Julian Jarrold’s film version of Evelyn Waugh’s 2008 novel Brideshead Revisited with Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder, Ben Whishaw as Lord Sebastian Flyte, Hayley Atwell as Lady Julia Flyte

Brideshead Revisited, 2008

Don’t judge a book by its cover or a film by its blurb is a pretty good rule of thumb. And of course don’t criticise a piece of art such as a film or TV show unless you’ve watched it is another. Critics are always under pressure to put their opinions into words with deadlines looming – and they need to entertain or engage as well so it is often tempting to take a short cut and plump for an easy line. Like for instance, ‘this films isn’t as good as the novel’ or ‘ this film isn’t as good as the original film.’

The BBC have been screening Julian Jarrold’s film version of Evelyn Waugh’s 2008 novel Brideshead Revisited this week. Looking back at what the critics made of it at the time is interesting in the way they tended not to look at the film in its own right but to compare it unfavourably with the 1945 novel. And somewhat unfairly to judge it alongside the 11-part miniseries by Granada Television in 1981 which like the novel is a different creation.

Charles Sturridge’s 1981 version for Granada television featured Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte and Diana Quick as Julia Flyte

Chicago Sun critic Robert Ebert saw it as ‘not the equal of the TV production,’ describing it as a ‘sound example of the British period drama; mid-range Merchant-Ivory, you could say.’ The guardian’s Peter Bradshaw even questioned the point of making the film. He said: “Why revisit it? There is something pretty superfluous about this handsome-looking, workmanlike but fundamentally uninspired and obtuse adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s resplendent 1945 novel. It offers no compelling reasons for a screen revival, and the look and feel are nakedly derived from Charles Sturridge’s tremendous 1981 version for Granada television, right down to using Castle Howard once again for the eponymous country house.”

The Telegraph’s Nicole Martin agreed saying the movie had been ‘slammed by critics’ having all the potential ‘ingredients of a hit movie’ but had ‘upset fans in the UK by straying from the plot of Waugh’s 1945 novel.’ The Washington Post said that it ‘does not hold up the integrity of the book’ while The New York Times labelled it ‘a lazy, complacent film which takes the novel’s name in vain.’

The point is no film can completely reflect a novel in its entirety but it can capture some of the spirit and tone. A director and screen writer are quiet at liberty to interpret a novel as they wish as film making is a different art with its visual storytelling and ability to create mood through light and sound. And to compare a film of two hours to a TV series of 15 episodes is ridiculous. The novel is succinct and poignant in its own right as it looked back from the perspective of war damaged Britain to a golden era for rich kids at University in the 1930s.

Equally the Granada series was perfect in its own way and for its own time. In the early 1980s in the depth of a recession there was something wonderfully fantastic to look back to a time when servants wore uniforms and opened doors for beautiful aristocrats and champagne flowed at summer long picnics. Both a kind of fantasy as Waugh revealed in his charting the changes in British social life along with his reoccurring theme of theological guilt, faith and inner conflict in Roman Catholicism.

Showing briefly of BBC i-player the 2008 film with screenplay by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies starring Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder, Ben Whishaw as Lord Sebastian Flyte, Hayley Atwell as Lady Julia Flyte, the drama is punchier and sharper than the longer Granada series and condenses the book’s events as much as possible and retains the humour and wry wit of the novel.

Harry Mottram

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