The Magazine

'Brideshead Revisited' Revisited

A cinematic bastardization six decades in the making.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

If you were forced to name the high-water mark of television, the 1981 Granada production of Brideshead Revisited would be a fine choice. Starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Claire Bloom, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier, Brideshead ran a luxurious 659 minutes, gliding smoothly along the rails laid by writer John Mortimer, who preserved the gorgeous textures of Evelyn Waugh's dialogue and his intricate story of love and faith. Mortimer's adaptation of Waugh's novel is one of the towering achievements of modern screenwriting. Twenty-seven years on, the series still inspires a cultish devotion.

Not content to leave well enough alone, Miramax will release a new theatrical version of Brideshead this August. The trailer for the film surfaced a few weeks ago (www.apple.com/trailers/miramax/bridesheadrevisited/) and it promises a new and improved Brideshead.

The Miramax logo is followed by the type of itchy violins that mark the Jason Bourne movies. The audience is shown an aerial shot of Castle Howard--the same residence in which the first Brideshead was filmed--and then brief scenes of Charles and Sebastian frolicking. Emma Thompson is revealed in the role of Lady Marchmain and then a series of title cards are shown as the music darkens to convey the mood of a thriller. "She welcomed him into her home," one card says. "Into a world of privilege." "Into a life he never imagined."

What follows is a series of vignettes featuring the characters of Waugh's Brideshead but in situations that are utterly unrecognizable. Charles Ryder seems to be a striving scholarship-boy, dazzled by the Marchmain fortune and determined to grab some piece of it for himself. When Lady Marchmain asks him what he wants in life, he replies, "I want to look back and say that I didn't turn my back. That I was happy." (A sentiment no British gentleman of that era would dare express even on the off chance he actually thought that way.)

We see Julia tagging along with Charles and Sebastian on their visit to Venice. This seems a small deviation until Lord Marchmain (played by the great Michael Gambon) places his arms around both Sebastian and Julia and creepily remarks to Charles, "What a lot of temptation," as if he were offering up his two children as playthings.

This notion of a love triangle among Charles, Sebastian, and Julia is a prominent feature, at least of the trailer. Sebastian cries out to Charles, "You don't care about me, all you ever wanted was my sister." The idea of homosexuality between Charles and Sebastian isn't new, of course. Waugh consciously alluded to it--without ever describing it--and the television series did the same. Anthony Andrews in the role of Sebastian was a stunningly beautiful boy--confident, eccentric, and gay. The new Brideshead stars Ben Whishaw as a wilted, fey, almost queeny, Sebastian.

But just as the trailer leaves Venice, the background music changes to synthesizers and angry drums as the plot of the new Brideshead is explained. More title cards tell us that it's the story of

One man's desire.

One man's ambition.

One man's passion.

One woman's control.

One woman's decision.

And finally, "One woman's power." Yes, the new Brideshead features a villain--Lady Marchmain. Instead of a pious, if clumsy, near-saint, Lady Marchmain is now ambitious and manipulative. "I hope you didn't let Julia mislead you," she sternly warns Charles. "Her future is not a question of choice." The future she seems to be alluding to is a marriage of power and wealth to a man of consequence. A moment later, we see Lady Marchmain at a large gala where she announces, "It gives me great pleasure to announce the engagement of my eldest daughter, Lady Julia Flyte, to Mister Rex Mottram." Waugh's Lady Marchmain never has plans for Julia's future--the Marchmains' situation is above either financial or social improvement. And when Julia becomes engaged to the decidedly non-Catholic Rex, Lady Marchmain is given the very opposite of pleasure.

The bizarre reimagining of Lady Marchmain seems to be a result of the excision of Catholicism from the new Brideshead. The screenplay reportedly stays away from matters of the church and the trailer makes but one allusion to it, showing a rosary falling from someone's hand. And, if there is none of that fussy Catholic stuff in the new Brideshead story, then the pious Lady Marchmain might reasonably be seen as a heel. As her younger daughter Cordelia observes in the novel, "When people wanted to hate God, they hated Mummy." Take away God, and Lady Marchmain may be little more than a controlling shrew.

The rest of the movie's marketing is of a piece with the trailer. The squib on the theatrical poster declares, "Privilege. Ambition. Desire. At Brideshead everything comes at a price." Another slogan claims that "Love is not ours to control." The entire affair comes across more like a prequel to Cruel Intentions than an adaptation of Waugh's masterpiece.

The new Brideshead is an outrage. But it's also an utterly predictable degradation. The first time Hollywood circled Brideshead was in 1947. Waugh journeyed to Los Angeles to meet with MGM, which offered him $140,000 for the rights. He was keen--very keen--for the money, but insisted on retaining a veto over the script treatment. As Douglas Patey notes in his excellent Life of Evelyn Waugh,

Predictably, given the novel's publicity--its American dust-jacket advertised "an extraordinary love story" set among "the rich, the beautiful, and the damned Marchmains"--it soon became clear that MGM viewed "Brideshead purely as a love story" [worried Waugh]. "None of them see the theological implications."

Talks fell apart and the movie was never made.

Waugh subsequently wrote two essays for the Daily Telegraph titled "Why Hollywood Is a Term of Disparagement" and "What Hollywood Touches it Banalizes" in which he listed a long bill of complaints about the American moviemaking industry, including the memorable quip that Hollywood is "[a] community whose morals are those of caged monkeys." Struck by Hollywood's aversion to the centrality of Catholicism in Brideshead, he later wrote,

in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which, to me, means only one thing, man in his relation to God.

So why the new godless Brideshead now? The film has long been percolating. At a 2003 conference at Georgetown, Teresa Waugh D'Arms, the executrix of the Waugh estate, was asked why she had signed off on a film, which even at that early stage of development looked like an abomination. In a response worthy of her father she replied, "For the money, of course."

Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.