Having finally gotten to see the movie I was most anticipating for 2009, the most recent film version of my favorite novel, and because I’ll take any opportunity I can get to discuss Dorian Gray in any way, shape, or form, I thought I’d take some blog space to look at the two most well-known attempts to turn Oscar Wilde’s only novel into a cinematic experience. Obviously, spoilers abound, both for the novel and the specific films.
I’ll be looking at what I consider key elements in telling of the story of Dorian Gray, which include: Sybil’s Fall, Dorian’s Arc, Hedonism, The Portrait, Lord Henry as the Devil, and the Opportunity for Salvation.
Writer/Director: Albert Lewin
Dorian: Hurd Hatfield
Lord Henry: George Sanders
Basil: Lowell Gilmore
Sybil: Angela Lansbury
3rd Act Love Interest: Donna Reed (as Gladys Hallward)
Sybil’s Fall: Taken by her beauty and her voice (in this version, Sybil is a chanteuse rather than a Shakespearean actress), Dorian is enthralled by this first love experience. He’s ready to commit to the fantasy and to Sybil, until Lord Henry suggests that he test her chastity. Dorian agrees, and Sybil, albeit reluctantly, fails that test. By giving herself to Dorian, she proves her unworthiness to him. He drops her; she commits suicide. While different and a bit more crude (but perhaps necessarily so for a cinematic version), this cut-and-dry destruction of the relationship is effective as Dorian’s first foray into manipulating those around him.
Dorian’s Arc: My issue with this version of Dorian is that we never really get to see any reaction from him. He never seems all that fazed by anything. He’s always wearing a mask, and he never shows his cards to anyone — not even the audience. In the novel, Dorian is extremely emotional and impetuous. When Lord Henry first needles him about the fact that he will age and his painting will not, Dorian petulantly throws himself onto the divan and has himself a good cry. We never get to see this sort of emotion from Hurt Hatfield’s Dorian. Whether by actor’s interpretation, writing or direction, he appears bored most of the film. As a reader, Dorian’s journey was of foremost interest to me. In this film version, we don’t get to go on that journey with Dorian; we only get to witness the events as they happen to him.
Hedonism: One aspect of the novel that is particular hard to translate to cinema is Dorian’s hedonistic lifestyle. The 1945 version takes the approach of the novel: it doesn’t show much at all, leaving the worst of Dorian’s sins to our imagination. In the novel, this is very effective. It’s less so in the film. However, considering the social climate at the time this film was made, the approach was appropriate. It pushed no boundaries on screen, but perhaps it did it the minds of the audience.
The Portrait: The only thing shot in technicolor in 1945’s otherwise black & white version, the portrait is certainly striking if a bit cartoonish.
Lord Henry as the Devil: In the 1945 version, Lord Henry gets the quips of the novel without as much of the bite. He’s not quite the master manipulator of either the novel or the 2009 version. For his role in Sybil’s fall, he simply tells Dorian what to do. He remains blissfully unaware of most of Dorian’s atrocities. He gives Dorian a philosophy, but it’s Dorian who runs with it full tilt.
The Opportunity for Salvation: Here we find Dorian also having grown bored with life, though his demeanor is not significantly changed from his youth. When he finds the opportunity for love with Basil Hallward’s niece, Gladys, he decides he must destroy the painting once and for all, so as not to fall back into temptation. Unfortunately, in doing so, he destroys himself. He dies as the man in the picture. The picture returns to its state of eternal, youthful beauty. Because we never saw the depths of Dorian’s despair, it was hard to feel the tragedy in his end. It felt neither earned or unfair; it was simply another event in the strange tale of Dorian’s life.
DORIAN GRAY (2009)
Writer: Toby Finlay
Director: Oliver Parker
Dorian: Ben Barnes
Lord Henry: Colin Firth
Basil: Ben Chaplin
Sybil: Rachel Hurd-Wood
3rd Act Love Interest: Rebecca Hall (as Emily Wotton)
Sybil’s Fall: In this version, Sybil once again gives herself to Dorian, though it’s worth noting she doesn’t take much convincing. (Who could blame her?) It’s not this that leads to Dorian’s shunning of her. Instead, it requires a bit more finagling on the part of Lord Henry, who takes Dorian to an opium den where he experiences both the pleasures of opium and the ladies selling it — an experience which also causes him to miss Sybil’s play. After the performance, when Sybil is already suspicious of Dorian’s whereabouts, Lord Henry pushes another thorn into Dorian’s side by asking Sybil when they plan to start a family. Her answer of “soon” causes a bit of hemming and hawing from Dorian. Lord Henry takes his leave (to the balcony to watch the fallout he’s masterminded). Dorian is extremely cold to Sybil, who begs him to make her his wife rather than one of his “whores.” At this point, Dorian walks away, lured by a life of new and unlimited experience rather than one of constancy.
If Sybil had been written as she was in the novel, Rachel Hurd-Wood would have been perfect casting. However, in the 2009 version, they make her much less of a wilting flower. It was never clear whether she was truly in awe of Dorian, as she was in the novel, or whether she simply wanted to make a good catch, so to speak. In some ways, they make her character much stronger, such as when she yells at Dorian to make her his wife instead of one of his whores. Because of this, we never see her crumble, never see her so fully crushed as we would need to to believe she would throw herself off a bridge.
