Adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's Fiction

By Phillips, Gene D. Sj | Literature/Film Quarterly, Spring 1978 | Go to article overview

Adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's Fiction

Phillips, Gene D. Sj, Literature/Film Quarterly

Evelyn Waugh was an inveterate moviegoer, especially in his later years when he would journey into town from his country estate once or twice a week to see a film. Yet he never thought of motion pictures as a suitable medium for the adaptation of literature. In reviewing Graham Greene's novel The Heart of the Matter he expressed his fear that a filmmaker who lacked Greene's talent as a story teller would turn the book into "the dreariest kind of film." He pictured Lauren Bacali cast as the refugee girl that the hero meets, her "pretty head lolling on the stretcher," made up in the grand Hollywood style even though she has just been rescued from a sinking ship.1

In Vile Bodies Waugh describes in uproarious detail a "super-religious" movie based on the life of John Wesley in which the eighteenth-century English evangelist is rescued from a marauding band of American Indians by a British lady disguised as a cowboy. And in his war trilogy. Sword of Honor, he mentions an American historical film in which Bonnie Prince Charlie speaks in "rich Milwaukee accents." Given Waugh's condescending attitude to cinematic adaptations of history as well as of literature, it is not surprising that he viewed very ruefully indeed any attempt to translate his work into dramatic form.2

Despite Waugh's misgivings about film versions of his fiction, however, his work has found its way onto both the big screen of the cinema and the little screen of the TV tube. In the present essay I would like to survey briefly how Waugh's fiction has been dealt with in both the cinema and on television in order to see which medium has been more faithful to the spirit of his work.

Two major films have been drawn from Waugh's novels. The Loved One (1965) and Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher (1970).

The Loved One is about Hollywood, the result of Waugh's visit there to negotiate the film rights of Brideshead Revisited. It is fitting, therefore, that Hollywood should want to film it. In 1964 MGM undertook the project, and onlookers conjectured that the film company would get no further with its attempt to film The Loved One than it had with its attempt to adapt Brideshead to the screen. To everyone's surprise Waugh agreed to let the filming proceed.

"He had initially turned The Loved One over to his very good friend Alec Guinness, who was going to star in the film for an independent producer," his late wife Laura has explained to me. "When the latter went bankrupt, however, the script was turned over along with several other properties to MGM, who proceeded with the film."

Guinness then proved unavailable, and when the director, Tony Richardson, announced the extent of the changes he was going to make in The Loved One in order to "update" it, Waugh demanded that the director be replaced. But Waugh's objections came too late and the film went into production according to Richardson's specifications. The "expansion" of the script got decidedly out of hand, admits Terry Southern, one of the collaborators on the screenplay. The first assembly of the footage after principal photography had been completed ran almost five hours and had to be trimmed to two.3 In the course of all of these revisions, Waugh's original story got mislaid, as he had feared it would. "He tried to have his name removed from the screen credits," said Mrs. Waugh, "but it was already too late to do so."

The film of The Loved One opens promisingly enough with Robert Morse as the British poet Dennis Barlow arriving at the Los Angeles airport to visit Sir Francis Hinsley (impeccably played by Sir John Gielgud), one of the colony of Englishmen marooned in Hollywood. The dinner which Sir Francis and his compatriots give for Dennis is humorously staged, with such neat touches as a waiter hastily replacing a picture of Lyndon Johnson with a portrait of the Queen while the exiles solemnly toast their lost homeland.

Later, when Sir Francis' job in the studio publicity department is turned over to a witless in-law of a company executive, the old knight stoically collects his things and is stopped by an imperious secretary who inquires whether the painting he is carrying (and which he painted himself) is studio property. …

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