Two Classic British Films
52 Authors: Week 15 - Hilaire Belloc

And Two Not-So-Classics

I mention these as more or less curiosities. I wouldn't recommend them for their merits, especially not the second one, but if you're interested in the authors and books which are their sources, you may find the films interesting.

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

I suppose zealous Austen fans have seen this. It's certainly worth a look for them, and not only them: it's really surprisingly good. Or at least I was surprised. Naturally it leaves out a lot, but I don't think it seriously distorts the book in the way that movies of the classics sometimes do. Laurence Olivier is Darcy, and Greer Garson is Elizabeth. Most of the acting is good, though in a few instances (e.g. Mrs. Bennett) pretty well over the top. Mr. Bennett is excellent. Aldous Huxley shares credit for the script, which, while greatly reducing the complexity of Austen's dialog, is still sharp. 

Those who know the book really well may find more to complain of than I did, but I only noticed one thing that I was pretty sure was a complete distortion of Austen. And upon checking later I found out that it was. It's in the nature of making something sweet out of something which is in the book quite nasty, and I suppose it represents Hollywood's pandering, which is surely one element in the entertainment industry which has remained unchanged since the beginning. 

Here's the trailer.


Decline And Fall...of a Birdwatcher

What?! I saw this title listed in the schedule for the Fox Movie Channel, which I can't remember having ever watched before, and the first three words caught my eye. Then I read the brief description of the film, and was left with no doubt that this was indeed some sort of adaptation of Waugh's Decline And Fall. I had never heard that such a thing existed, and although the "birdwatcher" business didn't sound promising, of course I had to watch it.

I'm sorry to report that it isn't very good. It was made in 1969, which might have seemed a propitious moment for a revival of Waugh's satirical method--or, on the other hand, perhaps a notable unpropitious moment, as it could have turned into...well, some kind of '60s mess. In any case, it's really neither. I don't think the filmmakers got the spirit of the thing entirely wrong, and I think it's a good-faith effort to bring the "ruthlessly comic" (John Mortimer) troubles of Paul Pennyfeather to the screen. But, to my taste at least, it doesn't work. The appalling casualness with which Paul is ruined, and then un-ruined, just doesn't come through. This one I can only recommend as a curiosity.

I don't see any trailer or scenes on YouTube, but here is an 8-minute selection of the music, including a number of posters and still shots.



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The main thing I remember about that version of P&P is that near the end, they portray a nasty person as a sweet one. Is that what you are talking about?

It's been a really, really long time since I saw this one. I ought to try it again. I love Greer Garson.


I'm trying to decide if I really want to watch Birdman.


Yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

I have seem the P&P, as an Olivier Fan not as an Austen fan. An enjoyable travesty of P&p is the Bollywood version. I think the BBc version is the only good adaptation. I know the novel by heart since I did it for A level

What is A level?

I loved the Bollywood version. It's a mood elevator in the same way Wodehouse is.


I've never seen a Bollywood movie. There is something on Netflix called Bride and Prejudice that appears to have a mostly Indian cast. Is that it?

Oh wait, it's not available anyway.

It's an Indian version with singing and dancing. Yes, I know I hate musicals but I thought this one was fun. Came out in around 2005

"I think the BBc version is the only good adaptation."

I haven't seen other versions, but I'm sure Grumpy is right here. The snippets I've seen of the others don't entice me.

There are two BBC ones, 1980 with people whose names I don't recognize, 1995 with Keira Knightley's name featured. I'm pretty sure I've seen one of them, most likely the latter. Don't remember it, though.

There are two BBC ones, but K. Knightley is in neither of them. She is in the 2005 movie, which I can watch, but only if I don't think of it as P&P.

The 1980 BBC version, is good in many ways. I think the actresses that plays Lizzie is the most perfect of all the versions, but Darcy is terrible. Colin Firth in the 1995 version is the perfect Darcy. I'm sure there might be people who disagree, but I've never actually heard anyone do so. Jennifer Ehle is a good Lizzie. All-in-all this production is very much the best and truest to the book.


Blech. Not actresses in the 1980 version--actress.


I forgot about the earlier BBC version, which I have never seen. I was thinking of the Firth/Ehle version and I certainly think it's true to the book.

