- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

What a piece of work is man. How empty of reason, how foul of body — in action an ape, in apprehension a pig; this quintessence of filth, this twisted, rank, and murderous thing: vile, vile, vile, vile. The angels look at us and do not know whether to weep, vomit, or laugh.

Now, there’s a thought to start the morning.

If you’ve never had it — if the sight of your face in the mirror or the stench of a crowded train has never sickened you — then you’re probably not a human being. Of course, if you only have this thought, you’re probably not a human being, either. I sometimes think the British novelist Evelyn Waugh wasn’t human. He looked at people as they are and didn’t know whether to weep, vomit, or laugh.

Mostly he laughed. Over10 years, from the 1928 “Decline and Fall” to the 1938 “Scoop,” he wrote five novels that form as great a set of black comedies as English literature has ever known.

Of course, he sometimes seemed to feel more like weeping, as “Brideshead Revisited” (1945) calls us to do, and if the downright peculiar “Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold” (1957) is any guide, he occasionally felt like vomiting. In his parody of American movies, pet ownership, and mortuaries, “The Loved One” (1948), he seemed willing to do all three at once.

You can read these books solely for their comedy, if you like, since Mr. Waugh had a prose that cut like a razor through an egg. But the one thing you apparently can’t do with his books is film them in any accurate way. The endless streams of pretty girls and white-teeth boys who flood to Hollywood — where is there a place for them in a story of a fallen world?

The movies can make even a sewer look beautiful. The movies want a sewer to look beautiful, for that matter; it is the nature of cinematography to show the world in luminous colors and the human form in angelic garb.

“Bright Young Things” was the working title of Mr. Waugh’s second novel — a parody of the meaningless carousel of 1920s life among the smart set in England. But by the time he published the novel in 1930, the book had become “Vile Bodies,” and in the gap between those titles, you might measure the difference between what can be filmed and what cannot.

Stephen Fry has just written and directed a movie version of “Vile Bodies,” renaming the story — ah, yes — “Bright Young Things.” Mr. Fry is a funny, clever, good-natured man, best known to American audiences for his role in the 1990 PBS series of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories.

In England, he has the reputation of being something like a tall, wry, but cuddly teddy bear. Perhaps the fact that he was chosen to read for the audiotape versions of J.K. Rowling’s enormously popular children’s books is the clearest sign of his place in the British celebrity world.

As a film, “Bright Young Things” is not particularly bad, although it occasionally has the flat, washed-out production quality of a low-budget BBC television program. Mr. Waugh eventually came to think his novel weak, awkwardly leaping from one scene to another and derivative in its complaints.

But jump-cuts and tried-and-true cliches are meat and potatoes to moviemakers, and the film moves along nicely from its beginning in high-society London to its closing at war in France.

Indeed, the film moves nicely in every way, although nice is something the novelist never was.

The movie’s hero is young Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), who possesses many friends and no income. At each turn of the story, he gains a little money and proposes marriage to the party-girl Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer), then loses the money and breaks off his engagement.

Thus, an advance for a book promises some funds, but Adam’s manuscript is confiscated as pornography when he returns to England. (“If we can’t stamp out literature inside the country, we can at least stop it being brought in from outside,” the customs official explains.)

A successful bet with the wealthy Ginger (David Tennant) brings 1,000 pounds, but Adam promptly gives it to a major whose name he can’t remember to bet on a horse race.

Adam’s stint as a gossip columnist looks like sufficient stability for marriage, but it ends in disaster as he’s caught making up celebrities, and, giving up, Nina marries Ginger instead.

Unless you’re going to do what the 1981 miniseries of “Brideshead Revisited” did and let the film run for 11 hours, something has to be removed to make a movie from a book.

Mr. Fry has cut scenes of a movie about John Wesley being made at Nina’s father’s house and reduced to almost nothing the parody of the Rev. Rothschild, a Jesuit, and the American Evangelist Mrs. Ape with her choir of virtuous girls named Chastity, Prudence, or (my favorite) Creative Endeavor.

These are all, one might note, the religious elements in the book — elements which satirized the fatuity of contemporary religiosity. Evelyn Waugh was of course famous for his later conversion to Catholicism.

Without his clear vision of just how depraved and empty human beings can be — oh, those vile, vile bodies — the beauty and fulfillment of Christ’s salvation seems … what? Meaningless, outdated, excisable.

And so Stephen Fry excised some and sanitized other plot elements from “Bright Young Things” to make a surprisingly sweet film. Nina’s adultery with Adam is shifted to merely a premarital affair, and the whole story is pushed from the late 1920s to the late 1930s to offer Adam the chance of redemption in the good fight of World War II. (A theme Mr. Waugh actually explored not in “Vile Bodies” but his 1963 “Basil Seal Rides Again.”)

Despite some marvelous supporting performances (Fenella Woolgar is particularly good as the increasingly insane bright young thing Agatha Runcible), “Bright Young Things” is a failure, and for precisely the reason that all films of Evelyn Waugh’s works have been failures, from the peculiar 1965 movie of “The Loved One” to the not-bad 1988 “A Handful of Dust.”

Next year will see a new version of “Brideshead Revisited” starring Jude Law, and its screenwriter and director have already promised that they will eliminate all the boring theological stuff with which Mr. Waugh bulked up his most Catholic story.

How could they not? Evelyn Waugh is simply too strong for the movies — his vision of the human ape, the human pig, this vile, filthy, twisted thing, is simply too much for the camera to show.

And so much of the reason for his early comedy and all of the reason for his late theology has to go.

“Vile Bodies” as a feel-good tale. “Brideshead Revisited” as a beautiful people’s love story. One doesn’t know whether to weep, vomit, or laugh.

• • •

“We walk a narrow beam when we try to film satire,” Stephen Fry told me when we spoke by phone this week.

On the one hand, “hard satire removes real people,” and moviegoers won’t watch stick-figure objects of mockery.

On the other hand, “too long an effort to make the characters likeable” leaves the result “too saccharine, and what gets lost is the satire.” What we lose, in fact, is much of what makes Evelyn Waugh unique.

On the release in America of his film “Bright Young Things,” Mr. Fry’s vision of Waugh remains surprisingly harsh: “inhuman,” “distant,” he suggests. But among Mr. Waugh’s five early novels — “the funny ones,” Mr. Fry labels them — “Vile Bodies” is the favorite of “all my American friends,” and they demanded fidelity to the original’s plot.

“‘Vile Bodies’ seemed the only book of Waugh’s with which one could do something cinematographic,” Mr. Fry insisted, precisely because of the jumpy, quick-hit style of narrative.

And Mr. Waugh “can’t be blamed,” the director offered forgivingly, for “failing to see that the war with which he ended the novel” wouldn’t be the empty apocalypse the 1920s seemed to promise, but the 1939 war that “offered redemption” to the aging bright young things.

Stephen Fry is a likeable and literate man, in that diffident, class-conscious way of successful Brits. “I couldn’t make two films, one for we who read Waugh and one for the others,” he offered as another explanation for his toning down of “Vile Bodies” into the movie “Bright Young Things.” “And my version is creeping slowly across theaters in America, rather like a virus, I suppose.”

But in the end, Mr. Fry shies away, like all filmmakers before him, from the “inhuman” cruelty of Evelyn Waugh — which is another name for the inhuman comedy of Evelyn Waugh.

Joseph Bottum is Books and Arts editor of the Weekly Standard.

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