This afternoon, I sat down and watched the adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, starring Colin Firth and Rebecca Hall. And I’ve never enjoyed a film adaptation of a novel so much in my life. Usually, I tend to rebel against them; I find them slightly abhorrent, and feel as though they potentially corrupt the value of the text itself. And whilst the novel shows some differences, the theme and concept remains completely the same. The essence of the text has been preserved; possibly the mark of some of the very best adaptations.
The adaptation very accurately and rather shockingly portrays the idea of the soul being revealed in a painting, a visual medium; the graphic image of the maggots quite literally eating away at the portrayal of the soul is a repulsive image. As humans, we reject the idea of decay, because we seek to survive and preserve. The brutality of Dorian Gray’s character as a result of impulse as portrayed in the film also represents the concept of excess, an almost epidemic problem in Wilde’s own lifetime. The sexual excesses in which Dorian indulges represents not necessarily the corruption of an entire era, but the effect these excesses have on Dorian. The effect on his psyche is spectacular; his aversion to the idea of multiple partner experiences soon changes to an insatiable appetite for every sexual indulgence possible; from the sadomasochistic, to the bi-sexual.
Decadence appeals to my frugal sense of the self because it is a luxury I lack both as a student, and as a person who works, and who realises the value of money. To be allowed a window into this world of unimaginable excess is therefore highly appealing, and Wilde as an author created small moments of complete, unrestrained indulgence for a reader, with an almost unrivalled level of skill. As a Victorian, he escaped from the restrained morality dictated by Christianity and entered a hitherto unexplored arena, notably examining the right of man to engage in homosexual activity without legal condemnation. Wilde’s trial was less focussed on condemning him for a clearly defined breach of legality; instead, the trial sought to persecute a lifestyle, instead of one element of a person’s possible activities.
The adaptation not only focussed on the destruction of Dorian’s soul, sacrificed on the altar of beauty, but also the influence of Lord Henry, the narcissistic uncle figure who first introduces the young man to the carnal and chemical pleasures of the world has to offer, most strikingly in the first visit to the opium den. The Lord himself dreams of a lifestyle of profound excess, however never quite has the courage to complete the dream; perhaps he has a conscience that is unrealised, and perhaps he cannot fathom exposing his soul to such complete tyranny; for those who harbour superstitions within themselves, it is simply an impossible notion to risk eternal damnation to such a degree as Dorian does. Dorian however lacks one of the fundamental elements of existence, in that he has no boundaries; no real influence telling him where he ought to draw the line, and to this end, he sacrifices his soul on the altar of beauty and physical pleasure.
I would recommend watching the film alongside reading the novel; it certainly brings to light some of the more subtle ideas of the novel and emphasises the value of aesthetic beauty in relation to the soul. Not only is the novel spectacularly on form, the lighting and scene cuts add a great deal of atmosphere to proceedings. I hope you enjoy it!