I loathed Birdman: I was writhing with boredom all the way

Oh, I see, I was mixing up two of the dvd covers Netflix was showing me.

I haven't seen Birdman and for that matter don't even know anything about it.

That BBC adaptation with Firth and Ehle playing Darcy and Elizabeth is top-notch, unsurpassed, superb, delightful, endearing, absorbing, and a hundred other good things. It's one of the best screen adaptations of any classic work of literature. If you haven't seen it, you really should stop whatever you're doing and make things right.

I've been debating about Birdman too, and I think the 'no' side is winning.

Well you know I just don't like 'magical realism'. I don't mind a thoroughly magical world - I enjoyed Cinderalla. I like realism very much: I'd encourage anyone to see Ida or Danton, two movies I watched with two different groups of students over the weekend. But I do not like a movie which is taking place in the 'real world' which takes off into fantasy from time to time. It has to be either thoroughly miraculous or thoroughly naturalistic. That is not any law - it is simply my own taste.

Robert, in the old days students took a lot of 'O levels when they were about 15. O stands for Ordinary. People took anything between five and ten of those - English lit, English Lang, Maths, History, Geo, Latin, French, Greek - lots of different O's. In my day one had to have maths O level to get into University so people were always retaking it.

Then when they were 17 or so they took three A' Levels. You took your favourite subjects out of the O' level ones. I did English, Latin and Greek. I still know my set texts very well indeed. I am letter perfect on Hamlet and the Bacchae &.

One had to know the texts very well to get a B or an A. There were 'gobbit' questions as well as essays on the exam. That is, they could give you any passage from the text and you had to give the context and the speaker and so on. So to do well you actually had to know P&P back to front and inside out.

[I still had gobbit questions at University, for instance on Cur Deus Homo - English examiners used to love them]

The secret of the A' level (and O's come to that), but the reason (I think) why one knew the texts so very well was that it was 100% exam. No substitutions allowed at all.

Well, O's and A's exist still (O's sometimes have a different name now but they are Ordinary level exams). But of course the educationalists have allowed the students to do them in lots of little modules and things with no 100% exam at the end of two years study. They have brought in course work alongside exams.

There is also a lot of grade inflation. So how can people beat each out for a University place? Beating others into a University place requires getting higher marks than them in the A' levels. In my day, you could go to a good University with Three As at A' level, and a mediocre one with say BCD (D wasn't a terrible mark in those days - the scale went down to E before the 'F'). There was one very brilliant girl in my year who got four A's at A level - she went on to Oxford and I'm sure she is now a top civil servant. But now of course, with grade inflation and University entry still being on competiton for good A levels, school kids regularly take four or even five A levels. My niece went to Oxford this year with something crazy like five grade A A' levels. That would have been almost physically impossible back in her father's time or my time.

Interesting--I always wondered what that O and A stuff meant.


I don't really have an opinion one way or another on the mixture of fantasy and reality in a movie (or novel, whatever). I mean in the abstract--it would depend completely on the instance.

I think I will see that 1995 P&P sometime soon. In fact I may already have seen it, and forgotten it, if you can comprehend such a thing. I know I've seen a couple of those big Austen things, but maybe not this one.

This actually happened in my house a few hours ago: I was thinking about Craig's admonishment, and wondered if my wife would be ready for another P&P, since we had just seen the 1940 one and I think she had re-read it within the past year or so.

"Are you interested in seeing one of those BBC versions of Pride and Prejudice? There's one that people are telling me is really good."

"You mean tonight?"

"No, we'd have to get the DVDs, but if you're interested I'll put 'em on our queue."


"I didn't know if maybe you'd had enough of it for a while."

In the instant before she answered, I thought A lot of women seem to think you can never have too much Pride and Prejudice.

"You can never have too much Pride and Prejudice."

I like the combination of fantasy and reality in movies because I think it is reality, or at least I think it's a reflection of the true reality breaking through into what we think is reality. ;-)

The 1995 version of P&P is to the book as the 1981 version of Brideshead Revisited is to BR. Although neither is an exact presentation of the novel it is derived from, they are both almost perfect adaptations. They are the only two film adaptations that I like unreservedly.


