“Brideshead Revisited”: should we stay or should we go?

The trailer is now out for the upcoming big-screen adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited. Set in England in the period between the first and second world wars, Brideshead chronicles the attachment of Charles Ryder to a glamorous, aristocratic Catholic family: first the son, Sebastian Flyte, whom he meets as an undergraduate at Oxford, and then Sebastian’s sister, Julia.


The film will be out in the States on limited release from July 25, and in the U.K. October 3. The trailer leaves me very torn over the question: will I go and see the film?

Let’s start with the good things about the trailer: The film features three women whom I am always very happy to see on either the big or the small screen. Emma Thompson stars as Lady Marchmain, the elegant and subtly controlling mother of Sebastian and Julia.

The beautiful young actress Hayley Atwell (whom I have admired before on this site) will get her first significant big-screen exposure in the States as Julia Flyte.

Back in March I blogged about a report that Atwell had been asked by Miramax to lose weight for this role – to the complete disgust of Emma Thompson, who promptly insisted that Miramax take back the request. Judging from the trailer, it’s nice to see that Atwell was indeed allowed to keep her healthy figure.

The pretty 24-year-old British actress Felicity Jones will also appear as Julia’s younger sister, Cordelia Flyte. I don’t think Jones is well-known in the States, but some viewers might have seen her last year in Meadowlands on Showtime, or as lead character Catherine Morland in the recent PBS screening of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

So, those are the good things. But when it comes to the things I dislike about the trailer, there’s … well, everything else. No doubt part of the problem is that I’m still completely wedded to the acclaimed 1981 mini-series adaptation of Brideshead, starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews as Charles and Sebastian, and Diana Quick as Julia Flyte.

The mini-series was 11 hours long, meaning that it was able to be almost word-for-word faithful to the book – capturing all of Waugh’s wit and eccentric style. I understand that things need to be telescoped for a two-hour film adaptation, but it still bugs the hell out of me that screenwriter Andrew Davies (who also adapted Tipping the Velvet for the BBC) has apparently replaced Waugh’s perfect, stylized dialogue with his own soapy-sounding sentences. He also seems to have added some very soapy plot points that weren’t in the original book: Charles is only interested in Julia because he wants her house and fabulous lifestyle? Sounds more like Dynasty than Brideshead.

Perhaps the thing that bugs me the most, though, is the treatment of the Charles-Sebastian-Julia triangle. In the book and in the mini-series, it’s never really a triangle at all. Charles forms a very close (and, many have speculated, a homosexual) bond with Sebastian at Oxford, and stays close to him for several years.

It’s Sebastian’s increasing alcoholism that drives them apart. When Charles finally does get involved with Julia, it’s many years later, and only after they have each been through unhappy marriages to other people.

In this new adaptation, it seems as if Sebastian will be more unambiguously gay than he was in either the novel or the mini-series. But his long relationship with Charles will be curtailed and played down in order to concentrate on the relationship between Charles and Julia. So what do we get? Another heterosexual romance with a lonely, unrequited, unfulfilled gay character hovering around the edges. Thanks a lot, Hollywood.

Am I being too bitter? Do I need to get over my attachment to the mini-series and just accept that this is a new and different adaptation? Does the trailer appeal to you?