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Movies based on Waugh novels revisited

“All is loud, obvious and prosaic,” Evelyn Waugh lamented in a 1947 article about Hollywood. The main problem with film adaptations of Waugh's novels is that they're usually hushed, obvious and overdecorated.

Waugh (1903-1966) was the greatest English comic novelist of the last century. Several of his books have been brought to the screen, in either film or television versions. The most celebrated is the 11-hour “Brideshead Revisited” that public television viewers found so overwhelming (in both senses of the word) in 1981. The most bizarre is Tony Richardson's 1965 movie of “The Loved One.” How bizarre? The cast includes John Gielgud, Tab Hunter, Milton Berle and Liberace. Hushed it is not.

The latest Waugh to come to the screen is a new film version of “Brideshead.” Clocking in at a mere two hours and 15 minutes, it opens Friday. Heading the cast are young British actors Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder, Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte and Hayley Atwell as Sebastian's sister Julia.

Such a (relatively) brief running time raises hopes that for once Waugh's crisp literary character will transfer to the screen.

The essence of Waugh is his economy of style. “It is the cinema which has taught a new habit of narrative,” Waugh wrote in 1948. Like Hemingway, he learned from the movies the value of the camera-eye view: the description that takes in without belaboring.

What makes the books so acidly sharp is a simple equation: The more outlandish the situation or personage, the more precise and lucid the writing.

‘The Scarlet Woman'

Waugh's experience of the movies was highly mixed. At Oxford, he produced, wrote and acted in an undergraduate film, “The Scarlet Woman,” and acted in two others. He also wrote film reviews for the university literary magazine.

MGM had Waugh on retainer during World War II, which meant that the studio held an option on “Brideshead” when it became an unexpected best-seller in 1945. Waugh, however, saw to it that nothing happened – with some not-inconsequential help from the Hays Office, the Motion Picture Association of America's censorship operation.

Eager to finalize a deal, MGM brought Waugh to Hollywood in 1947. What ensued was a comic cultural clash worthy of his novels. In a letter to their mother, Alec Waugh described his brother's arrival in Pasadena: “The sun was shining, tropical flowers were in bloom, all the young people were dressed in shorts and slacks and open shirts, and there was Evelyn in a stiff white collar and a bowler hat, carrying a rolled umbrella.”

Waugh quickly realized that his unwillingness to let the studio tamper with “Brideshead” – more specifically, the affair between Charles and Julia (forget about the unspoken affair between Charles and Sebastian) – made it unfilmable. “Americans are devoted to conceptions of innocence which have no relation to life,” Waugh later wrote. Where he saw theology dominating “Brideshead,” the Hays Office saw adultery.

That impasse didn't keep Waugh from enjoying a splendid stay. He took tea with Anna May Wong, a favorite actress from his undergraduate days. He visited both Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney (“the two artists of the place”) and generally marveled that, as he later put it, “no one in Hollywood considers the possibility of growing up.”

Outsider status

Waugh's Hollywood sojourn exemplifies the problem with movie adaptations of his work. Without exception, Waugh's heroes are outsiders – as he was in California.

The Waugh adaptations all plant themselves firmly on the inside, reveling in the dense social knowingness that comes of membership in an Oxford college, Pall Mall men's club or aristocratic family. Ultimately, Waugh's books are about a search for redemption. Waugh adaptations are about decor.

That isn't to say they don't have their moments. “The Loved One” is one of the few movies ever to tap into the bewildered frenzy of Jonathan Winters – in dual roles, no less, as brothers who run cemeteries. Unfortunately, Winters' presence is more than canceled out by Robert Morse playing the film's English hero.

Denholm Elliott's Mr. Salter, foreign editor of The Daily Beast, has just the right blend of weariness and unction putting up with the whims of Lord Copper (Donald Pleasance) in the 1987 English TV adaptation of “Scoop.” James Wilby, as Tony Last, looks a bit like the young Waugh in “A Handful of Dust” (1988), a nice touch of casting for an intensely autobiographical role. Alec Guinness, as Mr. Todd, manages to make his character as amiably monstrous as he is in the novel, no small feat.

Of course, those successes make all the more disappointing “Bright Young Things,” the 2003 movie version of “Vile Bodies” that Stephen Fry wrote and directed. It has its rewards, most memorable among them Sir John Mills having a first, unexpected sniff of cocaine, and anything involving Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Runcible.

It's hard to say which is more Waughian: the blitheness of Woolgar's performance or the bizarreness of her name.

A film studio, Waugh wrote in that 1947 article, is a “vast, enchanted toyshop.” Fenella Woolgar would be a worthy name for its proprietress.