That's some praise.

I did watch the Greer Garson version and although it took great liberties with the story, it was enjoyable. It was much more lighthearted throughout than any of the others. The sad parts were gotten over pretty quickly. I thought Olivier's proposal was better than any I've ever seen. It's a very awkward scene and he's the only person that ever seemed natural in it. Of course, it's probably because they changed the words some.

That thing you were talking about really irks me, though.


Yes, I was not emphatic in my praise of the Ehle/Firth P&P, but it really is wonderful. We watch it quite a lot here.

That conversation you had with Karen was very funny!

So great. For the past four years my students didn't know what I meant when I said 'gobbit question' ??!!

Here is as good as explanation as any

Have you been there for 4 years??!!!


It was four years at Christmas.

About Magical Realism: OK, I will fight back. I will fight dirty. First I will do a hostile paraphrase. Janet say that Magical Realism shows us the natural world being punctured by weird stuff, and that is just what we know to happen in 'the Christian world' with miracles and the Incarnation and divine intervention stuff. Like when we pray through the saints and that alters the normal course of events. Second I will use the dirtiest word in the theologian's vocabulary. Yes, I will sling the word 'secularized' in Janet's face. I would say that Magical Realism is a 'secularized' version of the Christian world in which the natural is constantly punctured by the supernatural (grace, saint's interventions, miracles, etc). Thirdly I will make a nonjoke point.
Yes, weird stuff happens in Magical Realism, but it is just more natural stuff in a sense. Birdman flies. The world of Magical Realism has less grace than either plain realism or a thoroughly magical world. It's creepy.

I agree at the end of the day it's a question of taste. I am one of the last Aristotelians as far as aesthetics goes, or one of them. As in the Poetics, I think a fictional plot should be about things that 'could or might happen'.

What about Fairy Stories? Both Janet and I like fairy stories. I would say they fit Aristotle's definition, because fairy stories don't happen in this world. They happen somewhere else where birds speak and boys turn into swans. Within the rules of their world they are naturalistic.

I'm happy to be informed about "gobbit question." And am trying to think of a situation in which I can use it. No luck so far.

I was trying to think of some film or novel I've seen/read which could be classified as magic realism. Not really coming up with anything. Two films that might fit, and I'm having trouble remembering either of their names. One was that Spanish thing that came out 5-10 years ago...oh yeah, Pan's Labyrinth, it was called here. I half-liked it, but I remember one thing I didn't like was that while it was part fairy tale it had a very this-world political slant that really undermined it.

The other was the one about the little girl living in the Lousiana swamp. I liked it, though not very enthusiastically. I don't think the magic element made much difference to my overall view, either positive or negative.

I've been reading a biography of Wodehouse and he has a great very Aristotelian remark on the importance of plot. I'll post if I marked it.


Your comment about Olivier’s handling of the proposal being the best you’ve seen sent me to YouTube, where I found videos of that scene in the 1940, 1995, and 2005 versions.

I think you’re right about Olivier doing the best job, and I think Garson perhaps does it the best as well. They both seem to comport themselves most in line with the scene as written by Austen, and as two people in their station might have behaved at the time. In the other two versions, I think there’s too much “heat” on the part of both characters; at points, they seem to almost despise each another, at least to me.

One big drawback for me in the 1940 version, though, is that Greer Garson is too old for the part. Elizabeth Bennet is supposed to be 20, and Garson was 36 at the time, and not a youthful-looking 36.

I've always used the spelling "gobbet". I have always assumed my Belgian students know what one is, but perhaps I ought to check.

I thought the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) had replaced O-levels for 16-year-olds (you can leave school at 16 in the UK if you have no intention of going into higher education), and something called AS-levels had replaced the old A-levels (which incidentally stands for "Advanced" level, as opposed to the "Ordinary" level that was all a 16-year-old school-leaver would be expected to meet).

It was thought remarkable that I got 5 A-levels 25 years ago (although one of them was General Studies, which doesn't count, and one was Dutch, which I'd already been educated in abroad for 4 years so didn't actually have to study for, and I only got a C in Religious Studies with New Testament Greek). My pride is hurt that it might be a normal thing now.

