Dorian and I? We Had a Fantastic Afternoon…

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.

Dorian's first visit to the Opium Den. (1)

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!




17 thoughts on “Dorian and I? We Had a Fantastic Afternoon…

  1. Interesting insight. There are so many layers to this novel even if the theme is striking and obvious.

    Have you seen the modern version (release about three years ago)? It feels very modern but honours the source text at the same time. It was far better than I expected it to be.

  2. Somehow completely missed this film! Thanks for the heads up. Only read the book a couple of years ago, and found it much richer than expected. still the odd moment of Wilde wit, despite the storyline.

  3. It’s a rare thing when a good book makes a good film. The old Hollywood maxim is: good books often make bad movies and bad books often good movies.

    But if I remember, the book also deals with the nature of immortality, that you can only value life, give it meaning, if you are going to die in the natural way. But I did read it about twenty years ago.

    • Certainly true, however while the film deviates, it captures the nature of the destroyed soul as opposed to the nature of immortality in it’s ending. Thanks for reading!

  4. There is a long discussion to be had about the differences between the language of film and the language of books. They communicate in different ways. Sartre’s idea of the glue, the dialectic the reader has with the writer, to not get so involved that you lose your critical perspective but also to not remain too distant as to not allow the writer the chance to convey what he or she is really trying to say. That considered, the thing about books, according to Iris Murdoch in her book on Sartre, is that they give the illusion of being able to track the thoughts of the writer. The cadences and rhythms suggest the inner workings of the writer’s mind, about as close as you can ever get to feeling you are in step with another mind. (One of the reasons the current trend of so-called literature to do away with narrative voice is so saddening.) In film the inner workings of mind can only be represented, alluded to using representations, visual metaphors, tricks and cuts. Making them two entirely different experiences. I believe there is also a theory which looks at the nature of memory and perception, how people experience the world and that it’s the same or at least a similar idea to the fractured nature of film– which is why film makes narrative sense. If we didn’t experience the world in a fractured way, film would not make sense to us. Essentially, we create a working narrative out of fractured episodes of daily life, a trick of the mind which allows us to make sense of film.

    • Ah yes. Satre’s glue is a fantastic theory. I’m not familiar with Iris Murdoch however I will having a look at the book you suggested, thank you! The idea of the de-centred universe leads to the fractured nature of the world, in which nothing is absolute. The lack of absolution is seemingly something that we have accepted in the modern world; therefore every fractured element of our lives means something different when considered alongside a different fractured element. They combine to form very different ideas in relation to each other. In this way, a film uses common experiences to relate to a cultural code that we tend to understand as western viewers. The use of a cultural code is therefore an illusion; a trick of the mind.

  5. The mind is full of tricks and yet we trust in simplicity, believe our reactions are based on a comprehensive understanding. This is life as the text.

    Iris Murdoch’s first novel UNDER THE NET is about being under the net of language, which she calls a sick science that requires curing as we go. He book on Sartre was actually a thesis, published before she left Oxford. Later she was a don of philosophy at Oxford. Some feel her books were mired by her use of stock characters from academic life and that she was more of a pop-existentialist, exploiting the ideas to create her novels, rather than offering an weighty contribution to philosophy. I only made it a few chapters into METAPHYSICS AS A GUIDE TO MORALS but her THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOOD is certainly worth a read.

    I think she once called herself “a male homosexual trapped in a woman’s body”.

  6. Pingback: Dorian Gray in your own barrio (village) | YLBnoel's Blog

  7. Pingback: It’s Nice to Meet You, Mr. Hyde | The Adventures of an English Student

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