The Tuesday Zone: Adapting the Classics and the Delight of Oscar Wilde


The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)

Plot:  Two men, Jack (Colin Firth) and Algernon (Rupert Everett), pretend to be named Ernest in order to impress two ladies named Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor) and Cecily (Reese Witherspoon).  Meanwhile, Judi Dench plays Judi Dench, a disapproving, proper English lady (Queen Lady M. Brackbourg de Fairlli, or something).

I really won’t bother to go much into the story because, well, chances are at least a few of you had to read this Oscar Wilde play at some point.  If you have, then I am sure you know it is absolutely delightful.  If you haven’t, well, you should.  If you just can’t be bothered to read the play, then I would say you should at least see this movie.  It works both as a damn good translation of the material to film, and as an adaptation.

For those of you totally unfamiliar with Mr. Wilde, the Victorian English badass, he wrote plays and novellas that often criticized rigid Victorian society.  With The Importance of Being Earnest, he does that by making a cast of characters who are utterly ridiculous, saying and doing utterly ridiculous things.  He uses puns, double entendres, nonsense, and other over-the-top, humorous techniques to make broad statements with ultimately little meaning, and the result lets us chuckle quite heartily.  It’s both ridiculous and yet very smart; as Wilde himself said, “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

This movie, in my opinion, does a really good job of portraying that.  You know how earlier in this review I said that it works as a translation and adaptation?  The way that a movie takes what’s happening in the book and literally portrays it on the screen bespeaks how well it translates the material.  Oliver Parker, the director, clearly knows the play and what makes it work.  While the performances are perhaps a bit, erm, melodramatic, I think that they ultimately show the characters really well and hit all the right notes in the humor.  Judi Dench, in particular, nails every line.  The style of a Comedy of Manners is matched perfectly.

But what I find more interesting is how it works as an adaptation.  The difference between that and a translation is that an adaptation takes the format it works in and utilizes its unique aspects.  I discussed this a bit with my review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but the gist of the idea is that a film director who adapts a book doesn’t just show the plot and portray the scenes, but also does things that only movies can.  This usually has to do with visuals, or cinematography, and The Importance of Being Earnest really takes advantage of the possibilities opened up to it.

I knew I wasn't the only one that thought the play needed a scene where Cecily is stabbed by a knight.

Miramax Films
I wasn’t the only one that thought the play needed a scene where Cecily is stabbed by a knight.

A play as written can only give us the dialogue.  While Wilde does a really good job of setting the scenes with the words of characters, there are still a lot of open possibilities in terms of what’s actually going on.  When someone stages the play, for that matter, there are still limitations of visual focus (people will usually be looking at a whole stage) and the number of different locations.  Parker has the characters moving between places often, adding to their fast-paced natures.

If I were Colin Firth, then I'd be vain too.

Miramax Films
If I were Colin Firth, then I’d be vain too.

Moreover, he uses visual focus to illuminate character, such as Colin Firth’s constant self-checks in the mirror.  Several times, we see Jack through mirrors instead of directly, which both shows his vanity and his duplicitous nature.  The director also incorporates fantasy sequences, which are Cecily’s daydreams of a knight coming to save her.  Not only does this show her lack of grounding in reality, but the visual style is reminiscent of Victorian art.  The director makes some changes to the play, but only ones that enhance the ideas of the text instead of detracting from them.  This is what makes it not just a translation, but an actual adaptation.

Adapting a classic text is hard because the product will always be compared to the original.  Usually people demand fidelity to the original material, but I think that translating everything literally to the screen misses the point of an adaptation: if a director (or writer, cinematographer, whoever) makes changes that still reflect or further illuminate the original text, then they are not changing the material but adding to it.  The Importance of Being Earnest does this quite well, and for that reason it’s both a fun movie on its own right and a good adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play.

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