Waugh’s Unlikely Champions

By John Murphy

Posted 10/1/08 at 6:40 AM


In the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn demonstrates a supple understanding of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—its themes and ambitions. Many have criticized the latest film version of the classic Catholic novel for playing fast-and-loose with the source material, but Mendelsohn is one of the few critics to analyze with depth and clarity (and with reference to the novel’s deep-seated Catholicism) exactly why the new film fails. The reason has less to do with faithfulness to the original story (or lack thereof) than with faithfulness to the original theme (or lack thereof). In Waugh’s own words, Brideshead Revisited was “nothing less than an attempt to trace the working of the divine purpose in a pagan world.” The new film, in stifling the divine, suffocates itself. 

With breathtaking perspicacity, Mendelsohn penetrates to the heart of the matter: the moving figure of Sebastian Flyte, “whose tragic inability to make a meaningful life for himself, tormented as he is by the conflict between his desire and his faith—represented by the person of his mother, the quietly imperious Lady Marchmain, a woman who cannot see that her desire to control her family’s happiness competes with God’s own plan for them—is the heart of the book.”

Lady Marchmain’s curious brand of cruelty (or tragedy—she’s not a villainess so much as a woman who but “slenderly knows herself” to paraphrase King Lear), is an essential ingredient of Waugh’s theme: God’s infinite grace. Lady Marchmain is the most outwardly pious Catholic of all the characters in the novel, and yet she poisons everything she touches. How to account for this? Mendelson refers to the faithful 1981 miniseries adaptation of the novel: “One of the achievements of Claire Bloom’s masterful portrayal of this strange figure in the miniseries was that it evoked the delicate complexities of a character whose only sin—a great one, to be sure—was to compete with God.”

Mendelsohn’s insightful reading of the novel casts the film’s failures in stark relief. But where will you find the truest testament to the new film’s failure? Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great: How Religions Poisons Everything) writing for the Guardian on the new film adaptation: “I do not consider myself a sympathiser with Roman Catholicism, but this film seems motivated by the cheaper sort of malice against it…”