Read the book, see the movie: The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’m in a Banned Book Club as part of my local Centre for Inquiry group and have been for several years. I used to report on the books we’d been reading and I think I’ll start that up again. This is the one we just finished reading. I was hoping to watch a film version before we talked about it but Saskatoon’s libraries had no copies of the film available so I had to get it from elsewhere in the province. We had the meeting at the end of June and the film arrived this week. I did get the chance to watch Wilde starring Stephen Fry, though. I didn’t know much about Oscar Wilde prior to this but now I think I’ll have to read a bit more about him. Fascinating man with a tragic history.

I’d picked up the annotated version of the story which provided historical background for Wilde’s life and his influences. It also included footnotes explaining all the pop culture references he’d used at the time and details about the art from the period, architecture and lifestyles of the rich and famous of London back then. That was ideal. It also replaced all the lines of the book that had been changed/censored from early editions either by the publishers or Oscar Wilde himself. Get it if you want to read this book, or read it again. It was really illuminating.

The version I wound up watching was less a movie and more a filmed play. It was one from 1976 and featured on BBC Play of the Month. A lot of dialogue was the same from the book to the play but the plot was pared down to the essence. It worked well enough for whatever the budget would have been at the time. As it wasn’t a film in the traditional sense of the word, there’s little to say on that. The acting was meh overall but the characters are very interesting as characters.

At our meet-up to discuss the book, we did a lot of talking about Lord Henry’s role in Dorian’s obsessions over youth and the soul. Wilde gave Henry a lot of the most quotable lines:

“When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”

“Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired, women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.”

“Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.”

Wilde gave Henry a lot of the lines that could reflect his own thoughts on marriage, I think, too, given that the man himself spent more time dallying with the men he knew than he did with Constance…

The play played down the homoeroticism/homosexuality that was evident within the book, aside from one bit near the end where Dorian has asked an acquaintance, Alan Campbell, over to get him out of a predicament. Campbell is chastising Dorian for becoming scandalous and regrets coming over but Dorian’s trying to be somewhat alluring and caresses the man and flatters him and holds his hand as he guides the man to the room where .. well, they don’t have sex or anything.

Dorian had just killed Basil, the artist who painted the portrait in the first place. Thanks to Dorian’s mad wish at the beginning of the story, the portrait has aged and turned ugly instead of him. Basil approached Dorian with a request to show the painting publicly. Dorian had to show Basil the corrupted work and then killed him to keep the secret from getting out. Campbell is a chemist of some note and Dorian ends up resorting to blackmail threats to get him to dispose of the body. Dorian suffers no ill feeling over the crimes committed here.

Dorian’s such a flawed character; he’s not very likable. He’s cruel to the actress, Sybil Vain, that he claims he’s fallen in love with. Once confessing his love to her and asking for her hand, she ceases to love acting. It turns out, though, that her passion in these roles of Juliet and other Shakespearean characters was all he really liked about her and without that, she’s nothing to him. She kills herself. Near the end of the book, Dorian thinks he’s redeemed himself of many sins by falling in love with some other woman but admits to breaking her heart, too, in what he thinks is a better fashion. It was hard to see why he’d think he’d done a good turn there.

I really enjoyed the book. I read through it twice before the meeting and peppered the meeting with quotations that would support or refute whatever argument was going on at the time in terms of Harry’s motivations, Wilde’s own history, and relationships between the men and the women in the story. Peppered it a bit too much, maybe, but the damned book was so quotable, I couldn’t help it. I’ll definitely have to buy myself a copy at some point. It was fantastic.

Next book for our Banned Book Club is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I’ve never read it. The Club read Connecticut Yankee last year but I never got all the way through it and missed the meeting. Hopefully that won’t be the case this time around.

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