The working title of Evelyn Waugh’s second novel, Vile Bodies, was Bright Young Things. I suspect the change in the novel’s tone had something to do with the swap. Midway through writing it, Waugh’s first wife confessed an infidelity to him, the marriage was soon over, and what had started out as a light satire in the vein of his first book, Decline and Fall, became something with a much sharper edge.
It is fitting, then, that Stephen Fry chose Bright Young Things as the title for his big-screen adaptation of the novel: the movie is Waugh light, the comedy without the underlying tragedy. The film played at Filmfest DC last month; it should be released in the rest of the country this summer.
The movie opens with Benny Goodman’s rousing jazz standard, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Fancily dressed men and women are pouring into a party swimming with champagne. They dance, outrageously. The camera moves quickly, as it does throughout the party scenes, giving a sense of dizziness to the wild proceedings. Ah, the jazz age.
The novel was written in 1930, but the action has moved forward to end with World War II. Waugh had so presciently predicted that war in his novel, and it is one of those geniuses often lost in translations from page to screen.
The story follows the adventures of novelist-hopeful Adam Fenwick-Symes, his on-again, off-again fiancée, Nina Blount, and other Bright Young Things as they drink and dance their way through life. With verve, of course. They even have their own language–”How shy-making, darling!” “That was too, too shaming.”
Adam and Nina get engaged and disengaged depending on his fortunes, which change wildly. He wins a thousand pounds in a gamble. Then he loses it to a drunk Major. Then he spots the drunk Major, who promises him his fortune. Then the drunk Major disappears again. Then the drunk Major doesn’t recognize him when Adam finds him again.
Bright Young Things is the first directorial effort from British comedian, novelist, actor (Jeeves!), and Renaissance man Stephen Fry. In some cases, Fry’s light touch is perfect. There are little things he adds–the Customs official, as in the novel, lets Adam keep his dictionary but, unlike in the novel, keeps a page–that seems more Waughian than Waugh himself. He puts hilarious words to the American evangelist Mrs. Ape’s song, “There Ain’t No Flies on the Lamb of God.” (“Jesus, you’re the champ!”)
Nothing uncomplimentary can be said of the acting. Emily Mortimer, daughter of John Mortimer, who wrote the sublime television adaptation of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is a beautiful, bored Miss Blount. Fenella Woolgar is particularly good as Agatha Runcible–she’s a younger version of the Irish actress Fiona Shaw, and looks straight out of the 1920s or ’30s.
The cameos are also fun. Peter O’Toole is wonderful as the “eccentric” Colonel, Nina’s father–why did Fry cut almost all of his scenes? But it is Jim Broadbent who steals the show. Broadbent, with his singular face, was born to play a character in a Waugh adaptation, and his drunk Major is quite laugh-making.
For a novel to fit into a two-hour movie, of course deletions must be made. I won’t quibble about any of those here. But Fry also makes additions. For example, he includes much drug use and homosexual hijinks, barely mentioned in the book. Perhaps heavy drinking, promiscuous sex, and wild parties at the Prime Minister’s residence wouldn’t seem shocking enough to today’s audience.
But despite the inclusion of even more troublemaking, the novel’s bleakness isn’t present in the glittering film. The book’s final chapter is titled “Happy Ending.” Yet it is anything but. Adam does get something he has spent the book chasing. But it is too late. The world is an entirely different place now, and Adam has proven unprepared.
The end of the movie finally does let some darkness into the light. Reality comes into stark contrast with the sparkling yet artificial world of the Bright Young Things. Agatha goes mad, some others meet sad ends, and Adam goes off to war. But the happy ending here is literal, and all ends well for our lovers. I suppose even the British aren’t immune to Hollywood’s rules anymore.
Perhaps the problem is that a film requires, on the whole, sympathetic protagonists. Adam and Nina are certainly fun and likeable. But Adam really doesn’t deserve Nina in the end. He’s rather feckless and purposeless, a man who drifts where life takes him. Sure, he endures many misfortunes, many of them not his fault. But he hasn’t properly fought for Nina. Or anything else. Like the rest of his generation, he has thought only of the moment and that moment’s pleasure. They have lost their faith–and so what reason is there to do anything that has permanence?
As Agatha Runcible, pretty much batty after crashing someone else’s race car off the course while sloshed, puts it:
D’you know, all that time when I was dotty I had the most awful dreams. I thought we were all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop, and there was an enormous audience composed entirely of gossip writers and gate crashers and Archie Schwert and people like that, all shouting at us at once to go faster, and car after car kept crashing until I was left all alone driving and driving–and then I used to crash and wake up.
This speech is moving in both book and movie. It took a nervous breakdown for Agatha, perhaps the brightest of the Bright Young Things, to grasp her fate. Or perhaps the realization is what finally pushed her over the edge.
It’s a sobering moment. And so despite its faults, Bright Young Things is at once a witty and almost wise look at the perpetual pursuit of pleasure.
Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire