04 January 2011

Movie Adaptations: Brideshead Revisited

By Anna C. Bowling

For me, below is not a photograph of Castle Howard. This is and forever more will be, Brideshead, physical home of the Flyte family and spiritual home of one Charles Ryder, pulled back always by a twitch upon the thread, no matter where he might be in the physical world.


This entry refers to the 1981 Granada miniseries adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel, starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick. I didn't catch it the first time out, which was on PBS for those of us in the USA, but a few years back, I was in the library and there it was on the library shelf. As I've always had a soft spot for British between-the-wars stories, and was in desperate need of a meaty period drama, I checked it out and popped the first disk into my laptop the very first second I could.

So began several days of spending every spare minute rolling around in the sumptuous feast of characters, setting, zeitgeist, and words. I sought out the book shortly thereafter, and I count myself a conscientious objector to the 2008 movie version. Sorry, Emma Thompson. Why? Apart from a brunet Sebastian being out of the question thanks to Anthony Andrews' iconic performance, I had read several reviews of the new version and came to the conclusion that it would be leaving out too much.

The story opens in the midst of WWII, when stiff-upper-lipped Charles Ryder, a British military officer, takes his men to an undisclosed location where they will be housed for the foreseeable future. After a mustard gas drill on a train, Charles, weary in body and soul, arrives at the secret place, only to have its very familiarity strike him harder than any enemy's blow. Oh yes, he knows this place. Brideshead, a once great house, now fallen on hard times, is where he must continue to carry on. Through Charles, the viewer is yanked back through the years, to when Charles made his first tie to Brideshead, meeting the charming, beautiful, and ultimately doomed Sebastian Flyte, younger son of the house, when both were at university.

This is an epic in the truest sense of the word, and as with many of my favorite stories, is a love story on several different levels. Between Charles and Sebastian? Well, yes, and one may argue whether the love was platonic or romantic or sexual or some combination of all three, but that's not the whole story. Between Charles and Sebastian's sister, Julia? Well, yes, and star-crossed lovers indeed they seem, but that's not the whole story either. Between Charles and the Flytes, the aristocratic family who symbolize the ages old grandeur that seemed to be beating a hasty retreat after the Great War (and before and during WWII, as the story progresses); a world which Charles has seen only from the outside? Well, yes, and there the story has its heart and its substance, but it's more than that as well. The Flytes are Catholic, Charles an atheist, yet another difference between himself and this other world, and the spiritual is a strong but subtle thread throughout this tale.

Viewers will identify with Charles, a young man who takes this home-not-his-own and bonds with it. There he indulges his passions; whether for Sebastian, for Julia, for a class he was never born to, for a world rapidly vanishing, for his own artistic leanings. In this last, he leaves his literal mark, painting murals on the walls of the great house, a touchstone to prove he was there...and how much the world and the house have changed in his absence when he returns, mature and battle-scarred.

Through Charles, we see Brideshead as it was, in vivid contrast to the way it is, as his memories takes us from the indulgent days of youth to the hard-learned experiences of life, all bringing him back to where his journey started. Brideshead itself is a character, from Charles' murals to the grand fountain, and I will readily admit to actually crying when I saw what had happened to both in his absence. I will admit as well to being bolstered that Hawkins, Sebastian and Julia's old nanny, was still alive and still in residence, always a thread connecting present to past, always there to bolster and point a way through days to come.

I fell in love with Brideshead, the story and the house, the same time Charles did, rounding a bend in the road and there it rose before him, all the splendor his heart had yearned for his entire life. Part of me wants to jump in there and find a between the wars story of my own, and if one does come, I won't turn it away. That last gasp of grandeur, that balancing on the ledge between the world that was and the world that would be speak to me, Brideshead, both house and story standing as symbol.


Have any fictional houses become a home of sorts for you? What movie or miniseries has tempted you to try writing in a period you hadn't tried before?

Writing historical romances allows Anna C. Bowling to travel through time on a daily basis and make the voices in her head pay rent. Her current release, ORPHANS IN THE STORM, is available from Awe-Struck E-books.

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