Waugh on screen
By ALEXANDER LARMAN
The news that Evelyn Waugh’s first and, to many, most beloved novel Decline and Fall is to be adapted by the BBC, fifty years after his death, was met with a mixed response. On the credit side, the writer is the estimable James Wood, whose sitcom Rev exhibited a knack for wit and absurdity that stands him in good stead. A supporting cast that includes David Suchet and Douglas Hodge breeds similar reassurance. But the adaptation stars Jack Whitehall as Waugh’s hapless Paul Pennyfeather, and one fears that Whitehall may merely serve up a period reprise of his similarly useless pedagogue Alfie Wickers from his own show Bad Education (which he wrote with Freddy Syborn).
Whether the result lives up to expectations or not, it is heartening to see one of Waugh’s comic novels being adapted for television, especially one that has been attempted only once before, in the Sixties, and then extremely badly. (A shame: one wishes for Michael Hordern as Prendergast, James Robertson Justice as Dr Fagan and Terry-Thomas as Grimes.) Although Waugh seems to have been adapted a fair amount over the years, his reputation in terms of television lies almost entirely on the seminal (if, it can now be said, overlong) ITV version of Brideshead Revisited (1981), with little else having captured the subversive joy of his peerless prose.
The writer who is perhaps most closely associated with Waugh today, outside his family, is William Boyd. Having being compared with him early in his career ("you can just as easily be described as a ‘poor man’s Kingsley Amis’", he told me recently when I asked him about his experiences of adapting Waugh; "in fact I think we’re very dissimilar writers"), he went on to adapt Scoop in 1987, and in 2001 turned the Sword of Honour trilogy into a three-hour, two-part film, starring a pre-Bond Daniel Craig as Guy Crouchback. Boyd confesses to "a mild obsession" with Waugh, and has written about him extensively: "we both have a very dark sense of humour", he told me, "and Waugh's sense of humour has always been, in my opinion, his greatest asset. As soon as he starts getting serious (and less humorous), the work suffers".
Boyd’s first foray into Waugh-land with Scoop was panned, and he says now that "we did get a pasting but, in my opinion, that was because the film was ludicrously over-trumpeted and we were heading for a fall, come what may. We ended up with 14 million viewers and I still stand robustly by the adaptation. I think it's very good – with a brilliant cast – and very funny". One imagines that if Decline and Fall were to obtain half that number of viewers the producers would be thrilled – and not a little surprised, despite the mass appeal of Whitehall and his glamorous co-star Eva Longoria as Margot Beste-Chetwynde, a far from desperate housewife.
The problem with adapting Waugh is that his humour is predominantly verbal rather than visual, and this can lead to a film either spelling out the jokes too literally or missing them altogether. Boyd argues that "it's an abiding problem in adaptations because of the vast difference between the two art forms (novel and film). The latter is photography and thereby lie all the difficulties. It's very hard, if you're looking through a camera lens, to be subjective. Film – and this is not meant to be derogatory – is a very simple way of telling a story. A novel is infinitely complex, by comparison. When you come to adapt something as subtle and nuanced as a Waugh novel you are up against it. The only solution is to play to the new medium's few strengths. When I adapted Sword of Honour, Ritchie-Hook's insane assault on the German blockhouse is brilliant – it's suddenly a war movie".
Boyd argues that one reason Waugh hasn’t been adapted more often is that the biographical aspects get in the way: "he's too well known, and everybody has an opinion (snob, fascist, comic genius, Catholic stalwart etc). So the criticism is ephemeral and people can make up their own minds once the brouhaha of a release has died down. He's no harder to adapt than any novelist of serious talent. You just have to judge the adaptations as films – and not as versions of the novels. If you enjoyed the films then the adaptation has succeeded".
Certainly, the appearance in 2008 of a film of Brideshead Revisited (with a screenplay by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies) excited few, owing to some unfortunate miscasting; fine actor though he is, Ben Whishaw is simply not convincing as Sebastian Flyte, any more than Emma Thompson is a persuasive Lady Marchmain. Boyd believes that it could be adapted again, and more successfully – "I think it would be far more interesting to look at the undercurrents of the novel rather than its 'English Heritage' virtues". He’s happier with what he did with Sword of Honour, although it had to be condensed from its planned six-hour length – "the main themes of the novel are treated really well, I believe, and in some senses more credibly than the books (Guy's marriage, for example). It also has a scale and scope that I marvel at, today".
Although he hasn’t been consulted about the new Decline and Fall, Boyd cites it as one of the two books by Waugh (the other is The Ordeal Of Gilbert Pinfold) that he would have liked to adapt. And if he were to offer Wood, Whitehall & co some advice? "Don't think of the novel, paradoxically. Think of the type of film you want to make – and then play to the medium's strengths". We shall see what the end result is, but one hopes for a black comic feast worthy of its creator – and, if it’s successful, long overdue versions of Pinfold, Black Mischief and the rest. Waugh himself was a great cineaste – Vile Bodies has several scenes that were influenced by the cross-cutting and montage of late 1920s cinema, and he even appeared in a student film, The Scarlet Woman, when he was at Oxford, playing the Dean of Balliol in a ridiculous fright wig. Perhaps it’s time for a bold writer to depict the great man himself in a biopic. Chances are, it would be impolite, shocking and very funny indeed.