two: for an extensive and interesting commentary along those lines, check out an article by Alan Dale on BlogCritics.
Internal to the movie itself, there are some big tone problems. First of all, from what I read, it looks like Waugh’s novel is pretty pure satire; Fry’s movie seems to expect us to have sympathy for these vapid, decadent, aristocratic characters, but it doesn’t give us any reason to do so. Adam, the protagonist, does extraordinarily stupid things that you wouldn’t be surprised to see coming from Bertie Wooster (e.g., “let me turn over the 1,000 pounds I’ve just won to a drunken stranger, on his promise that he’ll place the money on a winning horse), but which really don’t work for this supposedly intelligent, though somewhat lost, young writer.
(By the way, for those who don’t know, I should mention that Fry played Jeeves to Hugh Laurie’s Wooster in the great 1990s BBC show “Jeeves and Wooster.” Fry is clearly familiar with portrayals of the between-the-wars decadence of British youth.)
In some ways, once the “bright young things” of society begin dropping like flies to suicide, mental illness, and arrest for “indecency” (i.e., homosexuality), the movie picks up steam. But, again, we’re confused about whether we should feel sorry for them. The music and the screenplay tell us to sniffle a bit—but we’ve been given no previous reason to like them.
Once everyone else drops out, we’re left with penniless Adam and his hopeless love for Nina, who by now is engaged to the much richer Ginger Littlejohn (David Tennant, in a moustache. A moustache! Why? The moustaching of David Tennant may be the greatest of this movie’s sins. Ahem.) But, fortunately, World War II starts, so Adam can go off and shoot people rather than mope. It seems like at this point we’re to think, “Aha! War is a force that gives us meaning,” but it doesn’t really work that way in the movie—or in life, I might add, though the decadent British aristocracy did sort of vanish after the war years.
War doesn’t really seem to change Adam or anyone else, and then he gets to come home and have a happy ending. It’s all wrong. He should either have an absolutely pointless ending (as befitting a satire) or a redemptive one (like in Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s 1945 novel)—none of this undeserved happiness business!
Since Waugh published Vile Bodies in 1930, the movie’s ending is quite obviously different from the book’s. Apparently the book does also end with Adam on a battlefield in an apocalyptic sort of war, but it seems like the book sticks to the “pointless” angle rather than mucking about with genres.
Interestingly, 1930 was a huge turning point in Waugh’s life. His cheating wife divorced him—and he converted to the Catholic church. He was certainly already thinking in spiritual terms when he wrote Vile Bodies, though, for the title comes from Philippians 3:20-21 (in the King James Version): “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, 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 even to subdue all things unto himself.”
The title may be the only hint of redemption present in the novel, but I’m guessing that’s preferable to the alternately sentimental and satirical muddle of the movie. But, hey, the movie made me want to read the book! And it’s making me wonder how pure, harsh satire functions in our culture’s spirituality. Does it exist today in Christian writing? If so, where?
P.S. The movie’s rather flamboyant homosexual is played by Michael Sheen, most recently seen on big screens as Tony Blair in The Queen. Since that’s the only other role I’ve seen him in, I have to admit, I spent much of the movie thinking, “Tony Blair, why are you wearing eyeliner?” And, of course, “David Tennant, WHY are you wearing a MOUSTACHE?”
P.P.S. Fry’s movie may not be great, but his recent book The Ode Less Travelled is the funniest (and therefore most helpful) guide to reading and writing poetry that I’ve ever encountered.