Brideshead Revised

By John Murphy

Posted 9/17/08 at 2:24 PM

Nearly every review of the new film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited has referenced the landmark 1981 miniseries produced for British television starring Jeremy Irons, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, and Laurence Olivier. With good reason: the 11-hour adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel is an obvious entry into the canon of Modern Classics, with its stellar cast, lyrical script, and sumptuous locations, setting a very high water mark for any future page-to-screen Waugh adaptations. The recent movie remake boasts a few powerhouses of its own, including Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon as the heads of the wealthy Roman-Catholic family, the Marchmains, for example, but the critical consensus among top critics is as follows: if you have a couple of weeks, read the book; if you have a couple of days, watch the miniseries; if you have only a few hours…well, maybe start the book?
Ever the contrarian, Anthony Gottlieb of Intelligent Life is arguing in favor of the new movie’s liberties with the source material—playing up the homosexual subtext, playing down the Catholic context. Not content to argue that the changes to the book help streamline and clarify the film, Gottlieb argues that the new film is actually better in some ways than the book… mostly because the changes bring the film closer in line with Gottlieb’s own beliefs. For example, one major character doesn’t end up converting to Catholicism in the film, which in the book (and the faithful miniseries) was a plot point essential to Waugh’s theme: God’s infinite grace operating mysteriously in human lives. For Gottlieb, this happens in the book without ‘rhyme or reason’ and such a deus ex machina (the conversion experience) is ‘the antithesis of literary craft.’ He completely misses how Waugh’s subtle portrayal of religious faith is informed by his acute sense of the fallen human condition: those who appear most pious may be the novel’s gravest sinners, while those who appear most fallen (from a worldly point-of-view), may be the novel’s greatest saints. And those who don’t seek or want God’s grace may prove the rather stunned recipients of it.