Dorian’s Arc: One of the things I liked best about the 2009 version is that we followed Dorian’s journey much more closely. Ben Barnes as Dorian was as emotional as I’d hoped he’d be. We got to see him be frustrated with Lord Henry one moment and charmed by him the next. In one of his last scenes with Basil, we see him flip the switch from annoyed and cruel to the picture of innocence in one take. In that scene especially, we understand how hard it is for people to reconcile the rumors of Dorian’s lascivious lifestyle with that of his appearance. In contrast with Hatfield’s Dorian, Barnes’ Dorian runs the emotional gamut. He is constantly searching for more, both horrified by his actions but even more impressed by his own achievements. Only when he returns after a 25-year absence do we see that he has become bored with a life of hedonism. As he puts it, “pleasure is very different from happiness.”
Hedonism: The 2009 version takes the opposite approach of the 1945 version. It attempts to showcase Dorian’s hedonism: from an opium den threesome to engaging in a little “double or nothing” bet at a debutante ball to bisexual orgies and finally forays into sadomasochistic sex. The problem with such an approach, of course, is that this sort of behavior, visually sanitized for a UK rating of 15, is not quite as shocking as it perhaps should be. That being said, what was more effective than the actual events themselves was seeing their effects on Dorian. Seeing his reactions go from shocked and uncomfortable to manipulative and obsessed with consumption was much harder to watch than the shock-value sex scenes themselves. The occasional glimpse of clarity for Dorian (the news of Sybil’s death, the realization that he’s killed Basil, the moment of Jim Vane’s demise) are truly heartbreaking. It’s an emotional ride that isn’t present in the 1945 version.
The Portrait: Perhaps the aspect that has received the most criticism in the 2009 version is the heavily CGI portrait. This painting not only decays and devolves, but it also groans, moves, and is infested with maggots. In essence, it is supposed to be a living, breathing manifestation of Dorian’s soul: his unfortunate, trapped doppelganger. When Dorian attempts to kill it, it tries to escape from the confines of the canvas. It’s a good thought, but it’s not really all that effective. But again, with a modern audience, would a stationary painting really have provided the shock and awe required? There’s no denying that the CGI goes over the top, but the effort to visualize the incident is impressive in its gusto if not in its success.
Lord Henry as the Devil: Lord Henry is a much more active figure in the 2009 version. He not only provides the philosophy, but he pushes Dorian to explore it. He introduces him to gin, cigarettes, opium and sex. He opens Dorian’s eyes to the world of pleasure and encourages him to explore it to the fullest: “People die of common sense, Dorian, one lost moment at a time. Life is a moment; there is no hereafter. So make it burn, always, with the hardest flame.” At times he is explicit in his guidance, as when he places the “double or nothing” bet at the debutante ball. Other times, he is more serpentine, as in his role in the demise of Dorian & Sybil’s engagement. Dorian is everything he wishes he could be, and he enjoys pushing him. Only when he has something of his own to lose — his daughter, Emily — does he chastise Dorian for his actions. Even so, he never truly admits to his role in Dorian’s demise. Dorian, in some ways, finds his redemption. Lord Henry never does.
The Opportunity for Salvation: After having exhausted even his own depths for hedonism, Dorian returns to London, bored with life, cut off from the world he used to know both by rumor and by appearance. The society he knows has aged; internally, he has aged perhaps more than anyone, but none of that is visible. He has a notion that he might try to be good at this point — after all, what’s left? — but even that is an effort void of any joy. He is finally beginning to see the consequences of his actions, to truly feel them, and it’s not a pleasant experience. At a charity piano performance that hearkens back to his day as a true innocent, he is interrupted by the shouts of a man angry that his daughter has attended. He bellows to the crowd how absurd it is that such a cruel and morally decrepit man has received “a babe’s face.”
Later, Dorian finds himself accosted by Jim Vane, his mind ravaged by the loss of his sister 26 years ago. He escapes him once by way of his youthful looks and finally by a cruel twist of fate resulting in Jim’s death. Though he avoids bodily injury, the incident shakes him, perhaps for the first time since Sybil’s death. In a moment of panic, distraught, searching for some bit of salvation, he finds himself on the doorstep of his old friend, Lord Henry. Emily answers, and she comforts him, having already begun to fall for his tortured soul in the weeks since his return. She is the first source of comfort he’s had in years, and he seems to begin to understand the concept of love once again.
Despite Lord Henry’s understandable objections, the pair make plans to leave London so Dorian can start over. Lord Henry throws a party as a diversion so he can sneak into Dorian’s attic where the painting resides. This leads to a showdown between Lord Henry and Dorian. Emily arrives to find Dorian locked in the fiery attic with his painting. He has the key, and she begs him for it to unlock the door. Knowing what she will see, and knowing that he has the opportunity to spare her, he refuses. He professes his love and then sends her away, finally understanding what it is to put someone’s needs above his own. He turns to face his portrait, and thus his own demise. The last scene of the film shows the portrait, having survived the fire, returned to its innocent, youthful state, being locked in Lord Henry’s attic.
For me, 2009’s DORIAN GRAY has surpassed 1945’s THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY as the pre-eminent film version of Wilde’s novel. While the 1945 take is perhaps more faithful to the events of the novel, the 2009 version is a far more effective take on the heart of the novel. In the places where the 2009 version fails, it does so because it attempts to do more. I have a soft spot for films that are earnest in their endeavors, even when they’re not entirely successful. 2009’s DORIAN GRAY falls into that category.