FILM ARTICLE: The History Boys and the ‘issue’ of Adaptation

LONDON - OCTOBER 02: Writer, Alan Bennett (centre) and the cast of the film arrive at the UK film Premiere of "The History Boys" at the Odeon West End, Leicester Square on October 2, 2006 in London, England. (Photo by MJ Kim/Getty Images)

I discovered, or was rather handed, the works of Alan Bennett when I was in my first year of college. As part of my English Language course, we were to look at his monologues, ‘Talking Heads,’ the name, and explore how he composed his narrative with just one sole focus, one character, and minimal scenes. I realised then, after watching, that I’d been handed a winner, a playwright, and screenwriter, who could do so much with just words. A skill few can manage. But then, as you do, time moves on, and instead of researching him further, I got lost in college coursework and paid little further attention to him (like a fool!).

It wasn’t until recently that I turned my head back to Bennett. A wet Monday
afternoon, with little else to do, I trawled through BBC iPlayer and saw that TheHistory Boys was floating around the film section. I’d seen it before, a few years back, but fancied giving it a re-watch. I soon remembered what I’d loved about him incollege; dialogue, simple, understated scenes, and the tangible, believable nature of his characters. It also clicked in me something I’d studied at University, and the genre of adaptation. Taking from paper and putting it on screen. We analysed just how successful, or unsuccessful, and indeed how difficult it is, to translate something made to be read, or in Bennett’s case, made to be on stage, set scene by scene, and place it into a motion picture. We looked at what was lost and what could be gained, whether it was worthwhile, and the question too, of ‘originality’.

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Whilst of this could be explored in conjuncture with Bennett, and god knows I explored those ideas at University, although that was with Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, and the genre of noir, one of the things that stuck out with the translation of TheHistory Boys from play to film was whether it really worked. As such, I decided to pen a review of sorts, but more of a look back on the understated genius of the movie itself.

Set in Yorkshire, 1983, the movie situates itself in an all-male grammar school,
zeroing in on eight boys all striving to reach the elite heights of Oxford or Cambridge. After receiving the best A Level results ever received at the establishment, they stay on for an extra term, and are taught, or more navigated, around the varying ways in which they can pass the scholarship History exam; how to present themselves, how to deceive, and how to challenge the accepted truths of what we already know about the past.

The teaching styles vary from tutor to tutor. Hector (Richard Griffith’s),
an eccentric General Studies teacher, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), the History teacher, and newcomer Irwin (Stephen Campbell), who pushes them all to think outside what they already know. Each, in their own way, mould the boys, but it’s the boys themselves, and their interplay with each other and the teachers, that is the real meat of the film, and indeed the play.

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In a masterstroke of casting, the actors who played the boys in the original theatre production return for the film adaptation (as do most of the cast). They deliver lines with aplomb, with the sureness of having uttered them on stage, that otherwise (when you watch the film) would be quite unbelievable coming from anyone’s mouth, let alone an 18-year-old boy from Sheffield. Each too, are rich in their differences. Much like The Breakfast Club, which explored the varying personalities of teens, who they were,
and who they are perceived to be, here, each character is believable, and true. You have Dakin (Dominic Cooper), Timms (James Corden), Posner (Samuel Barnett), Crowther (Samuel Anderson), Rudge (Russell Tovey), Adi (Sacha Dhawan), Jimmy (Andrew Knott), and Scripps (Jamie Parker). Whilst some receive more screen time than others, it’s really Dakin, Posner, Rudge and Crowther that prove the main and most interesting of the film. It’s their relationships that prove the richest. But I don’t want to give away spoilers. The best element of the film is that you don’t quite know where the boys will end up, and that I won’t ruin (the film gives you all the answers).

What I will say, and back on topic, is that from taking the play and placing it on screen, what could be lost, contorted, and left behind, is kept in almost its entirety. Yes, the plot deviates somewhat from the original (again no spoilers), but it’s the heart that stays the same. In an interview with the Guardian from 2006, director Nicholas Hytner explains, in simple terms, why The History Boys works so well. As he states, ‘closed worlds can be as eloquent on film as they are on stage’. The directorial choice to stay on location, for the most part, in the school, is worth the effect. For one, it looks like a school, not like how Hollywood imagines, and it keeps the narrative focused. An expansive movie, with location after location, would lose what makes the plot interesting, and what the movie is actually about.