Grumpy, I'm not a theologian; I'm a mystic. ;-)

Well, not exactly.


Pan's Labyrinth I'm so glad you mentioned that. I don't think it fits Grumpy's category of magical realism though because it's a fairy tale. (In a couple of lines, there is going to be a spoiler.) I've been meaning to writ about this for at least a year, but I would have to go back and watch it again, and I haven't been able to.

I did not like the movie much at all when I first saw it. I particularly hated the nasty creature that ate the fairy. He ate the fairy! Augh. Anyway, I was talking to my daughter one day and she mentioned how the actions of the girl in the real world had an effect on her actions in the labyrinth. All of a sudden, everything fell into place for me. This movie is an allegory for the relationship of body and soul. What happens in the "real" world is body, and what happens in the labyrinth is the soul. I don't know how important the actual political aspect is except that it's there to provide a concrete evil.


Artistically, I thought the political stuff was intrusive in somewhat the same way that contemporary jokes in the Lord of the Rings movies stunk. They pull you out of the movie's imaginative world. But probably more important in my reaction was the specific nature of it--the Spanish Civil War, I think with a somewhat anti-Catholic slant. So it kind of provoked an argumentative response in me, which undermined the aesthetic response.

Re the decline of A-levels, I guess one nice thing about not having been much an academic achiever is that I have little pride to be hurt by grade inflation.

I thought Paul that now there are both A and AS levels?? I took an AS back in the day - in English. But it was just one extra paper.

I am blanking out the existence of GCSEs because I hate it so much! When I was at school, morons who could not pass Math O' Level would try to get a grade A GCSE in Math, because that was considered as a pass at O level.

Well, the Spanish Civil War was sooooo complicated with so many different factions, and from what I've read, which is little, I couldn't stand behind any of them 100%. I think I just identified the general of whatever he was as an evil man--the presence of evil. I really need to watch it again.


I never cared much for magical realism until I started reading Helprin, and even then it took me a while to warm up to his most directly m/r novel, Winter's Tale. (Although I must say that I really liked what was probably my first ever exposure to it, Field of Dreams, which I liked a lot and still do.)

Another favorite book of mine, which I read for the first time about 5 or 6 years ago, is Ray Bradbury's 'Dandelion Wine,' which in some ways might be considered m/r.

Speaking of Helprin, here's an interesting piece by a fellow who gave up all "screens" for Lent, and read Helprin. I've heard of Andy Crouch but don't really know anything about him. It's a great essay in any case, and his discussion of Helprin is very good.

I thought Grumpy's argument was magnificemt!

"I'm happy to be informed about "gobbit question." And am trying to think of a situation in which I can use it. No luck so far."

That's a great pity. It looks like a marvellous word.

I too am not much affected personally by grade inflation.

All this talk of O and A levels is giving me flashbacks to my student years (never a good thing) and also - disturbingly - Grange Hill.

I guess you could use it when you're losing an argument: "Well, that's just a gobbit question"--and then change the subject.

Or "gobbet," rather.

Yes, it was. I wish I had the mental energy to answer it at the moment, but I am completely distracted by the vicissitudes of life. ;-)


I thought her argument was good, too, and I wish I could reciprocate, but I'm completely distracted by the vicissitudes of life (which I know Grumpy understands) and my blog.


I think I've heard of Andy Crouch, too, but that's about all I can say.

I may have over-reacted to the political stuff in that movie--I certainly agree that no side in the Spanish Civil War deserved complete support. But I was thinking there was an evil priest, too, which increased my negative reaction. In any case, I was so creeped out by some parts of it that I don't have any desire to see it again.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the other one I was trying to remember.

I don't remember the evil priest, but I could well have forgotten him. I found many, many things in the movie creepy, too, and I only started thinking about it a couple of months, I think, after I saw the movie when the body/soul analogy occurred to me. I would have said at the time that I would never watch it again, but now I want to see what I can see. I will fast forward through the fairy chomping though.


How in heaven's name did we get here from P&P?

I've been meaning to say from the very beginning that I think the Olivier/Garson P&P really is a classic.

