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ArtsWhen Hollywood goes to Waugh

When Hollywood goes to Waugh

In the run up to this year’s ‘From Page to Screen’ Film Festival Ines Cavill has been speaking to Alexander Waugh about his grandfather Evelyn’s relationship with film.

‘His strongest tastes were negative.  He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz—anything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.’ ‘The Ordeals of Gilbert Pinfold’ by Evelyn Waugh 1957.

Might film have also been added to that list of hates by Waugh? Not according to his grandson, Alexander, who says cinema was more adored than abhorred by his grandfather. Alexander has inherited the writing gene passed from Evelyn to his ‘Papa’ Auberon. When his father died Alex wrote a family autobiography Fathers and Sons (2004) and he has since edited the 42 volume Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh (Oxford University Press) that include diaries detailing this lifelong love of the cinema. Alexander says “Probably his most remarkable outing was to see the Third Man with Graham Greene in Stroud in 1949. The 1920s were the peak of his film obsession when he had a twice daily habit,  he was cross when the talkies came in—he felt the art form was diminished with the end of silent movies—but he still went to the cinema every week till his dying day.”

In his later years Evelyn Waugh would cultivate a public persona as an old-fashioned and snobbish fogey that belies this love of film and his own early creative innovativeness. As Alexander describes it “in the 1930s he was a figurehead of the younger generation. He stood for all that was fast, brash, witty and loud, but after the war he transformed himself into an old-fashioned clown not unlike his father. He wore outmoded and outlandish suits and hats, insisted on changing for dinner, surrounded himself with Victorian furniture and bric-a-brac and, like his father, appeared to the world as an arcane eccentric from a Victorian novel.”

Vile Bodies (1930) was Waugh’s second and most modern novel. Heavily influenced by cinema it features fragmented speech, rapid scene changes and most of the dialogue takes place on the telephone (its modernist credentials would even continue to be cemented by David Bowie when he gave it credit for influencing the composition of the song ‘Aladdin Sane’). In turn Waugh’s sharp dialogue and gripping storytelling have always attracted filmmakers—in 2003 Stephen Fry would adapt Vile Bodies into a film using the book’s original title of ‘Bright Young Things’.

Alexander says his grandfather wrote with a filmic sensibility, with that critical intention to “show, not tell”.

Evelyn Waugh would also be drawn in return to the film world, but most often he was frustrated by the results, as Alexander understands it “there was a financial adavantage to film but he wanted control, he didn’t want the dialogue to be replaced or invented”. In 1947 Waugh went to Hollywood’s “Californian savages” to look over MGM’s proposal to adapt his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited. He wrote at the time “I should not think six Americans will understand it” though he enjoyed meeting Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney (“the two artists of the place”).

Memos released from that period reveal his engagement with film structure “..there must be an impediment to the marriage of Julia and Charles (in order to avoid) a banal Hollywood ending. I regard it as essential that after having led a life of sin Julia should not be immediately rewarded with conventional happiness. She has a great debt to pay and we are left with her paying it”.

But the project collapsed with MGM daunted by directions such as “The themes are is the first time that an attempt will have been made to introduce them to the screen, and they are antithetical to much of the current philosophy of Hollywood”.

Brideshead would wait till 1981 for its first screen incarnation.

“Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY” (author’s note from Decline and Fall 1928).

Waugh’s descendants wholly approved of that 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited partly because it had the scope to reflect the comic elements of the original book.  “We all liked the Granada series because it managed to retain the humour of the book, its essence of fun and laughter” says Alexander. A multi-part series could do this and the epic story was extended from six parts to eleven by up-and-coming director Charles Sturbridge (notably juggling his star Jeremy Irons’ simultaneous shoot in Lyme Regis for The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Brideshead would win best drama series awards from BAFTA, the Emmys, the Golden Globes and is still hailed as one of the greatest television drama series ever made—it was placed second in the Guardian’s recent top 50. Brideshead was a forerunner of the modern era of box sets and highest quality small screen drama—would Waugh have embraced their capacity to retain variety of tone, characters and dialogue? Importantly for Alexander the series overcame what he believes is a central problem for adapting Waugh’s work: “The prose is beautiful but you are often looking at the world through one person’s eyes which works on the page but not screen—there that character can seem strangely detached. The skill in adaptation is to make all the main characters central not just one”.

Although no immediate film resulted from that original post-war trip to Hollywood it did enable Waugh to create the novel The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948), inspired by a fascinating tour of a cemetery. “I found a deep mine of literary gold in Forest Lawn and the work of the morticians and intend to get to work immediately on a novelette staged there.” The result was a dark comedy about the Los Angeles funeral business, British expatriate community and film industry that would be adapted for the cinema in his lifetime.

According to Alexander this would be Evelyn’s last and worst experience of the adaptation of his work for screen. The satirical film was released in 1965 by MGM, its poster screaming: ‘The Motion Picture with something to offend everyone!’. Waugh refused to see it, more thwarted than offended—“he had originally sold the rights to Luis Bunuel who wrote a brilliant script and was going to make it with Alec Guinness”.

A greater shame then that he did not live to see Charles Sturridge’s big screen adaptation of A Handful of Dust (1988), Alexander holds it up as “the best Waugh adaptation, an excellent film and beautifully done”.

The Loved One and A Handful of Dust will be screened at the Bridport Arts Centre at 2pm and 5pm on Sunday April 3, one week before the 50th anniversary of Evelyn Waugh’s death.

Alexander is bringing related archive materials to the event and will be in conversation after the second screening with the festival curator, Charles Sturridge.

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