Granted, it suffers occasionally, becoming stilted, and obvious, at certain points, that we are watching a staged scene, but that hardly constitutes as poor. It rather heightens is authenticity. Another fall back too (let’s get them out of the way) is some content, specifically Hector’s inappropriate relationship with the boys, and Irwin and Dakin’s suggestive tension, would feel more visceral when watched on stage, mere metres from the acting. But it translates well enough on screen too. These are minor quibbles really, when compared to the overall movie, which is, for an adaptation (let’s stick to topic), one which serves to be a plus point in the genre. Yes, elements are ‘lost’, but what is gained gives The History Boys its most fruitful moments. It’s what makes it such an enjoyable watch, and adds to the ever-expanding list of solid British filmmaking.

But with The History Boys a success (in my eyes at least, feel free to disagree), there still is the issue, or perhaps, conundrum (maybe), of adapting to the screen. Alan Bennett’s work seems to transition well, maybe owing a lot to him being a talented writer with sound source material, but plenty of other gifted writers have been lifted from page to picture, and not quite with the same sort of assured success.

We can take here, one of the most recent big box office adaptations, The Snowman. There are plenty to choose from of course, Hollywood loves to avoid being totally creative and original at any given point, but The Snowman stands out as an example of what can be truly, and almost entirely ‘lost’ when it comes to adapting. It turns out too, that whilst you may able to cast a rack of stellar actors, they really cannot save you when it comes down to the most important part of a movie, the narrative, or indeed, the plot, and really, that is where The Snowman suffers most.

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Based on popular crime writer Jo Nesbo’s book of the same name, Michael
Fassbender stars as Harry Hole, a detective situated in Oslo. And whilst the potential for the film to be great is certainly there, it falls into a trap many an adaptation seems to blunder across. As Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times, the movie really is void of any ‘elementary story sense’. She also makes a nod to an author who saw many of his books adapted, Raymond Chandler. I studied the adaptation of his work Double Indemnity whilst at University, but here Dargis makes note of possibly his most well-known adaptation, The Big Sleep. A crime thriller with as many twists and turns as Nesbo’s The Snowman, she takes stock of the fact that the main reason it works so well on screen, is because the tricky narrative is kept intact. As such, ‘if you start tearing it apart to see what makes it tick, it comes unglued’. She
concludes that The Snowman could have been a success had it done a similar thing. It goes back to my earlier point about narrative, and that what holds an adaptation together may truly lie in its source material.

However, if that were the case, then movies such as Hitchcock’s The Birds, which plays so much with its source material that it barely exists once it makes it to screen, would be deemed a failure. Which, for those who have or haven’t seen it, it certainly is not. But the question of why adaptation is so tricky, or such a fine line to tread between being great, and being, well, a little bit shit (sorry The Snowman), is a hard one to figure.

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Take the written word for example, both in fictional form, from novels to short stories (let’s side step plays for the moment). On the one hand, books exist in their own world. The reader can make their own creative choices about how they picture scenes, scenarios and characters, and the words alone are the only catalyst for this. No one is giving them some sweeping cinematography. But if you take that and give a visual element, there is the very real potential that you have not only taken away creative control from the reader, but also, visualised and interpreted in a way that may not have been envisaged in the first place. Books tell us things, as do plays, and even comic strips, that movies cannot. They too, can propel narratives, in far more succinct ways than screenplays try to achieve (see, again The Snowman). What can be ‘lost’ then, seems to lie with plot, and narrative (or so it appears).

Yet, as we know, there are some adaptations out there that truly hit the nail on the head, score the winning penalty at Wembley and…well, you get the idea. Breakfastat Tiffany’s, Atonement, Schindler’s List, Brokeback Mountain, and so on, are each well rounded, worthwhile adaptations. They ‘add’ more than they take away, and in the case of Brokeback Mountain, they bulk out a narrative that was, in its first instance, short, still poignant, but yet to reach the heights it could on screen. It’s true too, just to add as a side note here, that soundtrack seems to deliver well on adaptations, from sweeping scores to simply playing the music it talks about on the page (hello there to High Fidelity).

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It appears then, that the ‘issue’ of adaptation, as I knew it would be, is one that is as mixed and as complicated as the act itself. To return to The History Boys for a moment, the reason that works so well, where The Snowman does not, is because it sticks to its original like glue (although it may be helped that it was a play first), yet, many a great adaptation move away, or expand upon what it is originally based on, and still work to great effect. Although if that is the case, then how much of an adaptation is it really? If you include some elements, are you adapting, and if you include the bare bones (return to Hitchcock’s The Birds), does it even count? I have to say, I don’t have the answer there.

Adaptation drives the movie making machine, but maybe there is a lesson to be taken from The History Boys attempt (‘lesson’, how apt), that treating source material, in whatever its capacity, and giving a narrative that is believable, delivered with acting aplomb, and respect for the work on which it is based, might be the way to go. Don’t unpick, or analyse too hard, just translate it well on screen. Although that is easier, it appears, said than done.

Article by Emily Harrison

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