Marianne, I see what you mean about Greer Garson. I had the same problem with Emma Thompson in Sense & Sensibility.


"I had the same problem with Emma Thompson in Sense & Sensibility."

Indeed. I think Thompson was 36 at the time and Eleanor was meant to be 19.

Rob, you did such a great piece on Helprin here. And other people i like have urged me to read it. So I own about three big books by him. And I cant get in to them becsuse I dont care what is going to happen in a magic realist novel... Sorry

Well, to be fair, A Soldier of the Great War isn't really magic realist, or if it is so, it's only so in a borderline sense. Its fantastic elements can be ascribed to the exaggerations of the narrator (he's a bit of a raconteur). Ditto Memoir From Antproof Case, which is far more comic than Soldier, but with a similar raconteuresque narrator. Craig's read Soldier...I wonder if he'd concur?

However, in the short stories in The Pacific, the "fantastic" element isn't prominent at all, except in the novella "Perfection," in which it takes a specifically religious form, and a quite respectful one at that (I've often thought it would make a great Coen Bros. film). This is one of the reasons I suggested the stories as a entry point to Helprin's fiction: they would not be remotely head-scratching to either the person who was unfamiliar with MR, or the person who doesn't like it.

My proposal then would be to read The Pacific first, and if you like it, then move on to the novels. For the MR-averse, Winter's Tale would really be the only one you'd want to avoid.

Winter's Tale is the one that sounds most interesting to me.

Gunter Grass died a few days ago. Is The Tin Drum considered to have an element of MR? It would only be in the person of the narrator, as far as I can remember (read it forty years ago).

Ok I will try Pacific. I want to like Helprin

I enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth

The first time I tried Winter's Tale I didn't like it. I got about 100 pages in and gave up. I decided to give it another try only after I'd read (and loved) In Sunlight and In Shadow, which can be seen in some ways as a non-fantastic companion piece to WT.

Grumpy, you probably don't even have to read all of The Pacific to determine whether you're going to like him or not. Three stories would probably suffice: "Monday," "A Brilliant Idea and His Own," and "Perfection." If those three don't grab you, you probably need to go no further.

OK I will try again. I admit Winter's Tale is one of the ones I've got on my shelf. Probably should not have started there

I think a lot of people try to start with WT because it's his best known novel. But it is rather atypical.

Okay, now I’m going to take up Grumpy’s gauntlet. First I’m going to tell a little story and I’m sorry if this sounds like the beginning of a bad homily.

There were two factory workers, who used to go outside and walk and smoke during their breaks. One of them had the idea that they could pray the rosary while they walked, but the other was worried that they shouldn’t smoke and pray the rosary at the same time, so they decided to check it out with their priests. They got conflicting answers. One of them asked his pastor if it was all right to smoke while he said the rosary, and the pastor said, “No.” They other asked his pastor if it was all right to pray the rosary while he smoked his cigarette, and the pastor said, “Yes.” So in a way, one pastor was looking that the question from above, and the other from below.

So, I will accept your charge of secularism. You are looking at magical realism from above, from a theological pov, and you say that, “ that Magical Realism is a 'secularized' version of the Christian world,” and I will admit that that is true.
However, as I mentioned in the Dean Koontz post, one of the things that I look for in books and movies is grace in unexpected places, and I see this punctuation of the secular world by weird stuff as an unintended admission that the "real world" cannot be all there is. I'm deliberately looking at it from below. If nothing else, it is an indication that strict materialism is tediously boring.

Also, sometimes the weird stuff hits the nail right on the head, and I think this a kind of joke on the secularist who is unwittingly giving grace a place in his secular movie.


Janet, I see that, and as I said, it's a matter of taste. But I don't think the world of, say, A Thousand Years of Solitude is analogue of the grace and miracle perforated world of Christianity. Because what happens in magical realism is just more secular stuff. It's not an analogue of grace. Like Birdman flying because he used to play a superhero who could fly, in the movies. It's not intended as analogous to any supernatural thing. So what one has in magical realism is many secular worlds intersecting, not the supernatural world
leaning in to the natural world - and not something analogous to the supernatural leaning in to the natural world.

The real message of magical realism is not that there is a supernature, but that there is no nature.

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