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I remember when I first read Brideshead Revisited during college. Beyond Evelyn Waugh's great wit and penetrating satirical voice, what struck me most was how well his portrayal of aristocratic Oxford student Sebastian Flyte and his social circle applied to many of my own acquaintances. How well, in fact, it applied to myself.
Many of us-raised by believing parents, attending church every Sunday until we went away to school-straddled the same line. On the one hand ambitious to fit into a world we could never fully feel reconciled with, on the other possessing too much knowledge of the truth to risk our souls by abandoning it.
Eventually some of us closed the door on the still, small voice completely and became like Sebastian's friend (and Brideshead narrator), Charles Ryder-cynically and scornfully atheist. Others, like Sebastian's beautiful and more self-controlled sister Julia, continued on in a sort of half-life, willfully remaining in the spiritual shallows. And others, like Sebastian, were finally, mercifully broken by sin, with no strength left but to crawl to the cross.
Human motivations, frailties, and needs don't change. So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised by the degree to which the perceptions and choices of characters crafted in 1945 could intersect with my own. What surprises me now is how little those same characters intersect with their new big screen incarnations.
Director Julian Jarrold and screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock seem to have no idea how to interpret their source material. With (apparently) no eyes to see the spiritual truths Waugh conveyed, they have turned Brideshead into postmodern melodrama. Instead of a charming, decadent, tragically hip Sebastian, they give us in actor Ben Wishaw a trembling (and frankly dull) homosexual stereotype. While it's possible one could read between Waugh's words and infer that Sebastian indulged in same-sex encounters with Charles (Matthew Goode), it is not possible (unless, it seems, you are a Hollywood filmmaker) to deduce that such indulgences were the defining feature of their friendship.
The flouncing, clingy Sebastian of the movie (rated PG-13 for sexual situations) doesn't struggle with his inner demons so much as he struggles with his sister Julia (Haley Atwell) in a sordid triangle for Charles' affection. For her part, Julia has been reduced to someone almost unrecognizable. Always something of an inscrutable figure, Waugh's Julia used carnal love to escape her conscience as much as Sebastian did drink. But instead of faithfully depicting her decision to marry a vulgar Canadian businessman as the first of Julia's romantic rebellions (in the book her family refuses to attend their nuptials), the film has her wedding him out of familial duty.
And this brings us to the heart of the movie's failings: Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). While certainly a flawed character in the novel, she is hardly its villain. The villain of the book is sin; it's hero, grace. Conversely, the villain of the movie is religious devotion as exemplified by Lady Marchmain. It is because she is so devoted to Christ, the film tells us, that her son becomes an alcoholic. And it is because she has heaped so many fundamentalist restrictions on her children that her daughter cannot give herself freely to the happiness waiting in Charles' arms. In Miramax's reinvention, it isn't the law that Julia and Sebastian break themselves against, it's their mother.
The film returns somewhat to the novel in end, but by then, the action no longer makes sense-at least not in the way Waugh intended. In a memo to the studio that first bought the rights to Brideshead, Waugh wrote, "The novel deals with what is theologically termed, 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself." It couldn't be more clear that Miramax either didn't get or didn't understand that note.